Off-Season Reviews: Freaks (1932)
If there’s a film that helped usher in the classic Universal horror films into the hearts of the Baby Boomer generation, it was Tod Browning’s Freaks. Browning’s own Dracula took the honors of being Universal’s first horror film. James Whale’s Frankenstein was the second, and with its man as god plot, it pushed the genre into directions that frightened the studio. But Freaks is the one that the kids who grew up watching Shock Theatre remember being so chilled by.
Browning, a director of just average talent, was in the driver’s seat after Dracula hit it big. He used his studio clout to film his magnum opus: Freaks. Browning, before his days in Hollywood, had actually worked as a carnie. Having spent so much time around sideshow performers Browning was convinced they had a story in them that needed to be told.
This mastery of the subject material should not be confused, however, with thinking that Browning had somehow become a master director. His directing is still clumsy at points, such as the infamous “Wedding Party;” which, for reasons known only to Browning, is introduced with a title card. The only title card to be found in the film! (Freaks is not a silent film.)
Now I know that Browning didn’t write the script, and thus can’t be blamed for its inadequacies, but as a director reviewing the script, this scene should’ve raised a red flag. Film is, after all, a visual medium, so if the viewer can’t tell what’s happening on-screen when viewing it, generally one uses exposition to fill in the holes. Rather than title cards which were quickly becoming outdated, and not to mention, completely jarringly foreign within the context of the film itself.
(Also jarring, in a “ha ha!” hindsight kind of way, is Freaks prohibition message. Browning being a notable drunk and all.)
Otherwise, the story, one that would be recycled by almost every other freak film (see Byron Mabe’s She Freak for a prime example), is basically an inverted Beauty and the Beast tale. A gold-digging, two-timing trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), feigns love for a well-off sideshow performer, Hans (Harry Earles), marries him, and is eventually outed, and avenged, by his fellow performers.
Not the most amazing story, but Browning had one important, secret weapon: drawing upon his carnival connections, he used the real sideshow performers of his youth. The Siamese Twins (the original Hilton sisters: Daisy and Violet), Schlitze, the Half Boy (Johnny Eck), the Armless Girl (Frances O’Connor), Half Woman-Half Man (Josephine Joseph), the Human Skeleton (Peter Robinson), the Pinheads (Zip and Pip), and the show-stopping Living Torso (Prince Randian), amongst others, help to make up Hans’ famed “we accept you, one of us” support group.
Naturally, their inclusion led to the film being banned in many places, most notably Britain and Australia. Public reaction stateside was also not encouraging. Browning began getting “fan” mail deriding him not for his portrayal of the freaks, but for having the audacity of putting them on-screen at all! Amazingly, this dissension occurred in studio too, with the less passable cast members being forced to eat outside rather than in the studio’s cafeteria.
Reportedly the studio was forced by public opinion to change/cut some of the film’s dialogue, so that the oddities became less sympathetic. Thereby undermining its entire theme, but leaving the audience feeling less like immoral bloodsuckers at the end.
Ironically, it is Freaks’ disturbing visuals/subject matter that manages to give the film its modern appeal. Ranking up there with the Wizard of Oz with its dwarves, Freaks is one of the last places you can still see examples of specific genetic abnormalities. Such mutations are “corrected” in utero now, when possible, and hid from public sight otherwise.
Leaving this film, and the magazines and books that its late night viewings spawned (Shocked and Amazed, Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others, any of the numerous Barnum biographies) as a tribute to what once was.