“The Love Story of a SIREN, a GIANT, and a DWARF!”
Director: Tod Browning
Cast: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova
Synopsis: A circus’ beautiful trapeze artist agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers, but his deformed friends discover she is only marrying him for his inheritance.
When considered with reference to its original conception, Todd Browning’s 1932 horror flick Freaks is as just as much of an aberration as its’ title characters. Apparently some US State censors made up to thirty minutes of cuts, which goes a long way to explaining why Freaks runs for under an hour and yet contains a number of scenes which are nothing more than padding. Apparently, Browning’s initial intention was to show up able-bodied humans as the real monsters while portraying the so-called freaks as normal people with the same hopes and emotions as the members of its audience. Well, those censors put paid to that idea, and left us with a badly disjointed movie lacking any moral anchor or meaningful sub-plots. And that idea of showing the circus freaks as normal people is blown apart in the terrifyingly effective final scenes in which Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova — The Man Who Laughs), the heartless trapeze artist, and her feckless strong man lover Hercules (Henry Victor), receive their just desserts.
What remains of Freaks today suffers from typically poor early-talkie-era acting and a weak script to which no less than five writers contributed. Despite this, it possesses an undeniable power thanks to its main attraction: the unfortunate souls whose physical aberrations spelled exile from regular society. The concept of this oddball community forced together by their physical defects is an effective one that is nevertheless under-utilised here. There is a strong sense of community amongst the ‘freaks’ that is absent from the able-bodied members of the circus in which they work. They look out for one another and, as a sideshow barker intones in an introductory scene, ‘offend one and you offend them all.’
Cleopatra would have done well to heed those words, but it’s too late for her by then, and an extended flashback shows us why. Although able-bodied, Cleopatra is seducing the midget Hans (Harry Earle), much to the distress of Hans’ betrothed, the equally diminutive Frieda who, in one of cinema’s more questionable casting choices, is played by Earle’s sister, Daisy. What the love-struck Hans doesn’t realise is that Cleopatra is also involved in a torrid affair with Hercules the strong man, and that the only thing she wants from Hans is the fortune he has recently inherited. So when she begins slipping strange powders into Hans’ champagne on their wedding night things start looking decidedly bleak for the little chap.
Now that the censored pieces of film have been lost it’s impossible to know for sure Browning’s initial intent with Freak. Irving Thalberg, the head of production at MGM wanted something ‘horrible’ to match or surpass Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein movies which had proved such a box office sensation in 1931 and the screenwriters certainly delivered in that respect. Whether they delivered the type of exploitation movie that Freaks became after the censors had hacked away at it will remain a subject for debate. Any intention Browning might have had to make the ‘freaks’ sympathetic characters is largely negated by the final scenes in which we see them crawling through mud in a torrential downpour with weapons in hand or gripped between their teeth, intent on capturing Cleopatra and performing unspeakable acts upon her. Their ultimate depiction as members of a sinister closed society who commit crimes upon those who displease them with impunity places them squarely in the villains’ corner, giving the film a lack of balance. A cobbled together epilogue which unsuccessfully attempts to reprieve Hans suggests that someone realised this, but this belated effort to mitigate the horrific punishment meted out to Cleopatra never comes close to ringing true.
(Reviewed 6th October 2014)