FREAKS(director: Tod Browning; screenwriters: Al Boasberg/Willis Goldbeck/Leon Gordon/Edgar Allan Woolf/story suggested from Tod Robbin’s “Spur”; cinematographer: Merritt B. Gerstad; editor: Basil Wrangell; cast: Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus ), Johnny Eck (Johnny the Half Boy), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), Henry Victor (Hercules), Roscoe Ates (Roscoe), Daisy Hilton (Daisy, a Siamese Twin), Violet Hilton (Violet, a Siamese Twin), Rose Dione (Madame Tetrallini), Josephine Joseph (Half Woman, Half Man), Albert Conti (Landowner), Edward S. Brophy (Rollo Brother), Olga Roderick (Bearded Lady), Matt McHugh (Rollo Brother), Jennie/Elvira Snow/Schlitze (Pinheads), Pete Robinson (Human Skeleton); Runtime: 63; MGM; 1932)
“… Browning made the normal people the grotesque ones, showing how ugly they were because of their intolerance.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Tod Browning’s (Dracula/The Unholy Three) outstanding film has an opening long-winded rejoinder which addresses the point about the main characters being freaks and about how this is not an exploitation movie (this “crawl” was added to the film after its original release by the producer who bought the film from MGM, Dwain Esper). It is basically an apology to his audience for the freaks used in the film, taking note of the usual revulsion most people have when they view the abnormal. He points out that the majority of freaks, themselves, are endowed with normal thoughts. Looking at those who are pinheads, limbless, dwarfs, a bearded lady and her baby bearded girl, twins physically attached to each other by the hip, and the assorted other real freaks used in this film admittedly has its initial shock to those not used to seeing the abnormal. But, that should soon wear off and what remains is how sympathetic the audience becomes to the freaks who are part of a traveling circus sideshow. They seem so childlike and close-knit, as they bond together for protection from a hostile outside world.
MGM has foolishly edited out 30-minutes of the film, thus reducing this B&W horror film to around 63-minutes. The price paid, is that character development for some of the subplots fails to materialize.
This movie was banned in Great Britain until 1963. Which is a revolting statement about where that country’s sense of freedom of speech is at, more than it was a reflection of how gross the picture was.
Browning had a background in the circus and made two previous films about circus life, The Unknown and The Show. He was tarnished by the studio system after he made this film — a film that lost money for Irving Thalberg’s studio. It was one the executive didn’t want the studio’s name attached to.
It is a film that will build to a climax, escalating in violence and tension, turning into a nightmare, where revenge is called for against the obscene villains who happen to be the so-called normal ones. The villains are tormenting a midget to such a degree, where it only seems right that the freaks gang up on them and give the heavies what they deserve.
The story revolves around two midgets who are engaged and are part of the traveling circus, the sideshow ringmasters, Hans (Harry Earles) and Frieda (Daisy Earles), who in real life are siblings. He lusts after a full-grown woman, a trapeze artist in the circus who looks like Mae West, named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). She finds it amusing to be with him and relishes her role in breaking up his engagement with Frieda, as she gets him to keep giving her expensive gifts and laughs callously at him behind his back. She is further encouraged by her boyfriend, the brutish strongman in the circus, Hercules (Henry Victor). When Frieda confronts her to stop making a fool of Hans, she mistakenly reveals to Cleo that Hans has inherited a fortune. This prompts the cold-hearted Cleo to get Hans to marry her.
The wedding celebration turns into a macabre scene, that is both vexing and titillating. Cleopatra passionately kisses her obnoxious strongman in front of the groom. The normal friends of the strongman are laughing derisively at the spiritually crushed Hans, but at that point a limbless freak starts to insanely chant “gooble-gobble” while perched on the banquet table. The freaks then all chant repeatedly in unison, “One of us; we accept her;” but, Cleopatra turns colors as she defiantly says I am no freak and then heatedly calls them freaks.
Back in Cleo’s carnival wagon she poisons Hans’ drink, but Venus (Leila Hyams) confronts her former sadist lover, Hercules, and threatens him unless he tells the doctor treating Hans about the poison. Cleo attempts to poison Hans again, this time putting the poison in the medicine the doctor prescribes as she gives him his dosage. But this time she is surrounded by all the freaks who band together and attack her, as she somehow gets mutilated offscreen. She is last heard clucking like a chicken.
Meanwhile, stuck in the carnival wagon in the heavy rain, Hercules goes after the seal trainer Venus, but Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford) comes to her rescue. When he can’t handle Hercules by himself, the freaks stick the heavy with a knife and that’s the last we see of that dude. Reportedly, the part of him being castrated was cut from the film.
The final scene which has the look of being tacked on, was indeed tacked on, as the studio insisted on a happy ending. Hans has gone into retreat, living like a millionaire in an elegant house, but is unhappy. When Phroso and Venus bring along Daisy, the two lovebirds will reconcile.
I think because of the way the film was cut the characters of Phroso and his lady friend Venus were never developed and remain dry portrayals, somewhat diminishing the film.
The final revenge of the freaks is that they made Cleopatra a part of the sideshow; she is featured as the “Feathered Hen,” a limbless figure with feathers, unable to talk, who puts a fright into the visitors viewing her in a cage. She is introduced by a carnival barker, who manufactures some story to go with her condition about a royal prince shooting himself for her love.
The director did make three other films (Mark of the Vampire (1935)/The Devil Doll (1936)/Miracles for Sale (39)) after this one that were moderately successful and then retired to live a very rich life-style, never regretting for a moment that he made “Freaks.”
The themes of the film are that there is strength in numbers, that the beauty of an individual should be judged by their inner character and not by their outward appearance, that we are all human beings, that to mock someone else is like mocking ourselves, and that one shouldn’t prejudge individuals in a biased way. If those aims are controversial, then it is no wonder there is still so much hatred in the world. And by the way, Browning did not exploit the freaks as the critics in the 1930s said — Browning made the normal people the grotesque ones, showing how ugly they were because of their intolerance.
REVIEWED ON 1/5/2000 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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