The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Tod Browning's 'Freaks' still has power to shock audiences

August 19, 2004
By Franklin Harris

A year after Universal Studios unleashed "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" upon unsuspecting audiences, Universal's upscale rival, MGM, tried to cash in on the public's rekindled love affair with horror movies. MGM hired "Dracula" director Tod Browning and gave him a mandate to produce the most frightening, most disturbing horror movie ever made. As it turned out, Browning succeeded only too well.

It's a safe bet that no one had ever before seen a film like Browning's 1932 shocker, "Freaks." Browning had a wealth of experience directing horror movies. Before filming "Dracula," he had worked with the legendary Lon Chaney on several silent films, including the lost classic "London After Midnight."

But "Freaks" is only superficially a horror movie, and only at the end does it become genuinely creepy. At heart, "Freaks" is a soap opera set in a circus sideshow.

Yet "Freaks" was censored during its original theatrical run. Some countries, including the United Kingdom, banned it outright until the 1960s. Most critics savaged it, and some audience members ran from theaters in shock, although at least some of those fleeing moviegoers may have been studio shills.

What disturbed audiences was the film's cast. Browning had hired real-life sideshow performers to fill the roles of circus freaks.

The movie revolves around a circus midget, Hans, played by Harry Earles, who becomes infatuated with a beautiful trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Unfortunately, she cares nothing for him. She does, however, care for his money, and she plots with her lover, Hercules the strongman (Henry Victor), to marry Hans and then murder him, leaving her to inherit his fortune.

But Cleopatra doesn't suspect the risk she is taking. The circus freaks, accustomed to ridicule and abuse, live by a special code for their own protection. An affront to one of them is an affront to all of them.

Browning complements the main story with two subplots. One involves conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) and their complicated love lives. The other follows a budding romance between two of the sideshow's "normal" performers, Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford) and Venus the animal trainer (Leila Hyams).

Interspersed between the three running plots are scenes from the other sideshow performers' lives. The bearded lady gives birth to a daughter. The half-man/half-woman endures the taunts of two acrobats. And in the film's most memorable scene, the "living torso," a man without arms or legs, lights a cigarette using only his mouth.

Accused of exploitation

Although some critics accuse Browning of exploiting his cast of human oddities, "Freaks" treats them with great respect, especially considering the year in which it was made. If anything, the film's casual sexism, which also is a product of the time, is more offensive today. Browning deserves credit for taking the commercial risk of casting two little people, Earles and his sister Daisy, in the pivotal roles of Hans and his long-suffering wife, Frieda.

The risk didn't pay off for Browning, who would direct only a few more films before retiring. Nor did it pay off for MGM, which quickly removed "Freaks" from distribution, locking it in the studio vault for decades. As for the cast of human oddities, some, like bearded lady Olga Roderick, came to resent the film. Only years later did critics begin to recognize "Freaks" as Browning's masterpiece and an important contribution to American cinema.

So, is "Freaks" exploitative or sympathetic in its portrayal of its misshapen stars? Modern audiences can decide for themselves now that Warner Bros. has released the film on DVD.

Warner's disc presents the film uncut and with three alternate endings. Extras include a commentary by author and film historian David J. Skal, a prologue added to the film's theatrical re-release and a documentary chronicling the making of "Freaks" and the lives of its cast members.

The DVD retails for $19.97.

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