#412) Freaks (1932)
OR “Sideshow Hell”
Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Willis Goldbeck & Leon Gordon. Suggested by the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins.
Class of 1994
The Plot: Hurr-ay hurr-ay hurr-ay! Step right up, folks, see the movie that had audiences running out of the theaters! Yes, ladies and gents, it’s the one and only “Freaks”! Meet Hans (Harry Earles), the little person with a big inheritance! Witness as Cleopatra the trapeze artist (Olga Baclonova) cons Hans for his fortune with the greatest of ease! But there’s so much more to behold under this big top! See the Siamese Twins! The Human Torso! The Bearded Lady! The Pinheads! And many more who finally get their moment in the center ring! Do you dare peek at what’s inside this movie? Hurr-ay hurr-ay hurr-ay!
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a brief rundown of the film’s content, controversy, cuts and cult. Sorry; still trying to shake off the barker talk.
But Does It Really?: It’s crude and at times difficult to watch, but “Freaks” achieves what every classic film on this list does: it stands on its own piece of ground. For better or worse, there is no other movie like “Freaks”. The film’s bizarre subject matter and unforgettable imagery more than ensure the film’s longevity, though this may be an instance where one viewing is definitely enough. My question: if you’re going to include an oddity like “Freaks” in the NFR, why not also include “Reefer Madness” or the films of Ed Wood?
Everybody Gets One: Most of the cast were real-life sideshow performers who resigned themselves to the reality that the exploitation of their abnormalities were their only source of income. The primary exceptions were Daisy & Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who managed to avoid the sideshow circuit, instead playing vaudeville and burlesque (they were tap dancers and eventually jazz musicians).
Wow, That’s Dated: Circuses in general, sideshows specifically. Once a showcase for the differently abled, sideshows declined in popularity around the early ‘50s; a combination of television’s rise and the passage of laws forbidding such public exploitation.
- Believe it or not, “Freaks” was a passion project for director Tod Browning. At age 16, Browning ran away from home to join the circus (honest!), performing as a clown and occasionally in the sideshow as “The Living Corpse”. Years later, Browning was a successful film director at MGM, and convinced the studio to buy the rights to the short story “Spurs”. “Freaks” was not greenlit until after Browning directed “Dracula” on loan to Universal, and MGM wanted their talent to make them an equally successful horror movie. “Freaks” is not what any of the higher-ups had in mind.
- The original plan was to cast bigger names like Victor McLaglen, Myrna Loy, and Jean Harlow as the other, non-sideshow characters. Producer Irving Thalberg, who did not want the film to have any stars, nixed this idea. The only one of the eventual leads to continue their film career was Wallace Ford, who spent the next 30 years playing wisecracking tough guys.
- For the record, the couple Hans and Frieda are played by real life siblings Harry and Daisy Earles. For obvious reasons, their characters’ romance was downplayed. Still, what a weird, unnecessary choice.
- If “Freaks” seems a little disjointed (and its 62 minute runtime seems a bit odd), you’re not alone. The film was originally 90 minutes, but disastrous test screenings led to MGM cutting a third of the film. As best I can tell, most of these cuts were dialogue that sympathized more with the sideshow performers and vilified the “normal” characters. Some of that commentary comes across, but it is definitely muted.
- This whole post could be highlighting each cast member. I do, however, want to single out Josephine Waas, aka Josephine Joseph, the Half-Woman Half-Man. Waas highlighted her hermaphrodite biology by splitting her appearance down the middle: male clothing and a hairy leg on one side of her body, female clothing and a shaved leg on the other. There is no evidence to support Waas was a hermaphrodite, and just prior to “Freaks”, her act was prosecuted in England for fraud, with Waas pleading guilty to avoid a trial and medical examination.
- Today in pre-Code era profanity: upon learning about Cleopatra’s ruse with Hans, Venus refers to Cleopatra as “that big horse”, as opposed to…something else.
- The acting in this movie is quite stilted. I suspect it’s a 50/50 split of non-professional acting from the sideshow personalities and ‘30s professional acting that seems wooden under a modern lens.
- Ah, the wedding feast. The sideshow’s initiation of Cleopatra (“We accept her, one of us!”) is a disturbing moment in a movie filled with them.
- The film’s ending also suffered from cuts. The fate of Hercules the strongman was deleted (hint: he now sings falsetto), and a “happier” alternate ending was shot and inserted into the final cut. Despite their best efforts, these alterations still muddle a movie whose message is seemingly, “freaks are people too, but do not mess with them”.
- “Freaks” was a critical disaster and a box office flop. MGM pulled the film from theaters before it had completed its run (the only film to receive this distinction) and quickly sold the distribution rights to exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper. Esper re-released the film under such titles as “Forbidden Love” and “Natures [sic] Mistakes”.
- Following the film’s failure, MGM assigned Tod Browning to B-pictures and never greenlit any of his choices again. Browning only made four films after “Freaks”, retiring after 1939’s “Miracles for Sale”.
- “Freaks” was rediscovered in the early ‘60s when it played at the 1962 Venice Film Festival, and had its 30-year ban in the UK lifted. The film had several “midnight movie” screenings throughout the ‘70s, and has enjoyed a cult following ever since.
- Most of the film’s cast disowned their involvement in “Freaks”, the notable exception being Johnny Eck (“The Amazing Half Boy”), who spoke fondly of his experience. Researching what happened to the cast post-“Freaks” (as well as post-freakshows in general) is thoroughly depressing, so let’s focus instead on “Side Show”, the Broadway musical that celebrates the Hilton sisters. Also depressing, but at least there are songs!
- Easily the most referenced moment from the film is the chant of “One of us! One of us!” Like many classic film moments, this line is so commonplace most people don’t even realize that they’re referencing “Freaks”.