338. FREAKS (1932)

Recommended

“BELIEVE IT OR NOT – – – – STRANGE AS IT SEEMS. In ancient times, anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil.”–prologue to Freaks

Freaks is one of the strangest movies ever made by an American studio.”–David Skal

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Leila Hyams, Henry Victor, Daisy Earles

PLOT: At a circus, an evil performer intends to marry a sideshow midget to exploit him for his wealth. Eventually her plans extend to attempted murder. The midget’s fellow sideshow denizens have his back, exacting a primitive form of carnival justice.

BACKGROUND:

  • Freaks was based on Tod Robbins’ short story “Spurs.”
  •  Director Tod Browning started out as a contortionist performing in the circus himself, an inspiration from which he drew for this movie.
  • Browning leveraged his clout from helming the previous year’s hit Dracula to get Freaks made. The controversial film nearly ended his career, however; he would direct only four more projects (working uncredited on two of them) before retiring in 1939.
  • MGM stars Myrna Loy, Victor McLaglen, and Jean Harlow all turned down parts in the film due to the subject matter.
  • Freaks was often banned by state censors in its original form when it first came out. It was not allowed to be exhibited in the United Kingdom until the late 1963. It’s since been cut from a reported 90-minute running time, leaving us with the modern edit that runs just over an hour. The original full length may forever be lost. The cut version was a dud at the box office.
  • Although Freaks bombed on its original release and was pulled from theaters, it survived when (Maniac) bought the rights and took the film on tour (often using alternate titles like Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes) in the late 1940s. Freaks was screened at Cannes in 1962 and received positive reappraisals, sparking its second life as a cult film.
  • “Entertainment Weekly” ranked Freaks third in their 2003 list of the Top 50  Cult Movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sing it along with us, Internet: “We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!” The Wedding Feast (it gets its own title card) is an omnipresent meme for very good reasons. Fast forward to it if you must, because this is the true beginning of Freaks.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sensually connected twins; “Gooble-gobble!”; half-boy with Luger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Life is not always fair; sometimes you’re born with no legs. But sometimes your movie comes along at the precise pinpoint in history where it could get made. We will always have exactly one Freaks, because even substituting CGI for actually disabled people, nobody in a modern day Hollywood studio would have the balls to remake this.


The opening scenes of Freaks

COMMENTS: We all know examples of movies where their hype far overshadowed their actual delivery. In the case of Freaks, we have nearly a century of hype building it up as the Un Chien Andalou of circus movies, when we actually end up with a pretty yawn-inducing soap opera which happens to show people in unusual shapes and sizes. That’s the first thing to know about Freaks; it manages to be a talky, roaring bore for most of its butchered runtime. The original version is tragically lost to the mists of time (but watch somebody recover a full cut from a trunk in an attic somewhere right after we publish this). It is a movie made during the Great Depression, steeped in Mid-Atlantic accents spouted by B-grade actors and people for whom we have no inoffensive collective noun. For the impossible business of trying to speak of the people this movie calls “freaks” for the rest of this review without offending the Internet, the present author will randomly select the word “otherkin,” which I looked up on Tumblr and am therefore qualified to apply. The non-otherkin are hereby designated as “normies,” so we can get over our word choices as quickly as possible.

The otherkin are jolting to behold in this picture, and yet, like the use of midgets by directors like Terry Gilliam and Alejandro Jodorowsky, the shock wears off quickly. The movie becomes shocking for different reasons, such as the way the intersexed Joseph/Josephine is portrayed as “half man half woman” with a two-face costume getup and openly mocked by normie characters. There’s also casual sexist attitudes and a dash of domestic violence in the relations of this circus family; there’s no character who puts on blackface and sings minstrel songs, but there might as well be. When it comes to exploiting the otherkin as a spectacle, let us recall that we have a currently-thriving reality TV franchise called “Little People, Big World” that nobody seems to have a problem with, before we get on too high a horse. The otherkin in Freaks form their own collective subculture within the circus environment, a big happy family of acceptance and camaraderie, while the normie folk bicker and nag each other when they aren’t picking on the otherkin.

One such normie is Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), the “peacock [sic] of the air,” a trapeze artist who is in something of a relationship with Hercules (Henry Victor), though it’s more like a conspiracy. She flirts with our main protagonist, Hans (Harry Earles), a dwarf who is smitten with her but who also has Frieda (Daisy Earles), a fellow little person and fiancee, to chide him for his roving eye and remind him of the good things he has right in front of him. Cleopatra and Hercules hatch a plan to take Hans for his money, a deux-ex-inheritance, plotting to con him into marriage and then off him. But that’s just the A-plot! We also have the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton who are marrying separate men, circus den mother Madame Tetrallini who broods over the otherkin like they were her children, clown Phroso and seal trainer Venus as a beta couple who get wind of Cleopatra’s plans and try to thwart them, a Bearded Lady giving birth to the Human Skeleton’s baby, a squabble between Hercules and Joseph/Josephine over the latter’s voyeuristic tendencies, and a muddled mess of dozens more characters each given their own sharp character development out of proportion to their importance to the story. It’s a relief the damn seal doesn’t talk, or we’d find out he has a child out of wedlock, a felony record, and an addiction too.

Many scenes take place just so we have the opportunity to watch the various otherkin show off their deformities, such as the Armless Wonder drinking wine with her feet, the Human Torso lighting a smoke without arms or legs, a trio of microcephalic girls dressed like kewpie dolls and called (have mercy on my soul for what I’m about to type) “pinheads,” whom the rest of the cast patronizes, and too much more to describe. The effect is to make you wish these people had access to socialized Canadian health care. But back at the A-plot, Cleopatra crosses tribal boundaries by preying upon Hans, causing the rest of the otherkin to rally to his aid and hatch a counter stratagem to get vengeance on Cleopatra and Hercules. Cleo’s plans become evident when we see her tipping a vial into a wine bottle before foisting a drink on Hans at the Wedding Feast.

The Wedding Feast is the part we miss out on if we let the previous forty minutes stone us into bored sleep. The movie finally wakes up and comes to life here, as a party where not just the otherkin let it all hang out, but the normie performers break out the sword-swallowing and fire-breathing fun. Cleopatra makes a big drunken ass of herself while Frieda, in one of the best shots in the movie, glares proton beams at her. It stands out because most of the acting in this movie just plonks; the otherkin were hired for their physical appearance and circus experience, while top name performers refused the normie roles. The “we accept her” chant sets off Cleopatra, suddenly horrified at the idea of becoming part of the otherkin tribe. She stands up and rages at the table, and that’s the end of the gooble-gobble fun. From there, all the dominoes that have been set up begin to tip. The otherkin do indeed get their revenge, it is just as dramatic and disturbing as you’ve heard, and we’re not spoiling any more just in case readers are spending their very first day on the Internet here.

In total, we have to give the film this much consideration: it is the butchered remains of what once was. Not only were half an hour of scenes reportedly cut, but a bit of exposition by a carnival barker and a happy denouement were tacked onto the beginning and end. Without the missing pieces, it’s hard to tell whether the most “shocking” parts make the tedious melodrama easier to sit through. As it is, we get a lot to keep track of without much to go on, while at the same time we get a distorted lens to view this alternate universe that was America just four-fifths of a century ago. If Freaks deserves its place in the National Film Registry for no other reason, it earns it because it is hard proof that the United States, believe it or not, has actually made some progress past barbarism. Come to think of it, as none of these people are being kept in dog kennels as our current government does with immigrant children along the southern border, maybe it serves as a grim reminder of how far back we are sliding.

G. Smalley adds: Freaks is thoroughly disturbing. The basic tale of avarice, intolerance, poisoning, and devastating ironic revenge is disturbing. The vision of Prince Randian wriggling through the mud during a thunderstorm clutching a knife in his teeth is disturbing. The sight of the pinheads and the armless people frolicking disturbs you, and then you’re disturbed by your own instinctive revulsion. The story is a classic tragedy, with a deviously satisfying, ironic comeuppance for the truly hateful villains. The one thing that keeps the film from being great is the acting from the characters chosen for their odd physical characteristics rather than their ability to convey emotions. Harry Earles has great expressions, glaring daggers when he realizes his heart has been used as a lockpick to get to his family fortune, but his attempts at delivering English dialogue sometimes come out as sheer jibberish. His sister Daisy is even worse, delivering her lines with decent diction but zero emotion.  The rest of the freaks are seldom better. (Pauline Kael has a great point when she argues that the film would have been more horrifying as a silent.) But the film has an insinuating pull like no other. The layers of voyeurism, horror, and genuine empathy keep your emotions roiling. It’s an object lesson in how to tackle exploitative subject matter with compassion; the freaks have, in modern jargon, agency. They are not just sideshow attractions to gape at; it is their story, the story of society’s ultimate outsiders and cast-offs. The community of freaks is a safe space for them, but a deadly one for interlopers. Freaks is a wonderful, horrible thing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer definitely has on its hands a picture that is out of the ordinary. The difficulty is in telling whether it should be shown at the Rialto — where it opened yesterday — or in, say, the Medical Centre. ‘Freaks’ is no normal program film, but whether it deserves the title of abnormal is a matter of personal opinion.”–The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…bizarre… ‘Freaks’ faded away and even was banned in a few European countries, including England. It resurfaced a full 30 years later at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was described as a surreal masterpiece.”–Mark Chalon Smith, The Los Angeles Times (1995 screening)

“…a one-of-a-kind bizarro masterpiece.”–Kim Newman, Empire Online

IMDB LINK: Freaks (1932)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Freaks Show – A wealth of information is archived at this Olga Baclanova fan site, including an annotated script synopsis, Tod Robbins’ original short story “Spurs”, stills, and essays

Freaks (1932) – Overview – Turner Classic Movies’ Freaks page, with galleries of stills and behind the scenes posters, film clips, the trailer, and notes and essays

AFI|Catalog – Freaks – The American Film Institute’s Freaks entry

Freaks | British Board of Film Classification – The BBFC’s frank review of the film’s history of censorship in the country

The Unseen Freaks – Rundown of some of the scenes missing from the final cut

Cast Portraits for Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932) – A collection of rare photographs of the cast from the Decaying Hollywood Mansions blog

The Ethics of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) – Justine Smith article for PopOptiq considering whether the film is exploitative or empowering to its subjects

Beyond FreaksKooKoo the Birdgirl – Interview with New Zealand performance artist Sarah Houbolt, who created a show based on one of Freaks‘ minor characters

Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)Alfred Eaker‘s original article for this site

HOME VIDEO INFO: Somehow, after MGM disowned it, the rights to Freaks ended up in Warner Brothers hands, and they did the film justice with a 2005 DVD release (buy). Given its age, Freaks looks and sounds about as good as it ever will here (this is not a film likely to benefit from a hi-def Blu-ray treatment). The helpful commentary by Tod Browning expert David Skal describes scenes from the script that were not filmed or cut from the final version, as well as giving brief biographies of the performers. Although it duplicates information in the commentary track, the included documentary “Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema” is just as long as the feature film, and tells you just about everything you’d want to know about the film’s production, including more complete biographies of each of the sideshow attractions who appear in the film (very little is known about some of them, like the half-man/half-woman “Joseph Josephine”). In a second featurette, Skal talks us through some alternate cuts of the ending.

Freaks is also available on video-on-demand (rent or buy).

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