(USA - 1932)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Olga Baclanova, Henry Victor, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams
Genre: Horror/Drama
Director: Tod Browning
Screenplay: Al Boasberg, Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, & Edgar Allan Woolf based on Tod Robbins novel Spurs
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Composer: ?
Runtime: 64 minutes

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"The love of beauty is a deep seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization. The revulsion with which we view the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated is the result of long conditioning by our forefathers" - excerpt from Freaks prologue

The greatest problem that humanity constantly faces is difference being met with superiority rather than tolerance. People fight because they believe their race, government, or religion is better than someone else's is. Often their leaders are actually fighting for personal gain, but they'll bury that under one of the aforementioned premises and get away with it because there's so much irrational hate and intolerance in the world that their minions won't see through them. Such intolerance exists because it's been passed down from generation to generation. Children may notice certain differences, but their relationships aren't torn apart until someone older informs them of the "flaws" of those they are playing with.

The least tolerated of humanity is the freak. The obvious reason is that they are the most physically different, but I'm not sure it's the biggest. They don't have their own homeland, so there's no safe haven and no representation in any government. Wherever they go, they are greatly outnumbered and thus made fun of, taken advantage of, or usually both. Their "opportunity" was to exploit themselves, have a "normal" person say give me your money so you can look at these freaks. Now we live in a politically correct society where that type of exploitation has largely been done away with, but what real opportunity has replaced it? Now they are called "special", but does anyone actually believe it?

Tod Browning was a director that had some understanding of the freaks. His first experience in filmmaking was assisting overrated D.W. Griffith, maker of the most famous and heralded racist prattle of all time, The Birth of a Nation, on Intolerance. Prior to this, at the age of 16, Browning ran away from home to join the circus. It was these experiences that he drew upon for his films The Show, The Unknown, and Freaks.

Technically, Griffith was one of the revolutionaries and a much better filmmaker than Browning, whose work was generally static, stilted, stagnant, flat, and melodramatic. What makes Browning's film superior to that sickness our pitiful AFI honors among the "100 greatest" is that Browning eschews things like Griffith's sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan, and instead makes an open letter for universal equality. Nonetheless, his film was banned in Great Britain until 1963.

Browning was able to make Freaks because his previous film, 1931's Dracula, was a huge box office success. It paled in comparison to the great F.W. Murnau's 1922 version, having none of the marvelous imagery & atmosphere, and badly missing the innate creepiness of Max Schreck, but is still considered a classic because, you know, the only thing worse than the chore of reading a film while it's going on is one where you have to read the intertitles. Still, it's much better than Coppola's 1992 version, even though Francis proved, after almost 30 years, that he did realize the camera could be moved. Anyway, Browning could have made another marketable blockbuster, but instead opted to make one of the most unique and unusual films ever to come out of Hollywood.

That Freaks was released by MGM is really hard to believe. It was released the same year their useless Grand Hotel won the bogus Academy Award for Best Picture, showing they were just as clueless in the early days. Such generic pictures showed zero creativity or purpose in the writing, and zero style in the directing and cinematography. These "minor" aspects just existed so the stars could be showcased in some phony glamorous idealistic world. Still, we were supposed to feel sorry for poor Garbo because she "vants to be alone." The critic David Kehr described MGM's "dazzling parade of star iconography" as being "like jewels mounted in a deliberately neutral display case." Whether it was the intention or not, Freaks seems to be a veiled condemnation of the entertainment industry. What industry is more superficial, more about looks than talent, and more about marketing and image than merit and worth?

Browning helped kill his box office potential by casting his film with real circus performing freaks. He did this at a time when there was no authenticity in American cinema. Even today Hollywood won't let minorities (other than blacks, but as a group they pretty much only get genre material) and foreigners tell their own story, instead opting to have one note actors like Nicholas Cage help kill the films. It's all about making money, now more than ever with Hollywood putting out nothing even remotely controversial so they can mass market to everyone, and an unrealistic phony big name will always mean far more box office. 1932 was, however, well before the names even tried to look and sound the part. The freaks certainly aren't the greatest actors, or in many cases even average, but they are 100,000 times more believable than the performances in so called classics like The Mortal Storm where James Stewart stars as a German with his famous Southern drawl. This is not to say that you always need someone of the real condition or nationality to play the part. I love Jennifer Connelly as a Chilean journalist turned freedom fighter in Of Love and Shadows even if the rest of the film totally lets her down, and Merly Streep always supplies a great accent even if Sophie's Choice is no better, an impressive 10 minute short with a pointless 2 hours and 20 minutes pasted before it. However, there are plenty of examples where a great actor is just terrible and lacking all credibility, like Sean Penn in I Am Sam, of course Oscar nominated. What's important about Browning's choice is that it's almost the entire cast. You come to identify with a group of people you wouldn't otherwise see, rather than with the iconography of a bunch of famous actors trying (at least in theory) to break type.

I'm not sure if I see the stutterer as lame because he's just not funny or because there's no shock in hearing a stutterer. What the film makes me realize is how little we've progressed in 70 years. Out of all the abnormalities and deformations shown here, the stutterer is the only one that's been somewhat accepted. Certainly a lot of the problem is we never even see any of the other types outside of some form of freak show. If we have seen them, they certainly weren't presented as "heroes". I don't buy into that whole look up to them because they are rich and famous bit, but having favorites that were from other countries, races, religions, and so on is what led to me accepting these people as a whole. My family is pretty racist, but what would I be other than a hypocrite if I called the guy down the street a nigger when my favorite athletes were Marcus Allen, Dominique Wilkins, David Robinson, Rickey Henderson, and so on? The stutterers' had Bo Jackson, but can anyone name a real pinhead?

The film is compelling for both the right and wrong reasons. The early portion can be dull because you are probably too distracted looking at these people you've never seen before. There's always that certain shock and curiosity toward seeing something new that occurs before you decide if you like it and/or want to see it again. The gamble of the film is that you'll stick with it long enough for the right reasons to take over and start seeing past their condition rather than leaving the theater and continuing to be just as close minded.

MGM head Louis B. Mayer hated the idea of Freaks from the outset, and liked the finished product that much less. It was only made because their #2 man, Irving Thalberg, was a Browning fan. Thalberg lured him from Universal after Dracula and let him do what he wanted. Unfortunately, the film was almost universally reviled, leading to meddling by people who didn't like or understand the film to begin with. Freaks was reported cut from 90 minutes to 64 after preview audiences hated it, with this footage being lost forever. One can only guess whether many of the problems with the character development, particularly the two good normal characters Venus (Leila Hyams) and Phrozo the Clown (Wallace Ford), was the fault of Browning of the hatchet job. Reviews understood nothing, attacking Browning for exploiting the Freaks. The film was pulled from the theater after two weeks, and after Thalberg's death in 1936, Mayer removed the MGM name and sold the rights to an independent distributor.

Part of the misunderstanding involving Freaks was that MGM had no clue how to market it. Their promotion of the film was no different than the promotion of the freak show. When one can only see freaks, not people, then the oddity and abnormality can be the only purpose. Instead of clueing the potential audience in that the film was going to be sympathetic, to show malformed human beings in a more positive light, they came up with such gems as "Can a full grown woman truly love a MIDGET?" and "We'll Make Her One of Us!' from the gibbering mouths of these weird creatures came this frenzied cry... no wonder she cringed in horror... this beautiful woman who dared toy with the love of one of them!"

Obviously, these brilliant ad writers didn't even watch the film. A key reason people dislike this film is that it's filled with freaks and the normal people are the bad guys. Typically, there's only one "special" creature and, even if some humans are out to get them, there is a whole group or family of good normal people to protect them. Usually, the "special" creature is something that doesn't even exists, so it's a clear story of good vs. evil with the audience being able to take the high moral ground of supporting this creature they'll never actually be confronted with in real life. There's no way in hell a mediocre film like E.T. would be so popular if it had a genuine oddity and was made legitimately rather than as a myth with a 5-year-old's mentality and ability to penetrate that still doesn't curtail Spielbum's innate tendency to be incredibly overwrought. What Browning has done here is make us uncomfortable by putting us in the wrong. He's rubbing our faces in some of the awful practices of our superficial normal society. It sounds weird, but it's more comfortable to watch something where your kind is persecuted because you are the good guy and in the right. Instead, Browning is asking us to be sickened by our own people, who in most cases represent ourselves.

A key spot where the film goes wrong is that it simply doesn't know what it wants to do with the couple normal people that are good. I think it wants to avoid pigeonholing the normal people as bad and to say that that everyone can indeed interact normally. However, it's message gets muddled with them associating full grown freaks with children and not being able to do much to protect them in order for the freaks revenge to come off as justified. It seems to ultimately assert separateness, a together but apart type of relationship, especially in its pathetic "happy" ending that was deleted then unfortunately restored.

The basic plot, which is foolishly told through a flashback structure that takes away much suspense in favor of predictability, has the midget Hans (Harry Earles), engaged to fellow midget sideshow ringmaster Frieda (his real life sister Daisy Earles), daring to love the "beautiful" normal trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) instead. Cleopatra pretends to love him, but really loves the normal and equally despicable strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). These two are rotten and greedy to the core, with Cleo taking Hans gifts and leading him on so he'll give more, while behind his back they're laughing their asses off both together and with some of the other normals. When the loving Frieda eventually confronts Cleo, begging her not to take this joke any further, she accidentally reveals that Hans has inherited a fortune. This leads to Cleo marrying Hans for his money with the idea that she'll kill him immediately.

The first half of the film is rather dull because Browning doesn't exploit the freaks. The film would certainly be far more entertaining if we saw them in sideshow action, but his goal is to make the audience understand that the freaks are human beings. Thus, their daily routine is just as boring to an outsider as yours or mine. They aren't just like anyone else physically, but they find a way to do the same necessary and unnecessary activities. This is why Browning shows scenes he was criticized for like the woman with no arms drinking or the "living torso" lighting his own cigarette.

The two key facts we learn about the freaks are that they have a real sense of community and they follow their own code to protect them from the barbs of normal people. Joy and sorrow are mutually shared, as they appear to have almost a common feeling. Well, perhaps the biggest fact we learn is that they are indeed human, but that should have long been obvious. Where it's important is that makes them prone to human weakness, such as seeking revenge and acting inhumanly.

The heart of the film, one of its two great scenes and where it really starts getting good after some weak character development and meandering scenes, is the wedding banquet. Hans thinks nabbing a big woman makes him normal, a real man, but to everyone else it only makes his abnormal shortness stand out. Things are fine when the freaks and normals are in competition, with the normal putting a sword into his mouth and the freak countering by swallowing fire. Where the difference is shown is that Cleo kisses Hercules in front of her new husband and laughs at him for being jealous. Meanwhile, the freaks chant, "Gooble, gobble, We accept her, we accept her, One of us, one of us" and offer a communal toast. She can't accept them; she can only exploit them. She totally loses it because she realizes it's no longer a joke and being with a freak makes you a freak. In an attempt to remain different and retreat to her usual anti-social ways, she douses a dwarf with the alcohol, calls them "dirty, slimy freaks" and orders them to leave. Hans finally realizes what his wife is and tells her she makes him ashamed, but she's unfazed. Hercules puts Hans on Cleo's shoulders and she bounces around the table, once again amusing herself by treating him as less than a man.

The other great scene is the freaks' revenge for Cleo trying to kill Hans through poisoning, which takes place at night during a torrential downpour. This is one of the greatest horror scenes, understanding that doing it slowly builds anticipation and helplessness is incredibly terrifying, even if it's the bad guys that are helpless. This is one of the scenes where Browning supposedly exploited the freaks, but by shooting them as something less than human crawling, even slithering, through the mud it shows not that they are inhuman but that like everyone else circumstances can lead to them acting as such. This is even an expertly framed sequence, making them seem larger and more powerful than ever before. That said, their lack of overall size actually helps them because they are able to take the direct route to the wounded Hercules, crawling under the wagons rather than walking around them and losing sight of him. Just a creepy, creepy scene that has been a great inspiration to directors in the genre.

The key to the final horrifying scene is that there's strength in numbers. For once, the numbers are on the freak's side. What they do can't be condoned, but one also can't expect the freaks to hold themselves to a higher standard in hopes that the world will finally wake up to judging by character rather than appearance. Their act is understandable because society has forever made them outcasts rather than doing anything to help them. After so much ridicule, you start to act like the grotesque monsters, the dirty slimy freaks people say you are.

One interesting aspect of the film is how people see it as a horror. Many people don't consider it a true horror because there is only one specific horror scene at the end. By this reading, the freaks are the horrifying ones, just as society has always seen them. However, I believe this misses the point of the film. The true horror is in Cleo and Hercules treating the freaks, specifically lovestruck Hans, as objects of derision. It's the everyday horror, the mocking, the ridicule, and the feeling of worthlessness they instill. It's that they'd kill him for his money without even considering it the murder of a human being. Their actions aren't played as horror, but that doesn't make them any less horrifying. The horror is within.



* Copyright 2002 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *