Directed By: Tod Browning
Written By: Clarence Aaron ‘Tod’ Robbins
For such a short little film, Tod Browning’s 1932 masterpiece Freaks has had a torrid history of controversy and international bannings. This horrific take on the lives, loves, and losses at the circus remains disturbing, tragic, and twisted seventy-five years later.
Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is a beautiful trapeze artist, and the little Hans (Harry Earles) is quickly smitten with her. Despite fellow tiny performer Frieda (Daisy Earles) warnings that Cleopatra is laughing at Hans and only marrying him for his money, life at the circus goes on for the collection of ‘freaks’. When the strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) accidentally reveals his and Cleopatra’s plans at the wedding feast, the drunk Cleopatra also spills her disdain for the ‘freaks’. Although they claim to accept Cleopatra as one of their own, when Hans falls ill due to Cleopatra’s poisonings, the freaks take matters into their own hands and exact a horrid revenge.
Freaks is a story so strong that it effectively ended director Tod Browning’s (Dracula, The Unholy Three, London After Midnight) career. For numerous reasons, A-list Hollywood personal Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow refused to work on this loose adaptation of Tod Robbin’s short story ‘Spurs’. Audiences were shocked at the exploitative nature of Freaks, and for many years, it was banned abroad. Today we are of course much more accepting to all walks of life; but as much as we desensitize ourselves with sex, blood, and gore, Freaks still offers plenty of disturbing imagery.
The cruel treatment of the circus’ little people, the abuse of the hermaphrodites and Siamese twins — these and other deformed performers are mocked, laughed at, played, and deceived — but they serve their comeuppance swiftly and with equally cruelty. Browning’s vignette gives us a voyeuristic approach into this bizarre behind the scenes sideshow tale. The Bearded Lady (Olga Roderick) and the Skeletal Man (Peter Robinson) can love just like the rest of us. This very subject matter is too far from our mainstream; it is freakish to us. Freaks makes us uncomfortable and that’s part of the horror. We don’t like to admit our prudish, cruel ways. We know we shouldn’t look, but like the gapers at the car wreck, we just can’t help ourselves. Have we learned the error of our ways yet? Perhaps not.
What’s so delightful about Freaks is that as exploitative as it is, it’s also a serious eye-opener about our society’s mistreatment of those we perceive to be different. Instead of costumed cast, masked actors, and smoke and mirrors, real circus personal were employed. Olga Baclanova’s Cleopatra is beautiful and deceitful. We love her thirties looks, but her ugly personality reflects the ignorant feelings of the time. Daisy Earles as Frida is more beautiful as the little lady who sees Cleopatra for what she really is. The entire cast delivers just fine — from the Human Torso Prince Randian to the Armless Girl Frances O’Connor and then some. It’s adorable and disturbing at the same time.
Freaks is dated in its thought and style, which may make it unviewable to some; but it’s also still right on the money in unveiling bigotry. Kids who aren’t mature enough to understand the visual and social complexities here should definitely not watch, nor should prudes or the squeamish. Freaks isn’t just a bizarre old horror picture. The final comeuppance is indeed scary (“One of us! One of us!”), but this classic should be seen and studied often by film students and classic enthusiasts year round.
Though some sequences are lost, Freaks is available in several DVD editions and video on demand options. I’m surprised the full video isn’t officially available free online, but I digress. Freaks is an affordable, worthy — nay necessary addition to your film collection. “We accept her!”