Attention, Tod Browning fans. It turns out that “Freaks” (1932) was not the first movie to feature a “human torso.” Nikolaï Kobelkoff was a circus performer born in 1851, who had toured Europe through the nineteenth century and was a popular and successful entertainer.
This movie shows Kobelkoff doing his act. He pours a glass of wine and drinks it, eats a bit of soup from a bowl with a spoon, and checks his pocket watch while sitting at the table. Then, he jumps down from his seat and points and aims a gun, paints on a canvass, and lifts a weight. Finally, we see him doing some tumbling on a mat. While he seems to have no arms or legs, in fact he has stumps, and in particular his “right arm” is capable of fairly delicate manipulations, even without hands or fingers. Judging by his jumping, his leg-stumps are quite muscular.
People have always been simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by human oddities. They are frightening reminders of the randomness of genetics and birth and proof that human beings do not control their fates. They also inspire us to some degree with their ability to overcome their disabilities and perform “normal” activities that obviously challenge them daily. Many people today object to their exploitation for entertainment purposes, although for many years this was the only viable economic option open to them, if they weren’t to be a burden on their families throughout their lives. Kobelkoff’s performance here seems to show a happy and healthy man, enjoying himself and the attention he gets. Already 49 years old at the time, he would live until 1933.
Cast: Nikolaï Kobelkoff
Run Time: 1 Min 30 secs
You can watch it for free: here.