Horror-tober Salute to Tod Browning: Freaks (1932)
I know I'm a day late, but I'd like to conclude my Horror-tober salute to Tod Browning by reviewing what is easily my all time favorite of his films (and what's possibly my favorite horror film, period), Freaks. Normally I don't write hubs on films I've seen more than once (certainly not my all-time favorites), because:
1. It's not why I formed this page, and
2. It's not that interesting a challenge to me.
I made exceptions with my reviews for The Bad and the Beautiful and Shattered Glass, but that was because I was in the right mindset at the time I wrote them, and they felt especially relevant to me.
But, by golly, I love Freaks too much not to write something on it, so get ready for some gushing hyperbole, 'cause this just might be loaded with it.
Freaks was - is - a controversial film. It could never, ever be made today, and it certainly couldn't be made back in 1932, when Hollywood was still in its relative infancy, where it had already established its status quo of having the beautiful elite… and everyone else. Even more shocking was the fact that Freaks was released by MGM, far and away the most conservative, straight-laced purveyor of gloss in the country, if not the world. Tod Browning had already had a massive hit with 1931's Dracula at Universal (back then a mecca for horror flicks), which became a sensation and simultaneously made and destroyed Bela Lugosi's career (the poor guy was buried in his Dracula cape, for God's sake). MGM somehow bought the rights to Tod Robbins's short story "Spurs", and wanted Browning to direct the film adaptation. I express incredulity because I've read the summary of "Spurs", and it is far and away a much meaner and uglier than story than Freaks could ever hope to be, but Browning must have made a persuasive argument, for they purchased the rights at his request. The rest is improbable history.
Freaks tells the ultimate, fear-of-God morality tale of a circus dwarf named Hans (Harry Earles), who, despite being engaged to longtime sweetheart Frieda (Daisy Earles, his real life sister), falls hard for "beautiful big woman", trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Cleopatra is amused by his attraction, and takes advantage of Hans by asking for loans and accepting his extravagant gifts. Poor Frieda is cast aside for Cleopatra, and poor Hans doesn't realize that Cleopatra is seeing strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) on the side and the two of them are sharing a hearty laugh at Hans's expense. It certainly doesn't take us long to see what cruel, brutish, exploitative pigs the "normal" people of the circus are, especially towards the "freaks" (hey, it was an acceptable term in 1932). When Hercules finds hermaphrodite Josephine Joseph (who is, according to IMDb and Wikipedia, is still alive) staring at him, he responds by punching him/her, which brings out gales of hateful laughter from Cleopatra. Make no mistake, the non-freaks are scum.
Okay, not all of the normal people are reprehensible; we are granted a hopeful reprieve in the characters of Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford) and Venus the seal trainer (Leila Hyams), who treat the freaks with kindness and respect, and even find romance with one another. Some of the sweetest scenes involves Phroso kidding around with the microcephalics (or "pinheads"), and Frieda confiding to Venus about her relationship troubles. There is a touching sense of community among the freaks, such as when they warmly gather around when the bearded lady (Olga Roderick) gives birth, the father being the Human Skeleton (Peter Robinson). We see how they are able to perform everyday tasks in spite of their disabilities. The armless ladies eat, drink, smoke, and sew with their feet (one of them could even crochet in real life). The limbless Prince Randian (also known as "the Human Torso") deftly lights a cigarette on his own. Johnny Eck, who was born with only the upper half of a body, effortlessly walks, runs, and climbs stairs with his hands. There is also an amusing (and charmingly ribald) subplot involving conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton and their respective beaux.
Tiresome Trivia for the Day: One of the freaks who is only shown in two scenes and not credited is "Edith the turtle girl". She is the black woman who is briefly seen at the beginning and during the climax. According to historian David Skal's commentary on the DVD for Freaks, she had a number of, ahem, rather unsettling scenes cut. I tried to do more research on Edith, but came up with nothing. She is quite possibly Freaks's greatest enigma.
For a movie that's barely over an hour long, Browning paints a very thorough picture of the familial bond among the freaks, and what makes it so emotionally effective is the lack of calculated shock value or drama. The freaks are just there, living their lives. Browning dares to show these extraordinary people in an ordinary light, so it's startling how quickly we grow accustomed to them.
Tiresome Trivia for the Day: Director Werner Herzog names Freaks as his favorite movie. Anyone familiar with Herzog's work will not be surprised.
Back to the story, when Cleopatra learns that Hans is slated to inherit a massive fortune (which raises the question what he's doing working in a circus, but whatever), she schemes to marry him, poison him, and run off with his money. But she's not just marrying Hans, but marrying into his family of fellow freaks, a fact that causes her to drunkenly lash out at their wedding dinner (the infamous "gooble gobble, gooble gobble" scene). It doesn't take long for the others to figure out what Cleopatra and Hercules are up to, and their vengeance comes to fruition in a climactic rainstorm that remains a masterpiece of breathless suspense and editing that still looks completely modern.
WARNING! SPOILERS/SPOILER IMAGES BELOW!!
As I mentioned in my "Underrated Villains" countdown, Cleopatra ultimately gets hers, and gets it good. She is transformed into a woman/duck, an even bigger freak than the ones she once mocked and abused. Apparently, according to David Skal (the man knows more about Freaks than Tod Browning did), the climax originally went on longer, with a tree branch getting hit by lightning, crushing Cleopatra's legs, and the freaks descending on her, fade to black. And Hercules, in the original draft, doesn't get off scot free, either: he is castrated and shown at the end singing soprano. Neither appealed to the censors, both scenes were trimmed and/or cut (sorry, poor choice of words), and they are now considered lost. It just goes to show how the powers that be ruin everything.
END OF SPOILERS!
Long story short, Freaks bombed horribly at the box office (legend has it one woman claimed it frightened her so much it caused her to miscarry), and it was nearly 35 years before it was resurrected and audiences were a little more open to Freaks's odd appeal. Thanks to good old-fashioned word of mouth, the film has since become a cult phenomenon.
Freaks is strange, uncomfortable, and one of the most honest movies I've ever seen. So many aspects make it incredibly memorable: the fact that the cast is populated by unknowns, character actors, and circus people who'd never acted before, the lack of musical score, and the dialogue that ranges from epigrammatic to gruffly naturalistic. While Cleopatra and Hercules are villains who get exactly what's coming to them in the end, the other characters are rounded and even complex. One could frown on Hans openly cheating on fiancée Frieda with Cleopatra, but he doesn't deserve what happens to him, so we can't bring ourselves to judge him too harshly. Venus and Phroso are lovely characters who are refreshing reminders that there people capable of decency in this awful world. When Venus suspects Hercules of his complicity in Hans's poisoning and threatens to expose him to the police, Hercules sneers, "You'd tell on your own people!" Venus fires back, "My people are decent circus folks, not dirty rats that would kill a freak to get his money!"
Some have accused Freaks of being exploitative (some of the cast members later expressed regret at their participation), while others think it is a sensitive, if shocking, look at people we sometimes don't want to think about. In the book The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris called Freaks "one of the most compassionate films ever made".
Freaks deserves to be seen, if only for its sheer uniqueness, daring subject matter, and innovative direction.
Freaks. Dir. Tod Browning. Perf. Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates. Warner Home Video, 1932. DVD.
Andrew Sarris. The American Cinema. Da Capo Press, 1996.
David J. Skal. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: Faber and Faber Inc., 1996.
Skal, David J., and Elias Savada. Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Herzogenrath, Bernd, ed. The Films of Tod Browning. London: Black Dog Publishing, 1996.