Tod Browning, 1932
Starring: Olga Baclanova, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Roscoe Ates
“One of us! One of us!”
Cleopatra, a beautiful trapeze artist, learns that one of the other sideshow performers, a midget named Hans, has come into a sizable inheritance. She decides to seduce and marry Hans, but Cleopatra is selfish and cruel and she and her lover, the strongman Hercules, plot to take Hans’s money for themselves. During their wedding, the other sideshow performers (aka “freaks”) accept Cleopatra, despite the fact that she is normal. During a moment of drunken revelry, she is frightened and repulsed by them. She brutally mocks them, revealing her true feelings, though Hans stays with her anyway. Soon after this, she begins slowly poisoning him, so that he will die and she and Hercules can be together. The sideshow freaks learn about her plan and band together to save Hans and punish Cleopatra and Hans permanently.
There is certainly no other film like Freaks. While much of Browning’s output, particularly his films with the wonderful Lon Chaney, dealt with human deformity and painful physical transformations, social outcasts, and outright criminals, this takes the cake by starring actual circus sideshow performers, the titular “freaks.” As a result, the film is still shocking, controversial, and often uncomfortable to watch. While Browning obviously wants us to sympathize with them, it’s hard to ignore the fact that, at the same time, he is exploiting their differences and deformities in the name of entertainment. More of a revenge-melodrama than a horror film, Freaks is certainly more horrifying than most of its genre brethren and has aged a lot better than Browning’s most famous film, Dracula.
Though this was a pre-Code film, MGM still had an absolute stroke over the finished product. They were allegedly sued by a woman who claimed to have a miscarriage, she was so horrified by the screening. I can’t imagine a film like this being made today by a major studio and MGM made the film very difficult to see for decades. Unsurprisingly, Freaks did not make it past the censors. Almost a third of the film was cut, including scenes where Cleopatra and Hercules are attacked by the vengeful freaks. Though we witness part of Cleopatra being turned into a deformed bird girl, in the original ending, the freaks castrated Hercules. A new, cheerier epilogue was added on, celebrating the happy lives of the remaining characters, though it does not distract from the film’s lurid tone. Despite these enforced changes, Freaks ruined Browning’s career and though he made a handful of films after this, he was essentially forced to retire.
Browning actually got his start in the circus and in vaudeville and performed as a magician, a clown, an escape artist, and much more. His most memorable role was the “living corpse,” where he would be buried alive for days at a time. (Read more about Browning here.) He got to know and love the world of circus sideshows, which he proves here by comfortably shooting a wide range of sideshow performers - the living torso, bearded, bird girl, limbless man, conjoined twins, pinheads, a sword swallower, etc. Though he is certainly exploiting them, the degree of ease and comfort he uses to portray these actors works in their favor. Browning’s behavior on the set, however, was often outright abusive, likely made worse by his alcoholism, which was another contributing factor in his early retirement.
Freaks is a difficult film to recommend, but whether you are enthralled or horrified by the subject matter, it’s impossible to deny that this film offers some of the most powerful and impacting imagery of Browning’s career and of ‘30s cinema in general. Like a sort of modern day Duchess of Malfi, the revenge is absolute, physically transformative, and unforgettable. This is a complex work and one that is thoroughly a productive of its time - it was shot in the aftermath of WWI and during the Great Depression - despite feeling so modern. As with Dracula, the dialogue is often stilted and forced, probably because Browning got his start working in silent films. Unlike the more conservative and restrained Dracula, there are some wonderful moments in Freaks where sound is simply not necessary, such as the wedding banquet.
Even if Freaks doesn’t really seem up your alley, it is a masterpiece and deserves to be seen at least once. Pick up the DVD from Warner, which has a making-of documentary and some additional scenes. Unfortunately most of the excised material is believed to be lost, so there will likely never be an unedited director’s cut. Here’s hoping. Goobble-gobble.