Directed By: Tod Browning
Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova
Tag line: “The Strangest… The Most Startling Human Story Ever Screened… Are You Afraid To Believe What Your Eyes See?”
Trivia: Myrna Loy, originally slated for the Olga Baclanova role, turned down the part because she felt the script was offensive
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Director Tod Browning, who had run away at age 16 to join the circus, came to love the “Big Top”, and all the excitement it had to offer. With his 1932 film, Freaks, Browning wanted to show the world a slice of circus life few on the outside had ever seen, namely the camaraderie and close-knit relationships that formed among the sideshow attractions, sometimes referred to as the circus freaks. But the world in 1932 wasn’t quite ready for Browning’s film, and as a result, Freaks was reviled by both audiences and critics alike.
Hans (Harry Earles), a circus performer who stands less than three feet tall, has fallen in love with trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), despite the fact she’s twice his size. Cleopatra initially laughs off Hans’ advances, but changes her tune when she learns he’s about to inherit a large fortune. It doesn’t take long for Cleopatra to seduce Hans, and soon the two are married. With the help of her secret lover, Hercules the Strong Man (Henry Victor), Cleopatra plans to knock off her new husband and collect his inheritance. But when she humiliates Hans in public, Cleopatra incites the anger of the other circus ‘freaks’, who are only too happy to intercede on Hans’ behalf.
It’s easy to see why Freaks might have been a bit much for it’s 1932 audience. Along with the appearance of such sideshow performers as the bearded lady (Olga Roderick), the half-man/half-woman (Josephine Joseph) and the human skeleton (Peter Robinson), we also meet the Half-Boy (Johnny Eck) who was born without legs, and the ‘living torso’ (Prince Randian), born with no limbs whatsoever. There are other “oddities” as well, like pinheads, Siamese twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) and a girl with no arms (Martha Morris) who has to eat every meal with her feet. Yet, while these characters are certainly unusual, I don’t believe it was Browning’s intention to simply exploit their various deformities. On the contrary, I get the distinct impression when I watch this film that a mutual respect had developed between the director and his sideshow subjects, and am convinced his ultimate goal was to paint them all in a sympathetic light. That’s not to say there’s no exploitation whatsoever, just that Browning counterbalances it by making the ‘freaks’ genuine characters. In short, he wanted us to see them as the true heroes of his story, and the so-called ‘normal’ characters, who lie, cheat and steal their way through the film, as the tale’s true monsters.
Upon its release in 1932, critics attacked Freaks unmercifully. The Atlanta Journal wrote that it “Transcends the fascinatingly horrible, leaving the spectator appalled”, and its “shocking nature” resulted in the film being banned in many states. Ultimately, audiences could not accept Browning’s vision, and I truly believe ‘acceptance’ is what the director was after. He set out to show us the inner decency, even the humanity of this special group of performers, men and women who were dealt a blow by life, yet were coping with it as best they could.
Browning was able to see past their deformities. Unfortunately, at the time, he was the only one who could.