I’m happy to be reviewing Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks for the grand finale of the At The Circus Blogathon hosted by Serendipitous Anachronisms & Crìtica Retrô. The first set of entries were posted a month ago but our hosts kindly agreed to a second round of reviews of movies with circus themes (which will be posted today, tomorrow & Wednesday so be on the lookout for more reviews from other bloggers!). I’m glad I didn’t miss my chance – I knew immediately that I had to grab the opportunity to review Freaks, a highly controversial & misunderstood film at the time of its release in 1932. Here’s my review…
Directed by Tod Browning
Based on Spurs, 1923 short story by Tod Robbins
Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Rosco Ates, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Rose Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton, Schlitzie, Josephine Joseph, Johnny Eck, Frances O’Connor, Peter Robinson, Olga Roderick, Koo Koo, Prince Randian, Martha Morris, Elvira Snow, Jenny Lee Snow, Elizabeth Green, Delmo Fritz, Angelo Rossitto, Edward Brophy, Matt McHugh
Plot Synopsis: (via IMDB)
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.
Unlike our blogathon hosts, I don’t have a lot of knowledge when it comes to films that are pre-1970 or so and I’d love to expand my knowledge. In reading a little about Freaks, I noticed it was called a “Pre-Code” horror film, which is a term I’d never even heard of as a movie blogger. Here’s the Wikipedia definition:
Pre-Code Hollywood refers to the brief era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound pictures in 1929 and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines in 1934, usually labeled, albeit inaccurately, as the “Hays Code”… As a result, films in the late 1920s and early 1930s included sexual innuendo, miscegenation, profanity, illegal drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and homosexuality. Strong female characters were ubiquitous, in such films as Female, Baby Face, and Red-Headed Woman. Gangsters in films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and Scarface were seen by many as heroic rather than evil.
Well, damn – this sounds like an awesome period! If I’m going to explore older films, I think I need to start with the Pre-Code ones. To grab one more thing from Wikipedia before I talk about Freaks in my own words, I’d like to share its opening paragraph about the film for anyone who may be unfamiliar with it:
Freaks is a 1932 American Pre-Code horror film in which the eponymous characters were played by people who worked as carnival sideshow performers and had real deformities. The original version was considered too shocking to be released and no longer exists. Directed and produced by Tod Browning, whose career never recovered from it, Freaks has been described as standing alone in a subgenre of one.
I like that quote – “Standing alone in a subgenre of one“. I think that’s pretty accurate as I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like Freaks. There are certain films that I personally think all true film-lovers (and movie bloggers) absolutely must see and Freaks is one of them.
I first saw Freaks years ago after seeing a documentary in which it was mentioned and thinking it sounded utterly fascinating. This movie is my type of thing – an originally misunderstood film that has achieved cult-status and is now finally, I think, recognized for its beauty. I’m sure many are at least somewhat familiar with the plot by now so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the film’s horror label comes not from the so-called “freaks” with their physical deformities but from the ugliness of the outwardly beautiful trapeze artist & her lover, who try to take advantage of them. I can absolutely understand, however, why this film was vilified in 1932 as its themes and the bravery of its statement on human nature are so far ahead of its time. This is back in the day when people with physical deformities were treated as nothing more than sideshow entertainment. I suppose it’s just as shocking to us nowadays to know that people were once treated like that as it was for a 1932 audience to be told that their sideshow entertainment had feelings no different than their own.
When learning of this film, I did hesitate to watch it as I was afraid it would be exploitative and that made me very uncomfortable. Freaks was indeed banned in the UK for 30 years due to being “exploitative” but, again, I think the film was just massively misunderstood for years while people still lived in a time where they feared the unknown and anything “different” that they had no control over without the advances in medicine, prosthetics, etc that we have today. So I’m sorry if anyone does feel differently but I don’t find this film exploitative (at least, not in its final form – the ending was changed massively from its original release, which apparently no longer exists but sounds like it was actually changed for the better as the original cast its stars in a much more negative light at the end).
From what I’ve read, director Tod Browning had joined a travelling circus so did have knowledge of that lifestyle and the people interviewed for a documentary I saw on the film have commented that it was quite an accurate portrayal of the circus way of life. I’ve always had a fascination with that lifestyle as it seems like such a foreign way of life compared to the humdrum, office drone existence most of us lead so I’ve often gravitated toward circus-themed books & movies. I think Browning made a beautiful film about a lifestyle he’d experienced and, judging from the film, he must have had a strong affection for it. He captured the camaraderie between the circus performers that I’ve always assumed exists (?) but, like most of us, will never fully understand or experience. I’d love to think that, while shunned by society, the circus performers in the era of Freaks at least felt like part of a family within the circus in the way this film portrays.
The existing cut-down version of this film is very short (only 64 minutes) but we get to know all the characters very well in this time. I love how Browning somehow managed to focus on several individual stories (such as a marriage, a baby being born, various romances, etc) in between the main overall story involving evil trapeze artist Cleopatra marrying a lovestruck Hans for his money. It shows you just how much movies suck nowadays – these days we often spend two hours watching meaningless effects and leave knowing very little about even the main characters.
I should point out that, though the film demonizes some of the (for want of a better word) “normal” people, we have a lovely romance between one of the clowns and a lady named Venus (I’m not actually sure what she does in the circus. Hmm…). These two care about our title characters & treat them no differently than anyone else so it’s even more ridiculous that this film was so reviled at the time as, had it made everyone seem evil and without compassion, I could almost understand why audiences would be angry. But, in reading the IMDB trivia for Freaks, it turns out that some people working at MGM protested at having to eat lunch with the cast so those with the worst physical deformities were set up with a tent outside so they could eat separately. Appalling behavior – no wonder the world clearly wasn’t ready for this movie’s message. This is why it’s a shame that, also according to IMDB trivia, scenes such as this one were shortened:
According to the screenplay, the scene in which Madame Tetrallini introduces the wandering land-owner to the performers frolicking in the woods ran quite a bit longer. It included additional dialog that endeavored to humanize the so-called freaks. She tells him they are “always in hot, stuffy tents – strange eyes always staring at them – never allowed to forget what they are.” Duval responds sympathetically (clearly the stand-in for the viewing audience), “When I go to the circus again, Madame, I’ll remember,” to which she adds, “I know, Monsieur – you will remember seeing them playing – playing like children… Among all the thousands who come to stare – to laugh – to shudder – you will be one who understands.”
Freaks is a movie that was, understandably, very misunderstood at the time of release in 1932 but I hope it will continue to be discovered by serious film fans. Its message of acceptance is timeless (and seems especially important in this current wretched year we’re having – it feels like we’ve gone back in time to 1932 in all the wrong ways). It’s beautiful & heartbreaking and shows the true ugliness of which humanity is capable. Its marriage banquet scene, in which the “freaks” declare the beautiful trapeze artist as “One of us! One of us! We accept you! Gooble Gobble!” is an all-time classic (and often referenced, such as in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street). The ending is, admittedly, quite a shock. In that regard, I can see why audiences were so angered at the time and this is a rare occasion where it sounds like some changes to a film were actually for the better (I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen this but the re-cut ending finishes on a slightly better note for our heroes). Is the ending offensive? No more so than the way in which society treated people who were different in the old days. I think the ending is perfect and this is a great film that, sadly, had to wait several decades for society to catch up to it.
My Rating: 8.5/10