Freaks (1932)


It is amazing how the span of almost a century changes things.  Freaks has long been considered a cult classic even if audiences only have the butchered version to enjoy.  If Todd Browning had made this even 30 years later it would have been controversial, but it still would have been a hit.  In 1932 it was an unfortunate career ender for Browning, as the movie was banned in several states and countries and any goodwill MGM had going into making the movie was gone once they had to pull it from the market. 

Hans (Harry Earles) is a little person that is part of a circus sideshow.  He is engaged to Frieda (Daisy Earles), another performer of similar stature, but he seems to have also caught the eye of trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova).  Soon he starts to respond to her charms, not knowing that it is part of a plot between her and strong-man Hercules (Henry Victor) to get as much money from him as possible.

Frieda and the other performers suspect this, as well as the ones more sympathetic to the freaks such as Phroso the Clown (Wallace Ford) and Venus (Leila Hyams), a performer working with a trained seal.  Frieda, thinking she is doing something good, lets slip to Cleopatra that Hans is quite rich.  Cleopatra decides to go forward with marriage to him, all the while planning to kill him, take the money and run off with Hercules.  However, as all the freaks work together to protect their own, the plans go awry.

Much of the failure of the film at the time can be attributed to public attitudes.  A number of actors passed on being in the film because they did not want to be costarring with actual sideshow performers.  Most of the cast was forced to eat in a tent outside as they were not allowed in the studio commissary, and a number of the actors in the film had to be acclimated to working with them.  Olga Baclanova, for one, had a hard time as she felt such pity that she could barely look at many of them.  Thus, much of the cast on both sides did not have fond memories of making the film and, after its failure, jumped on the bandwagon of condemning it.  

Freaks was originally 90 minutes long and had more story and a clearer comeuppance for Hercules but, like too many films, all the footage is lost.  Thus, we can only judge it by what is two-thirds of the original film.  Even so, it is well made, even if much of the social commentary Browning put in was cut out in the end.  There are sound issues because of the technology at the time which makes it hard to understand some of the characters, particularly Harry Earles, who unfortunately is quite stiff in his line reading.  Everyone else does a fine job, with Baclanova and Henry Victor being as despicable as possible and a fun budding romance between Phroso and Venus. 

It has a shock ending with some well-done make up.  The wedding dinner and the freaks getting their revenge are some of the more memorable bits of 1930s cinema.  This was pre-code so it still got away with a bit more even in the shortened version.  Browning also focuses on what's going on behind the circus rather than showing a number of big scenes.  The problem is it was a movie made too soon and with little faith from MGM.  This should have ensured a decade or more of Browning making movies rather than the beginning of the end. 

Freaks (1932)
Time: 64 minutes
Starring: Harry Earles, Olga Baclanova, Henry Victor, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Daisy Earles
Director: Todd Browning

 

Comments

  1. I rented this once a while ago because in "Free Enterprise" (1999) someone asks, "What are we doing, a remake of Freaks?" and everyone starts saying, "One of us, one of us..."

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