1932 - unrated - 64 Mins.
|Director: Tod Browning|
|Producer: Tod Browning|
|Written By: Al Boasberg, Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon and Edgar Allan Woolf|
|Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Henry Victor and Harry Earles |
|Review by: Bill King
Before he moved into film, Tod Browning was a man whose life was in the circus. Those days spent underneath the big top had a profound impact on his imagination and view of life. By the time he moved behind the camera, by way of mentor D.W. Griffith, the stage was set for a series of dark, gothic films. Though he is best known for "Dracula" (1931) and his collaborations with Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi, "Freaks" would be his most notorious offering, and his most devastating. If ever there was a film that could end a career, "Freaks" is it.
It's not the Addams Family.
Browning's attempt to humanize sideshow attractions turned out to be reviled. It was bad enough that Browning would cast real-life sideshow oddities in his movie, but to have them turn on the movie's attractive female lead was an even bigger injustice. Their physical appearances relegated them to a life on the sideshow circuit, serving as attractions for customers to gawk at in amazement. Perhaps audiences didn't want to see the freaks capable of revenge. After this fiasco, Browning made a few more movies, then he retired. He had no choice. Finding work was difficult in the aftermath of "Freaks."
Let it be said, however, that the controversy surrounding the film does not indicate its quality. It is unexpectedly moving and profoundly twisted. This is one of the earliest films to employ the shock ending. The movie's events lead up to a certain point, only to unveil a startling revelation that is logical, unexpected and horrifying. The circus looks like a place where everyone works together in a professional manner, but who would suspect it would turn into a battleground?
Hans (Harry Earles) is a midget traveling with the show. He has done well for himself by building up an impressive fortune. Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is a trapeze artist with a pretty face but an ugly heart. She wants Hans' money, and will go so far as to marry him to get it. Hans' friend Frieda (Daisy Earles) warns him about Cleo's possible intentions, but Hans is too smitten to worry about that. Behind the scenes, Cleo is dating the strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). He's in on the ploy, and he's just as cruel as Cleo.
Everyday life for the sideshow attractions goes about as normal. Browning introduces us to many of the show's oddities. Siamese twins are a part of the display, since they are uncommon, but not nearly as uncommon as the bearded lady, the man with no arms and legs, the armless girl, the half man/half woman and several individuals with extremely deformed facial features. They want only what they can earn out of life. They understand, as Browning does, that their choices in life are limited. Watching this film, I was reminded of an episode of "The Jerry Springer Show." His guests on a particular show were conjoined twin brothers who spent many years in the circus before retiring. Jerry asked their brother, a perfectly ordinary man, how he felt about sending his siblings to the circus. He said flatly that there was no other way for them to make a living. The twins had no regrets over their career.
The oddities in "Freaks" understand that, too. At least in the circus, people like Hans can come together without fear of rejection. They're all on the same boat, so to speak. When Cleo and Hercules plot their fiendish scheme, it is unexpected. The normal people work with the abnormal everyday. A kinship must form between them. As far as Hans is concerned, Cleo's proposal is genuine.
The movie's most disheartening scene comes during an engagement party. Cleo, later claiming to be intoxicated, makes many off-color remarks and mean-spirited gestures towards Hans. This scene reveals the underlying dishonesty in Cleo's actions. Even Hans has his doubts. Then the final scene arrives, with Cleo cornered by angry freaks. How they resolve the situation is the culmination of their rage. Mess with one of them, and you mess with all of them.
"Freaks" did for Tod Browning what "Peeping Tom" did for its director Michael Powell. A great career was over. Those tumultuous days are long gone now, but what has emerged is a widely-recognized classic. The film can now be seen for the groundbreaker that it is. Browning did more than provide his sideshow freaks with an audience. He infused them with ordinary human emotion. They are just as real as anyone else. They are capable of every emotion that we possess, and because of that, they can be just as dangerous.