Saturday, July 16, 2011

Classics Revisited: Freaks

(1932) Directed by Tod Browning; Written by Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon; Based on the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins; Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Rosco Ates and Harry Earles; Available on DVD.

Rating: **** ½

What’s It About?

Freaks is the sort of film that naturally evokes hyperbole such as “one-of-a-kind,” “disturbing” and “controversial,” and for once, lives up to the hype.  Since its release in 1932, Freaks has polarized audiences, with some heralding it as a cult masterpiece and others damning it as a piece of shameless exploitation.  Although no two people will likely have the same reaction to this film, it’s virtually impossible to see Freaks and not have an opinion. 

Freaks is not an easy film to watch, nor is it easy to take your eyes away.  The story behind the scenes is just as interesting.  During the film’s production, MGM Studios didn’t know what to do with it.  The initial screening went poorly, and director Tod Browning made numerous concessions to appease meddling studio officials.  Various cuts were made, including the original ending.  The version that exists today is only a scant 62 minutes.  For some that will probably be more than enough, while for others it barely scratches the surface. 

Critical reception for Freaks was mostly negative, and MGM decided to distance itself from the film for decades after its initial release.  While it was apparently successful in a few markets, other regions never had the chance to see it at all.  In one of the most notorious examples, the film was banned in Great Britain for 30 years.  How did Freaks gain such an infamous reputation?  Is it exploitive, or is it a sensitive portrayal of the mistreatment of people who are different?  It’s a little of both, which is true to Tod Browning’s roots.

One year after the gargantuan hit Dracula, Browning decided to revisit familiar ground.  Before working on motion pictures, he had earned a living in the traveling circus sideshows.  Browning frequently drew upon his experience as a showman and performer when he became a filmmaker, exploring his uniquely dark and bizarre themes in such 1920s silent films as The Unknown and The Unholy Three.  Although Freaks was clearly influenced by these earlier successful efforts, it was not a hit, and would have long-lasting repercussions on Browning’s career.

Freaks utilized real-life sideshow performers with actual physical deformities for the bulk of its cast, providing unprecedented credibility to the story.  In the DVD’s commentary, David Skal noted that there were more performers assembled for this fictional freak show than there ever would have been for one troupe.  The cast list is a veritable who’s who of sideshow performers, including little people Harry and Daisy Earles (who were also real life brother and sister), the Human Skeleton, the Armless Girl, the Bearded Lady, Schlitze the Pinhead, Johnny Eck the Half Boy, Prince Randian the Human Torso, and Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton.  Few performers benefited from the film, with most fading away into obscurity.   One of the few noteworthy exceptions was Angelo Rossitto, who continued to work in movies almost until his death in 1991.

The central story is fairly simplistic, concerning a plot by the glamorous and hateful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) to seduce Hans (Harry Earles) and take his money, so she can ultimately run off with the strongman Hercules (Henry Victor).  The acting is a mixed bag, often stilted and bordering on maudlin at times, but the imagery is never short of compelling.  All the other performers can see that Cleopatra is manipulating Hans for her own ends, and that nothing good can come out of this strange relationship.  Her scheming inevitably leads to her downfall.  In a climactic scene that’s still unsettling today, the vengeful performers trudge through the mud to dole out their version of justice.

Why It’s Still Relevant:

Nearly 80 years after its initial release, it’s difficult to imagine how shocking Freaks must have been for audiences of early 30s.  Even through the jaded eyes of the 21st century, it can still surprise.  The unforgettable depictions of real human deformities still create a visceral impact, alternately amazing and horrifying the viewer.  The film is a testament to a time gone by, when people with such unfortunate afflictions were viewed as sub-human things that existed solely for others’ amusement.  Probably the most astonishing thing about Freaks was that it was ever made at all.

Freaks’ most famous scene occurs later in the picture, during Hans and Cleopatra’s wedding feast.  The freaks repeatedly chant, “Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble, we accept her, one of us…” (*) welcoming Cleopatra into the fold.  She’s disgusted and horrified by the prospect, bringing to mind the Groucho Marx quote that he wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member.  Her rejection of the group is not simply an isolated reaction from a cold-hearted sociopath, although she would clearly fall into that category.  It’s a metaphor for society’s failure to accept those who fall outside the norm. 

* Random useless trivia: As an interesting side note, this chant inspired the Ramones song “Pinhead,” including the famous “gabba gabba hey” chorus.

Maybe the scariest thing about Freaks is that it isn’t quite the artifact that it appears to be.  In this age of political correctness when we have seemingly evolved beyond such “unenlightened” spectacles as the freak show, we are still triggered by the same impulses that compel us to set ourselves apart from individuals who are deemed strange or less fortunate.  We are entertained by watching others who are perceived as different, as evidenced by the glut of so-called “reality” shows, the internet meme of the week, People of Wal-Mart, and countless other media outlets that have become the modern-day equivalent of the freak shows.  It still amounts to the same thing.  We embrace what is considered normal, and revile what is different.  The curtain has been pulled back to reveal a mirror.  We find that we are merely staring back at ourselves, with the same prejudices intact, but dressed in different clothing. 


  1. Barry,
    I watched this film for the first time all alone late one night and I couldn't wait to tell all of my friends and co-workers about it. I think I've rented it at least 4 times over the years to show at movie night gatherings.

    Your back story on the film was interesting. It's amazing how many quirky films have been panned only to develop a cult following so to speak.

    A nice review, I enjoyed your take on it.

  2. Thanks for reading, Page. It's one of those films that's never really left my consciousness over the years, and I couldn't wait to finally write about it. I'm guessing this is one movie that won't get the remake treatment!


  3. "One of us! One of us!"

    When most people refer to a movie as "one that could not be made today" they still don't hold a candle to this one. Can you imagine if anyone tried to remake this with similar, modern performers?

    Another movie in this vein that I have never gotten around to seeing is The Terror of Tiny Town (1938), which employed an entire cast of midgets in a straightfaced take on the western, complete with Sheriff, bad guys, and the like.