Screenplay : Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Edgar Allan Woolf, and Al Boasberg
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1932
Stars : Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Roscoe Ates (Roscoe), Henry Victor (Hercules), Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), Rose Dione (Mme. Tetrallini)
Fascinating, repulsive, and oddly touching, Todd Browning's "Freaks" is a constant contradiction of a movie. It is populated with real-life human oddities, including a man with no arms and no legs, another man who walks on his hands because he has no body from the mid-torso down, a human skeleton, a bearded woman, and Siamese twins. Browning, who had firsthand experience with such people having worked at a circus in the 1890s, treats these malformed characters with a sympathetic touch. Both nature and mankind have turned their backs on these poor souls, so they have only each other to lean on.
Running just over an hour in length, "Freaks" tells the story of Hans (Harry Earles), a dwarf man-child who works in Mme. Tetrallini's traveling carnival as one the side-show attractions. Like the other freaks, he is mostly rejected by the normal members of the carnival. Only Mme. Tetrallini (Rose Dione), Phroso, the head clown (Wallace Ford), and Venus, the seal trainer (Leila Hyams), treat him and the others with dignity or respect. Although Hans is engaged to be married to another dwarf, Frieda (Daisy Earles, his real-life sister), his heart is enamored with Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a sultry trapeze artist who is involved with Hercules (Henry Victor), the self-absorbed carnival strongman.
Cleopatra and Hercules cruelly amuse themselves with Hans' awkward romantic advances, which include sending her flowers and visiting her trailer. When Cleopatra learns that Hans has inherited a great deal of wealth, she concocts a scheme to marry Hans, and then poison him so she and Hercules can make off with the money. However, Hans learns of her plan and the carnival freaks band together in a revenge plot that is as horrifying as it is appropriate.
"Freaks" has an interesting history as a movie, mainly because its sympathetic undertones were lost on the critics who first saw it in 1932. The human oddities of the title were viewed only as repulsive and disgusting. The movie lost a great deal of money, and it was banned in a number of countries. Metro Goldwyn-Mayer, the film's distributor, attached a disclaimer to the beginning of the film to explain the sympathetic plight of the freaks, but it did no good.
Part of the reason the film may have been so misinterpreted was the fact that its advertising campaign made no mention of the underlying human emotions. Phrases such as "Can a FULL GROWN WOMAN truly love a MIDGET?" and "For pure sensationalism, FREAKS tops any movie yet produced," make the movie itself look like a sideshow exhibit. Yet, despite the inherently voyeuristic nature of the film, it is essentially a morality tale about acceptance caged inside a conventionally melodramatic revenge plot.
Browning was already a famous director in 1932, having made several Lon Chaney horror pictures and the unforgettable Bela Lugosi version of "Dracula." He's not a very stylized filmmaker, which means he was usually content to use a static camera with little editing. However, in the final revenge sequence, which takes place during a thunderous rainstorm, he builds a real sense of terror and suspense with editing and carefully angled shots. Instead of camerawork, he allows his actors to do much of the work, especially in a scene where Cleopatra, at the reception after she has married Hans, is utterly repulsed by the carnival freaks merrily singing, "We accept you, one of us."
By using real carnival attractions, Browning is able to render a two-fold effect. First, he elicits real unease from the audience at seeing these misbegotten individuals (a trick later used extensively by Frederico Fellini). And second, he is able to draw sympathy for them, because once the initial shock of their predicament wears off, we begin to see them as real human beings with feelings, emotions, fears, and desires. It is the conventionally beautiful people, Cleopatra and Hercules, who are the true monsters. Although early critics missed it completely, beneath its shocking veneer, "Freaks" is actually about looking past the superficiality of physical appearances.
©1998 James Kendrick