Film Title: Freaks
Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Wallace Ford
- Leila Hyams
- Olga Baclanova
- Roscoe Ates
- Henry Victor
- Harry Earles
- Daisy Earles
In 1932, one of the most captivating films of all time emerged on the scene. “Freaks” was the brainchild of Director Tod Browning, whose prior work had included numerous collaborations with Lon Chaney, the man of a thousand faces. Films with sound, or “talkies”, were still relatively new in Hollywood. The horror film with sound was a huge success at the time and the studios were anxious to crank out as many as they could. Coming off the success of his 1931 “Dracula”, Tod Browning was offered another similar project but turned it down to film the movie that would define him forever.
Based on “Spurs”, a short story by Tod Robbins, Freaks tells the story of “Hans” (Harry Earles), a midget performer in a circus sideshow who falls in love with trapeze artist “Cleopatra” (Olga Baclanova). Cleopatra has no real interest in the pint-size Hans, and her blatant expressions of “love” serve to entertain the rest of the “normal” circus performers. Not realizing he’s being played for a fool, Hans devotes all of his time to Cleopatra, even though he is supposedly engaged to “Frieda” (Daisy Earles), a fellow midget performer. Cleopatra soon learns that Hans is to inherit a large sum of money. She devises a plot with the resident circus strongman (and her real lover) “Hercules” (Henry Victor) to marry Hans, steal his inheritance and then run away. The sideshow “freaks” soon learn of Cleopatra and Hercules’ plan and immediately band together to fight back to the gruesome end.
The so-called “freaks” in this film are merely the victims of some physical abnormality. Some of the most famous sideshow acts were handpicked by Browning to give the film a real distinction. Audiences were horrified. Here in blatant cinematic view, were REAL people who far surpassed any macabre Hollywood could produce with make-up. This is how they interpreted it, and this became the general consensus. Because of the reputation it had earned, Freaks became known as a horror film, when in actuality, it is more about exploitation. The viewer has no trouble quickly surmising that the “real” freaks are the people perceived as “normal” in the film. Their playful disrespect of the unfortunate is a deformity in itself, and one far uglier then anything physical. Nevertheless, we do live in a visual society. As the story goes, a preview screening sent a woman running and screaming hysterically up the theater aisle. The infamous dinner table scene stands out as the supposed cause. This caused some worry, leading the studio to cut 26 minutes of the movie’s footage, reducing the film to only 64 minutes in length as it is seen today. The cut footage is assumed to have been destroyed, and therefore lost forever. However, the movie that was shown had still generated so much shock, that England would go on to literally “ban” it for over 30 years.
As for the sideshow performers themselves, some of the most notable of the day populated “Freaks”. Schlitze, whose real name was Simon Metz, was a microchephalic (a condition where the cranium is very small and grapefruit-like, often called a “pinhead”) who was portrayed as a girl but was actually male. His few spoken lines in the movie are hard to distinguish but he has an ability to capture the viewer’s interest just by being in the frame. Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow were two more microchephalics that appeared in Freaks. The majority of their show experience was spent as “Pip and Zip”, a popular sideshow duo that were billed as “the last of the Aztec children”. Harry & Daisy Earles played the husband and wife roles (Hans & Frieda), but were real life brother and sister. They were two members of “The Doll Family”, which were literally a family of little people who built custom furniture in their house to accommodate their lifestyle. Harry would also go on to appear in the Wizard of Oz. Violet and Daisy Hilton were conjoined twins who, prior to appearing in Freaks, had suffered a traumatic lifestyle at the hands of their mother. They were trained to perform so that their mother could get rich from their “condition”. They eventually enlisted the services of a private attorney at age 23, went into Vaudeville and then film. Johnny Eck is one of the more amazing characters in Freaks. He was billed in sideshows as “the half boy”, because he literally had not formed below his waist and got around by walking and running on his hands. Eck had a twin brother who was a fully grown and developed person. He eventually joined Johnny as an assistant to his traveling act. Prince Randian was not in the film as much as some of the other performers, but that does not detract from his incredible abilities. Randian was called “the living torso” because he was born without arms and legs. One of the most revered scenes in Freaks shows Randian striking a match to light a cigarette, then blowing the match out. Though it was not shown in the same sequence, he rolled the cigarette as well. These are just some of the personalities captured in this movie. Each one offers their own unique addition to an already thought-provoking piece. With any film that dares to crossover into the infamous category, there are bound to be some downsides and Freaks is no exception. Olga Roderick, who played the bearded lady, would later denounce the film and express regret for having been part of it.
In 2004, Warner Brothers released Freaks on DVD and treated it pretty well. For a movie that is now 74 years old, it’s presented better than some movies made in the 1980s. The picture is smooth and rich looking, quite the opposite to many films of similar age where the film is plagued with scratches and skips. The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. The only issue is the heavily-accented dialect spoken by a few of the cast members. In retrospect, further techniques could have been applied to sharpen the audio. Special features include a commentary by David J. Skal, author of “The Monster Show”, ” Hollywood Gothic”, “Dark Carnival” and other books on genre cinema, a “Making of” documentary, a special prologue and 3 alternate endings. The documentary provides some fantastic insight, not only the in the making of Freaks, but in the world of sideshows. Every detail from the conception to the casting to the reaction is covered with equal attention. Sideshow historians and performers offer “inside” views from their exposure to the business. Freaks is considered an accurate portrayal of the politics and antics that take place behind the scenes. Another point of interest lies in the alternate endings. Obviously the ending will not be intricately explained for those who have not seen the movie; however, it is fair to assume that the most commonly accepted ending was used. It took very little to offend the public in those days, which is strange considering the violent nature of some gangster movies released around the same time. The special Prologue is almost like a commentary in itself, on society’s perception and misinterpretation of those different from us. The narrator explains: “The love of beauty is a deep seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization. The revulsion with which we view the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated is the result of long conditioning by our forefathers.”
If this were on a rating system, Freaks would surely receive 5 out of 5 stars. Naturally some of the acting is questionable, but that is to be expected. The real heart of this movie lies in its message, albeit subtle at times. This is not just a glimpse into the everyday of “human oddities”. Freaks is a slap-in-the- face, a wakeup call to the world that the mirror does little to reveal a person. Since its release, decline and rebirth, it has obtained Cult Classic status and remains a testament to the strength of the human spirit. One cannot help but feel inspired that these people can exhibit such pride in the face of adversity. As Warner’s cover artwork suggests, it really is them against “the norm” and it’s a fight worth fighting.
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