WASHINGTON, October 30, 2013 – Tonight on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) we get a relatively rare chance to view Tod Browning’s 1932 cult-classic horror film “Freaks.” Or at least what’s left of the original. Upon its release, this pre-motion picture code movie created an instant scandal not only for its use of actual circus sideshow freaks as regular cast members but also for its gruesome climax.
As a result, the film was almost immediately pulled from circulation. It was actually banned outright in Great Britain for decades. As a result, at least twenty minutes of footage was trimmed from the original and has likely been lost forever. What was left of Browning’s bizarre masterpiece began a new life almost surreptitiously, being viewed here and there in out-of-the-way theaters across the country and in screenings at actual traveling sideshows, carrying with it a kind of “forbidden fruit” appeal.
Somewhere, somehow in the 1960s, “Freaks” was rediscovered by a new generation, among them likely the same pot-smoking contingent that also made the 1936 cautionary “Reefer Madness” popular once again. Edgy and weird even in its insanely censored final version, “Freaks” and its obvious flouting of societal conventions appealed to the counterculture audience as well, gaining something of a cult following in the U.S. during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The movie was eventually chosen to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry, and has been ranked as number 15 on Bravo’s list of its 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
Director Tod Browning originally earned his spurs by working effectively with famed movie star and horror film actor Lon Chaney during the silent era. As movies moved into the so-called “talkie” era, his reputation earned him a spot in the director’s chair for a 1931 horror film that’s since become an acknowledged classic: the one, the only, the original “Dracula,” starring the then-unknown, creepily exotic, East European stage actor Bela Lugosi in the title role.
Arguably, the success of Universal’s “Dracula” was what gave Browning a freer hand to put together a new horror film for rival studio MGM which was eager to throw its hat in the horror ring.
Browning persuaded the studio to make use of its rights to an existing short story whose plot was similar to what would eventually become “Freaks”—a property Browning himself had persuaded the studio to pick up back when he worked for them in the late 1920s. Script writers re-worked the story almost completely while MGM looked about for potential cast members, ultimately choosing to forego their regular stable of marquee names and go with a cast of relative unknowns including, at Browning’s insistence, the casting of actual circus sideshow freaks in major parts.
Browning himself in his younger years had been part of a traveling circus troupe and was well acquainted with these sideshow types, having developed sympathy and affection for them, regarding them as decent human beings afflicted, through no fault of their own, with various physical deformities that unfairly made them outcasts of society, almost forcing many of them to take up circus and carnival sideshows as the only employment opportunities available to them.
In “Freaks,” it was his ironic intent to show that his cast of so-called freaks were, in fact, the normal, decent human beings while the normal human beings were really the uncaring monsters. The film’s scary climax tends to turn this equation on its ear a bit as the freaks turn on their “normal” victimizers with murderous intent. And yet, in fairness, we might term their vigilante attitude today as “justifiable homicide.”
Audiences and censors, though, were highly, or at least publicly, offended by it all. “Freaks” was exiled from normal distribution, heads rolled at MGM, damaging, albeit temporarily, even the legendary career of Irving Thalberg who had green lighted Browning’s film.
Browning himself was effectively blacklisted from directing major motion pictures. After directing an occasional potboiler, the embittered director formally retired from his profession in the late 1930s.
The plot of “Freaks” is simple enough, reading almost like a fairy tale story line, albeit one that was written by the Brothers Grimm. As we join the film, we are immersed in the lives of members of a traveling circus that consists not only of the usual variety of athletes, acrobats, clowns, and animal trainers, but also of an intrepid band of deformed human beings—some severely retarded, others with missing limbs or other anomalies—who make their living as sideshow exhibits at the circus.
To use a high school metaphor, the “popular kids” in the circus are beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and the brawny circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). The pair are fairly secret lovers. But when they discover that one of the sideshow freaks’ members—the midget Hans (Harry Earles)—is in line for a substantial inheritance, the plot sickens.
Cleopatra flatters and eventually seduces Hans, convincing him to spurn his longtime fiancée and fellow midget Frieda (Daisy Earles) and marry her instead.
Somewhat taken aback by this development, the freak collective nonetheless decides to support Hans and honor Cleopatra by making her an honorary member of their clan during the wedding ceremony, leading up to their now-famous toast: “We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!”
Unfortunately, Cleopatra can only stand so much of this bizarre good cheer. Freaked out (no pun intended) by the ceremony, the enraged, drunken trapeze artist lets out her true feelings, splashing wine into the faces of the celebratory crowd, insulting Hans, and essentially fessing up to her ongoing liaison with Hercules as she stalks out of the party.
Hans dutifully sides with his new bride, blissfully unaware that she has already started poisoning him with an eye toward grabbing his inheritance as early as possible. The money will allow she and Hercules to escape from the circus and lead a life of wealth and privilege.
The freaks, of course, eventually figure out what’s going on and mount a plot to avenge the wrong, leading to a fateful, storm-tossed night during which a unique justice is dispatched. In one of the creepiest sequences in film, even given today’s brilliant array of CGI effects, an array of freaks slowly, carefully stalk both Hercules and Cleopatra, extracting horrific and explicit vengeance, stabbing and castrating Hercules and performing some kind of live surgery on Cleo, transforming her into a bizarre, truncated creature that’s something of a cross between a chicken and a deformed duck.
It’s this explicitness that shocked 1932’s audiences and the censors alike, and for that reason, much of this sequence ended up on the cutting room floor after the film’s initial release, likely lost forever. We’ll likely never get a chance to see most of what was just described, along with other “inappropriate” scenes here and there.
Worse, MGM filmed and then tacked on a somewhat happier ending to the film, revealing Hans retired in a fantastic mansion where his old circus friends are always welcome and where he and Frieda reconcile. “Gooble, gobble.” It’s too bad, but this is what we have left.
Today’s reluctantly accepted version of “Freaks” still remains a strange, creepy horror film whose authenticity and atmosphere has never quite been equaled or excelled. The use of actual circus freaks as stars is still pretty much without precedent, and the film’s ambiguous presentation of these individuals is often disconcerting. They are sympathetic, yes, and we are ashamed of ourselves for considering them to be “freaks.” On the other hand, once they launch their murderous vendetta, we’re not so sure our newly found PC attitudes were well founded after all. It can be upsetting.
More interesting still is the quality and atmosphere of this film in its black and white format. All films were done this way in the early talkie era before color technologies started gaining ground, so the format in itself is scarcely exceptional.
That said, the B&W format adds a splendid starkness and eeriness to the background and atmosphere, much as it does in the Browning-Lugosi “Dracula.” After all these years, the old B&W technology can still prove amazingly haunting and scary, particularly if you catch this film on a dark and stormy night.
Also intriguing are the little vignettes involving the special skill sets of individual freaks that appear throughout this film. Wikipedia’s run down on these cast members is interesting in and of itself:
“Among the characters featured as “freaks” were Peter Robinson (“the human skeleton”); Olga Roderick (“the bearded lady“); Frances O’Connor and Martha Morris (“armless wonders“); and the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Among the microcephalics who appear in the film (and are referred to as “pinheads”) were Zip and Pip (Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow) and Schlitzie, a male named Simon Metz who wore a dress mainly due to incontinence, a disputed claim. Also featured were the intersex Josephine Joseph, with her left/right divided gender; Johnny Eck, the legless man; the completely limbless Prince Randian (also known as The Human Torso, and mis-credited as “Rardion”); Elizabeth Green the Stork Woman; and Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, who had Virchow-Seckel syndrome or bird-headed dwarfism, and is most remembered for the scene wherein she dances on the table.”
Perhaps the niftiest “trick” of all is the Human Torso’s ability to take up, manipulate, light, and then smoke a cigarette deprived though he is of any limb or appendage that might assist in this task. It doesn’t have a thing to do with the film’s plot, of course. On the other hand, it’s certainly a trick that must have been a sideshow draw and also a tribute to the ingenuity of the human mind and spirit even under extreme adversity.
The one drawback many people will find to this film is the somewhat stilted dialogue and its delivery by the cast. The talkies in their early days were still trying to negotiate new artistic territory beyond the conception of a motion picture as simply a filmed stage theatrical production. It’s a problem shared by the earlier “Dracula” as well as the earliest Marx Brothers comedy-musicals. But it’s a relic of its times, and in all these films, we’re still in the early days of this issue’s workout, which was concluded soon enough as the 1930s unfolded and as film became the major entertainment force of its era.
When to watch “Freaks”
It’s Midnite Madness, what else? “Freaks” airs tonight, October 30, at midnight, 12:00 EDT on Turner Classic Movie Channel (TCM), carried by most cable TV systems in the U.S. as part of the basic tier package. Okay, since start time is midnight, this technically makes it the stroke of 12 that begins Halloween Day, October 30. But you get the picture.
It’s pretty good scheduling, too. Why air a cult classic film like “Freaks” during the evening of Halloween when all those little 2013 ghosts, goblins, and Batman wannabes are showing up at our front doors demanding their annual bribes for not rolling our yards? Best to watch “Freaks” uninterrupted by the kids’ annual haunting and candy OD-fest.
For those who simply can’t or won’t stay up this late on a work night, there’s always TiVo or its equivalents.
If you’re really into this film, it’s also out on DVD. What you get is still the same severely edited film, albeit in a nicely restored print. But as an added bonus, the DVD holds an even longer documentary on the film and its history, including stuff on what may or may not have been in the lost portions of the original. It’s the perfect treat for your favorite vintage horror film aficionado. And it doesn’t add to those love handles either, unlike all those leftover Reece’s Pieces in the trick-or-treat bowl.
The DVD is available via TCM and many other outlets.
“Freaks” rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars, but only if you like really weird horror films.)
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.
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