Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)
[originally posted 5Nov2001]
While Tod Browning directed sixty-two films, from the early days of silent movies until the beginning of World War II, the vast majority of filmgoers (even of the snob variety) remember Browning solely for Freaks, his groundbreaking 1932 picture about carnival life. (Browning also directed Lugosi’s Dracula and Chaney in a number of films, but the stars tended to eclipse the director in those cases.)
The plot of the film is one of the mothers of all urban legends: a “normal” woman, Cleopatra the trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova) romances a sideshow performer, Hans the midget (Harry Earles) away from his fiancee, fellow midget Freida (Harry’s real-life wife, Daisy), in order to get his inheritance so she and her real love, Hercules (Henry Victor) can run off and live like king and queen. This, needless to say, disquiets the sideshow populace, who get revenge on Cleopatra in a rather unique way. The plot is also, as should be obvious, quite thin and silly. The acting, in many cases, is atrocious, aside from a few Hollywood veterans, notably Henry Victor and Roscoe Ates, both of whom were quite well-known in their day (Victor was the lead in the 1916 production of The Picture of Dorian Gray; Ates was a character actor with a resume that encompassed such films as Gone with the Wind, The Champ, King Kong, and the 1933 live-action version of Alice in Wonderland). In other words, if you’re looking for your basic Hollywood blockbuster, you’re going to be disappointed.
What makes Freaks (based on Clarence Robbins’ novel Spurs) a classic is that Browning cast actual sideshow performers in many roles, and then handed them a script that treated them as human beings rather than freaks; the beauty of the movie’s title is in its irony (something missed by many over the years who would have had the film banned). Browning’s movie should have ushered in a new era of tolerance and recognition that so-called accidents of birth are human, too; unfortunately, more recent exploitation flicks like Freaks Uncensored! (1999) and the ever-popular Mondo Cane series (made between 1962 and 1988) provide pretty solid evidence that such is not the case. (It is another sad irony that the cast list for Freaks Uncensored! contains many of the same names as does Browning’s film.) Still, Browning is certainly to be commended for trying, at least, and his amusing little peccadillo is certainly worth going out of your way to watch a time or two. **** ½