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Freaks (1932) - "One of us! One of us!"

Updated on January 8, 2015

Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) has been controversial since its release. Produced as a horror film and based on Tod Robbins short story Spurs (1923), it was released at a time when the deformed were viewed less as curiosities as they had been in the old freak show tradition but more as medical anomalies that might be fixed by medical science. And despite the changing attitude toward deformity in the 1930’s the film still encourages an openly voyeuristic gaze.

This seemingly anachronistic staring coupled with the films emphasis of the sexual desires of the freaks (Hans the circus midget says in one scene “I am a man, with the same feelings other men have!”), evidently made the film distasteful to 1932 audiences. Even after some heavy re-editing by the studio the film was a commercial flop and was quickly pulled from distribution by MGM.

Beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) “Peacock of the Air”, seduces and eventually marries Hans the circus midget (Harry Earles), after learning of his inheritance. At their wedding, the other circus freaks decide that they will accept Cleopatra in spite of her being "normal", during the ceremony they pass a large goblet of wine around the table while chanting,! "We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! One of us! Gobble gobble! Gobble gobble"

The ceremony frightens the drunken Cleopatra and she accidentally admits to having an affair with Hercules the strong man. She than mocks the freaks shouting "You dirty slimy FREAKS...You filth, make me one of you, will you?” She tosses the wine in their faces, and drives them away.

Despite being humiliated, Hans remains with Cleopatra. She starts slipping poison into his medicine, but she is overheard discussing his murder and the other freaks plan revenge. At the climax, taking place during a dark and stormy night, they attack Cleopatra and Hercules with knives and other sharp edged instruments, Hercules ultimate fate is not seen but in the original ending he was castrated by the freaks. Cleopatra is horribly mutilated and in the final shot is on display as a squawking “duck woman”, a grotesque sideshow attraction.

Freaks disappeared from sight until 1947, when B-movie director Dwain Esper purchased the film distribution rights and placed the film on the exploitation circuit. Esper added an opening disclaimer to the film which reads in part –

“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. The majority of freaks, themselves, are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions. Their lot is truly a heart- breaking one.

Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world. With humility for the many injustices done to such people (they have no power to control their lot) we present the most startling horror story of the ABNORMAL and the UNWANTED.”

Tod Browning’s only onscreen credit is on the title page “Tod Browning’s Freaks”. Famous for directing Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi, Browning had a background in circuses having travelled in a number of carnivals and sideshows in his youth. Browning had also directed the great Lon Chaney in classic films like The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1927). The Unknown tells the story of a circus performer (Chaney), who has his arms surgically removed to please the woman he loves (she fears the embrace of men), only to discover she has overcome her phobia and fallen for the circus strongman.

Freaks was banned in Britain for 30 years until it was granted an X certificate in 1963, making it one of the longest bans in UK film history. The film was later rediscovered as a cult classic in the 1960’s, it gained newly appreciative audiences who viewed it differently than previous generations. In the U.S. the film played late night movie theatres for years in the 60’s and early 70’s and it now has even more admirers thanks to video and DVD.

Freaks was one of the films selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1994 for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

The Critics wrote -

“For pure sensationalism Freaks tops any picture yet produced.” (Louella Parsons)

“Though this circus story, directed by Tod Browning, is superficially sympathetic to the maimed and the mindless that it features, it uses images of physical deformity for their enormous potential of horror, and at the end, when the pinheads and the armless and legless creatures scurry about to revenge themselves on a normal woman (Olga Baclanova), the film becomes a true nightmare. If this film were a silent it might be harder to shake off, but the naive, sentimental talk helps us keep our distance." (Pauline Kael, New Yorker)

“I still guarantee it to turn the strongest stomach and chill the strongest spine.” (Daily Mail)

“It triumphs at once over your nausea; it also triumphs very quickly over your sense of what is curious.” (Observer)

“Freaks are people, individuals. The movie does not understand this and represents them as a homogenized collection of semi-imbeciles.” (Films in Review)

"Excellent at times and horrible, in the strict meaning of the word, at others. There are a few moments of comedy, but these are more than balanced by tragedy. Through long periods the story drags itself along and there is one of the most profound anti-climaxes of them all to form the ending. Yet... [it] is not a picture to be easily forgotten... [for] the underlying sense of horror, the love of the macabre." (New York Times)

"Does not merit that reputation for cruelty accorded it... What I found touching was the human beings' prodigious capacity for adaptation... [It] is a very honest film that can be seen with more pleasure than horror." (Jean Douchet, Cahiers du Cinema, 1962)

“Better as a cause celebre than as a horror film. Usually regarded as his [Tod Browning's] masterpiece, it is more unpleasant than genuinely atmospheric.” (Alan Frank)

“Strident and silly.” (Halliwell)


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    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Thanks DIMIR, this hub has been one of my most viewed, in fact checking my stats it's currently my third most viewed hub. What can I say people find this classic film and subject matter fascinating. When I published it I thought people would avoid it. :)

    • DIMIR profile image

      DIMIR 6 years ago from Pennsylvania, United States

      Great article and awesome movie choice. It has the coolest history, and I'm glad to see it out there!

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      He looks like a child but Harry Earles was 30 years old and his midget lady was actually his real sister. They are from a midget family of four from Germany, usually worked in circuses and sideshows. Harry also appeared in The Wizard of Oz.

      Thanks for posting!

    • profile image

      ruffridyer 6 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      The picture of the "Normal" woman with her midget husband I find disturbing because he looks like a child.

      I seen the movie once and was strike by the contrast between the freaks getting their revenge on the evil couple and the closing scene with the wronged husband making a new life with the midget lady who really loved him.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Thank you epigramman, it's good to meet more film buffs here. I know Rob and Cogerson are movie nuts too, with the emphasis on nuts, I'm kidding guys. :)

      The funny thing about this hub is that it's one of my most popular movie hubs, up in the top five most viewed. When I wrote it I thought it would be ignored or shunned. I suppose just seeing the word "freaks" in the title gets people curious to peek inside.

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 6 years ago

      ...what a treat coming here Steve for the first time (or should I say 'Nastassja' lol) .....I feel like a kid on Christmas morning as I am a real big film buff too and so many of my favorites are on your top 100 list - everything you do and write here is based on a labor of love - and there is no love greater at the Hub when you see/read someone with this much enthusiasm, heart, passion, expertise and knowledge - that said, I always loved Freaks (I certainly wouldn't label it a horror film) and it's so nice to see Cogerson and Flora in your corner - let me post this most essential hub to my Facebook page and my millions of movie loving fans - with a direct link back here - and let them see how a real movie hub is done (and yes Cogerson is world class too along with another hubber I would recommend ROBWRITE.

      lake erie time ontario canada 2:24am and yes I remember seeing Cat People when it first came out and thought that Ms. Kinski was really hot!!!!!

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Thanks for commenting brianlokker.

    • brianlokker profile image

      Brian Lokker 6 years ago from Bethesda, Maryland

      I saw this film in college and thought it was disturbing but worth seeing. In grad school I was involved in the campus film society and recommended it for our schedule. When the rest of the group saw it, it was unanimously rejected as inappropriate. So I was then regarded as the freak with the very odd taste in movies. I haven't seen it since, and I don't know how I'd react today. Thanks for the very good recap. Voted up!

    • RussBGrant profile image

      RussBGrant 6 years ago from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

      Also, don't forget the film inspired this ramones classic ha ha

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      One of us! One of us! One of us!

      Thanks Russ.

    • RussBGrant profile image

      RussBGrant 6 years ago from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

      One of my all time faves, and one of the few films I've seen that gave me a nightmare. Great job!

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Cogerson, for a while I thought I wasted my time and it would never get published. It's a classic movie and that ending was scary for it's time. The thunder and rain, the freaks lit up by flashes of lightning as they crept towards their victims

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 6 years ago from Virginia

      Nice job Steve....I am glad that you publish your have seen Freaks one time in my life...that one time has stuck with me....I think about the movie/some of the characters at the weirdest times...a very strange and disturbing movie...I remember the ending with them turning on Cleopatra....scared the crap out of me when I saw this movie when I was much younger....hard to believe it is almost 80 years old....voted up....great hub

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Hey thanks Ragoness. Freaks is not a movie that gets shown on TV much, but it is available on DVD.

    • Ragoness profile image

      Ragoness 6 years ago from New York

      Great hub, very informative. I've never even heard of this movie, now I want to go ask my film major friend about it :)