Sunday, January 30, 2011

#177. Freaks (1932)

Directed By: Tod Browning

Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova

Tag line: "The Strangest... The Most Startling Human Story Ever Screened... Are You Afraid To Believe What Your Eyes See?"

Trivia:  Myrna Loy, originally slated for the Olga Baclanova role, turned down the part because she felt the script was offensive

Director Tod Browning, who at 16 ran away to join the circus, came to love the "Big Top" and all the excitement it had to offer. With his 1932 film Freaks, Browning wanted to show the world a slice of circus life few on the outside had ever seen: the camaraderie and close-knit relationships that formed among the sideshow attractions, sometimes referred to as "freaks". 

But the world as it existed in 1932 wasn’t ready for Browning’s film. Freaks was reviled by audiences and critics alike. 

Hans (Harry Earles), a circus performer who stands less than three feet tall, has fallen in love with trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who is twice his size. Cleopatra initially laughs off Hans’ advances, but changes her tune when she hears that he's about to inherit a large fortune. 

It doesn't take long for Cleopatra to seduce Hans, and soon the two are married. With the help of her secret lover, Hercules the Strong Man (Henry Victor), Cleopatra plans to knock off her new husband and collect his inheritance. But when she humiliates Hans in public, Cleopatra incites the ire of the other circus ‘freaks’, who are only too happy to intercede on Hans' behalf. 

It’s easy to see why Freaks was a bit much for an audience in 1932. Along with the appearance of such sideshow performers as the bearded lady (Olga Roderick), the half-man/half-woman (Josephine Joseph) and the human skeleton (Peter Robinson), we also meet the Half-Boy (Johnny Eck) who was born without legs; and the ‘living torso’ (Prince Randian), who had no limbs whatsoever. There are other “oddities” as well, like "pinheads", conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) and a girl with no arms (Martha Morris) who has to eat every meal with her feet. 

Yet while these characters are certainly unusual, I don't believe it was Browning's intention to simply exploit their various deformities (a charge leveled against him by many of his contemporaries). On the contrary, I get the distinct impression that a mutual respect had developed between the director and his sideshow subjects, and I'm convinced that Browning's ultimate goal was to paint them in a sympathetic light. How did he do this? By making the ‘freaks’ the true heroes of his story, and the so-called ‘normal’ characters, who lie, cheat and steal their way through the film, the monsters. 

Upon its release in 1932, critics attacked Freaks unmercifully. The Atlanta Journal wrote that it “transcends the fascinatingly horrible, leaving the spectator appalled”, and its “shocking nature” resulted in the film being banned in many states. Ultimately, audiences could not accept Browning's vision, and I truly believe 'acceptance' is what the director was after. Browning set out to show us the inner decency, even the humanity of this special group of performers, men and women who were dealt a blow by life, yet were coping with it, eking out a living the only way possible. 

Browning was able to see past their deformities.  Alas, he was the only one who could.


Anonymous said...

I know on the cast you said you haven't seen any of the remade versions, but do you have a sense that you think this will be the best Freaks to watch?

Thank you Shock,

DVD Infatuation said...

@June: Thanks so much for the comment, and for stopping by the blog.

While I obviously can't speak to the remakes, I would definitely recommend checking out the original. Aside from breaking new ground, this film also shined a favorable light on the so-called "freaks", whereas the films that followed were definitely more focused on exploiting them.

Thanks for listening, and please keep in touch.

Klaus said...

"the world of 1932 wasn’t quite ready for Browning’s film"

I'm not sure that many people in 2011 are ready for it either.

Freaks is a difficult film to reconcile. There was most certainly a level of exploitation in marketing of this film as a "horror" film, and at the same time, it is a compassionate portrayal of a social cohesiveness community of remarkable people.

DVD Infatuation said...

@Klaus: Yes, I myself can't get past the whole 'horror' classification for this film. As you said, an obvious attempt to drum up some business.

Anonymous said...

I Netflixed Freaks based on your Chills segment and was surprised to see Olga Baclanova who was a beautiful woman and was in one of my best horror movies of alltime called the Man who laughs. I think it is from 1929 or there abouts if you haven't heard of it I do recommend it myself. Nice choice on Freaks.

DVD Infatuation said...

Hello, and thanks for the comment.

I've heard of THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, and was actually reminded of it again when watching the bonus features on the FREAKS DVD (which talks briefly of Baclanova's career in films). It's a movie that I regret to say I have not yet seen, but hopefully I can change that in the near future.

Glad you enjoyed FREAKS. Thanks again for the comment, and for listening to Planet Macabre.

Anonymous said...

whut a disturbng movie almost getz u sick in the stomach

for your readerz/listeners google vid has this availble in entirty over hear

keep the classix rolling in, i do presume the blog owner dave is dr shiock?


DVD Infatuation said...

@hensfeeld: Hello, and thanks for the comment, and also for posting the link.

Yes, you are correct. I'm Dr. Shock on Planet Macabre. And I promise I'll do my best to keep the classics coming!

Thanks again

Anonymous said...

Just watched this online via the link someone posted and it was a good movie. I totally see what you meant on the podcast about highlighting the freaks. That's why it got banned in certain locales I am sure.

Scranton, PA

DVD Infatuation said...

@Laticia: Hello, and thanks for stopping by. Always nice to hear from a fellow Pennsylvanian!

I'm glad you enjoyed the movie, and yes, the time that was dedicated to the so-called "freaks" is definitely what turned people off back in the day (even though the director's intention was to humanize them, people just weren't buying it).

Thanks for listening, and have a great day.

Anonymous said...

found you at the macab pod and am up to thiz ep you rec this + thez moviez get under my skin with real peops wit aflictionz + was scary in the pov of knowing peopz are like this + gotz a few more eps to get thru until currentz

DVD Infatuation said...

Thanks for stopping by!

I'm glad you're enjoying the Planet Macabre podcast, as well as my recommendations. It certainly means a lot to me. We'll have a new episode posted this Sunday.

Thanks again for the comment, and for listening to Planet Macabre.

Chris said...

Freaks really was impressive and creepy even today, I guess if the "freaks" agreed to be in it, then they were not exploited. Just look at dwarfs in movies today, they can make quite a career out of it!

By the way, I noticed the Blondie song Good Boys might have been inspired by the 1932 film, check it out here:

DVD Infatuation said...

@moviesnadsongs365: "Exploited" is always a tough one to define. I definitely feel that Browning was not out to simply "exploit" these characters; he felt a genuine connection with them thanks to his years in the circus. Some of the so-called "freaks", however, would come out against the film in later years, and felt they were most definitely exploited.

Regardless, it is a film that has retained it's ability to shock an audience, even today.

I'll check out that video as well. Thanks for the link.

kim the hippie said...

Funny thing about that movie. My mother had run away from home at 14 and where did she end up but working for a circus and it was the one with all the people who you see in this film. True story.

DVD Infatuation said...

@Kim: Very interesting! Sound slike she'd have some interesting stories to tell. What was her take on the movie?

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! I appreciate it.