Freaks (1932)

Director: Tod Browning

Stars: Harry and Daisy Earles, Olga Baclanova, Johnny Eck, Wallace Ford

Release Company: MGM

MPAA Rating: NR

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Tod Browning: Freaks


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The revulsion with which we view the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated is the result of long conditioning by our forefathers.”

While Tod Browning is most remembered for his classic version of Dracula with Bela Lugosi, he was born to make the 1932 cult classic Freaks. In fact, no other director could have handled this film with the same sensitivities. Browning knew the territory well, as he had come to Hollywood as an actor after working the circus and vaudeville circuits. He had had first-hand relationships with the “freaks” who continue to draw morbid curiosity seekers. He knew they have the same thoughts and emotional makeup as “normal” people, and he was familiar with their code of ethics.

If Browning’s films remind you of D.W. Griffith’s style, this is understandable. He worked with Griffith as both an actor and assistant director on Intolerance. Griffith then arranged for Browning to direct at the Fine Arts Company, before Browning moved on to work on some melodramas with Universal Studios. But Browning made his biggest impact with his MGM horror films, directing several silent films starring Lon Chaney before moving to sound films.

Browning combines both melodrama and horror in Freaks. He begins the 64-minute film with a two-minute essay that explains the sociology of mutants 68 years before the X-men film. It’s a sermon that will play against any prejudices you may feel towards people who are the products of an abnormal birth or mutilation. Browning notes that in ancient times such people were considered “an omen of ill luck or representative of evil.” He then sets up the premise of the film by saying that those forced into an unnatural life have a code of ethics for protection against the "normal" people. A crime committed against any one of them will be considered a crime against all of them!

Right away, you should realize that Browning is completely sympathetic towards the “freaks” in his film. He just beat you over the head with the opening sermon, and as dated as the film now seems to be, it’s noteworthy because of Browning’s sensitive treatment towards the malformed. This is 1932, so you realize that there are no CGI enhancements; Browning’s characters are the real deal here--Siamese twins, real-life midgets, dwarves, bearded ladies, hermaphrodites, and pinheads. There’s even one man without arms and legs, who ambulates like a snake.

While some people mindlessly check out this cult classic for the freak show aspects, Browning’s film really works to get the audience to view things from the freaks’ perspective. If you find yourself repulsed by their eventual revenge, go re-watch the prologue again.

Before the romantic melodrama begins, we have a carny barker introducing a group of curious customers to a once beautiful woman who has now taken a hideous and shocking form. Sure enough, we get the expected SCREAM!

No camera shot of the woman—you have to wait for that. Instead, we get the background story: Flashback to a couple of likable German midgets named Hans and Frieda (brother and sister Harry and Daisy Earles, who would both later appear as munchkins in The Wizard of Oz). They seem suited for one other, but Hans has designs on the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova).

Anyone rooting for Miss Beautiful Trapeze Artist to come out on top has to be a dimwitted. While she pretends to be charming and sweet to Hans, she is a manipulating louse who plans, with her boyfriend Hercules (Henry Victor), to marry Hans, steal his fortune, and kill him off with poison. It won’t take long to finish off a little guy like him, right?

So, will Hans come to his senses and marry Frieda? Or will he fall for Cleopatra’s trap? The story isn’t that difficult to figure out, as Browning retains its pure melodramatic structure. The fun part comes in the latter stages to see how he pulls it off.

The best scenes involve the horror, which is the reason to stay with the film through the rather dry opening and developing portions. We already expect Cleopatra’s downfall, and it begins with a memorable wedding banquet scene in which Cleopatra sneaks a dram of poison to Hans and openly kisses her real boyfriend in front of her new miniature hubby.

The freaks all gather around the table and begin chanting “Gobble, gobble, We accept her, we accept her, One of us, one of us” as a happy dwarf passes around a large wine goblet for a communal toast. Cleopatra rebuffs him scornfully. She seals her ugly fate by recoiling in disgust, pouring the contents over the dwarf’s head, mocking their acceptance ceremony, and ordering them to leave. This raises suspicions, so Cleopatra will now be watched closely by the tight-knit group of freaks, who witness her attempts to poison Hans.

Frequently excerpted when classic horror films are cited, the final scenes highlight Freaks. These are the famous rainstorm scenes with the various freaks crawling underneath the wagons in the mud with knives to pursue Hercules and Cleopatra. Browning effectively sets up the atmosphere but omits the bloody details, so your imagination can work out the actual horror.

We may not actually see the attack, but know it’s horrible from seeing what happens to Cleopatra. I won’t describe that here, but anyone who watches Freaks will naturally be curious about what makes the carnival spectators scream.

There’s actually more to Freaks than the rainy mud-and-gore scene in which a legion of society’s misunderstood “misfits” extracts its revenge. There are numerous scenes that should gain empathy for the freaks, simple scenes that show things like the “snakeman” lighting his cigarette, or an armless woman drinking from a wine glass, or the celebration that accompanies the birth of a baby girl to the bearded woman.

Remarkably, Freaks lasts only 64 minutes, but it has scenes that will remain with you for a lifetime. That’s a lot more than most of the blockbusters of the year 2000 will do. I still don’t care about any of the under-developed film characters in The Perfect Storm, but feel like I know Hans and Frieda quite well from a few minutes of screen time. I’ve got to give Browning’s morality play credit for that.

Browning’s melodrama is actually quite advanced for its time. Audiences of the 1930’s weren’t ready for it; they responded about as well as people generally respond to geeks and freaks in real life. Heightened sensibilities in the 1960s cultivated greater appreciation for the oddballs of society, however, and the film began to gain cult status. (After watching Freaks, a number ventured into the freak shows of John Waters.) Many of us still have subtle prejudices to overcome, but if you show Freaks to any special education class, these students certainly will know who to root for.

 


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