Freaks, a 1932 film about disfigured circus performers, makes us wonder whether it was more disturbing when it was originally released or in today's atmosphere of hyper-political correctness. It's easy to take offense at the movie; sensitive viewers could take away warehouses full of offense. The film's surface message is that freaks should stick to their own kind, and that they can be vindictive when crossed. The exploitation aspects are also readily apparent, especially when one considers that the performers are actual circus freaks. The film constantly reminds us that these poor souls are markedly, pathetically different from the rest of humanity.
But with the exception of the film's final scenes, the freaks are always the victims of "popular" people, represented by two "normal" circus performers. Cleopatre ("The queen of the air," played as a cackling shrew by Olga Baclanova) and the strong man Hercule (Henry Victor), represent mainstream humanity with menacing leers inherited from the pantomimes of silent films that were not so far gone. With the inclusion of such broadly evil characters, this film sticks up for the little guy, and often for the guy without arms and legs too.
Before the movie get ready to read. The film opens with a long opening crawl, which we will reprint in its entirety. (With our own comments, of course.)
Before proceeding with the showing of the following HIGHLY UNUSUAL VISUAL ATTRACTION. a few words should be said about the amazing subject matter:
In ancient times anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill-luck or representative of evil. Gods of misfortune and adversities were invariably cast in the form of monstrosities, and deeds of injustice and hardship have been attributed to the many crippled and deformed tyrants of Europe and Asia.
(Of course, American political leaders are strapping, virile examples of humanity. It really doesn't need to be stated.)
HISTORY, RELIGION, FOLKLORE and LITERATURE abound in tales of misshapen misfits who have altered the world's course. GOLIATH, CALABAN, FRANKENSTEIN, GLOUCESTER, TOM THUMB, and KAISER WILHELM are just a few, whose fame is worldwide.
(We're glad to see that the confusion between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster is not a recent phenomena, but was full in force a mere year after Boris Karloff made the Universal version of the monster famous. We suspect this whole thing was written quickly, and evidence suggests the crawl was added to the movie at the last minute to add some kind moral context to the proceedings. Caliban is misspelled, and the inclusion of defeated war enemy Wilhelm seems petty.)
The accident of abnormal birth was considered a disgrace and malformed children were placed out in the elements to die. If, perchance, one of these freaks of nature survived, he was always regarded with suspicion. Society shunned him because of his deformity, and a family so hampered was always ashamed of the curse put upon it.
(Today that curse has a name: Jerry Springer.)
"I'll get Dick Tracy this time for sure!"
Occasionally one of these unfortunates was taken to court to be jeered at or ridiculed for amusement of the nobles. Others were left to eke out a living by begging, stealing or starving.
(This is another good description of the Jerry Springer Show. )
For 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. The majority of freaks, themselves, are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions. Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one.
They are forced into the most unnatural of lives. Therefore they have built up among themselves a code of ethics to protect them from the barbs of other people.
Their rules are rigidly adhered to and the hurt of one is the hurt of all; the joy of one is the joy of all. The story about to be retold is a story based on the effect of this code upon their lives.
Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.
(Considering the time frame, this is probably a reference to eugenics.)
Look Who's Talking VIII.
With humility for the many injustices done to such people (they have no power to control their lot) we present the most startling horror story of THE ABNORMAL and THE UNWANTED.
The plot of Freaks is not terribly complicated, which is fine because it doesn't need to be. Quite nearly all the characters in the movie work for a circus that travels around France. Two of the resident freaks, dwarfs named Hans (Harry Earles) and Frieda (Daisy Earles), are engaged to marry, but Cleopatre catches Hans' eye. Hans gives Cleo expensive presents and spurns the company of Frieda for the attentions of this big woman who makes him feel like a man. Things take a sinister turn when Cleo finds out that Hans is actually the heir to a large fortune, and she plots to marry the infatuated freak and then kill him on their wedding night.
This is barely 15 minutes of plot at best. Even at a running time of less than seventy minutes, numerous subplots are needed to fill things out. The least interesting of these is the love story between the "normal' circus performers Froso (Wallace Ford) and Venus (Leila Hyams). Froso is a clown, which makes him much more of a freak in our eyes than the Bearded Woman or the Half-Woman, Half Man. He wasn't born a scary freak; he chose it as a profession.
Some of the weirdest sequences in the movie feature conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. The joke here is that Daisy is married to a man Violet doesn't like. Meanwhile another man is courting Violet, and everyone involved seems to be ignoring the obvious logistical improbabilities this situation engenders.
The single most disturbing scene in our eyes is one in which The Living Torso (a man with no arms, legs, or much of anything else) lights a cigarette without benefit of limbs. It's a fascinating performance involving his lips, teeth, tongue and chin, but that's not the scary part. The scary part is that it's a hand... rolled... cigarette!
Freaks is best known for the wedding feast sequence. On the evening that Cleopatre and Hans tie the knot, the circus freaks welcome Cleo into the "family" by passing a loving cup and chanting some famous lines:
Why the remake of Fantasy Island failed.
One of us
One of us
We accept her
We accept her
One of us
One of us
Cleopatre, horrified at her newfound status as a freak, tips her hand a bit by banishing the assembled rejects from her presence. Shortly thereafter, she poisons Hans and continues to do so under the guise of treating his "illness."
Fortunately, Frieda and Venus are aware of Cleo's plans. The freaks organize into cinema's most frightening posse to deal with the threat of this trapeze artist and her henchman. The final fate of Cleopatre is good old-fashioned nightmare fuel, guaranteed to send small children from the room in hysterics. Not even the schmaltzmeisters at Disney could turn this story into an animated family musical (although they came close enough with that Hunchback movie).
Freaks is fascinating on many levels: the voyeuristic appeal of its grotesque subjects, the behind-the-scenes look at vintage circus life, the mannerisms and social interactions of movie characters in the 1930s. But the uniqueness of Freaks comes from the fact that the players are real: you can't play at being a pinhead, at least not without serious computer-generated help that wasn't available when this movie was made. Thanks to improved medical science and the fact that the carninval freak show has all but dissapeared, so the chance to see deformities like this is especially rare. It doesn't matter that some of the freaks aren't particularly good actors, or that the Earles' speech can be difficult to understand; their very appearance lends the story an authenticity unmatched by any modern visual trickery.
For all the deformity on screen, however, it is all too obvious that the freaks are people. In addition, they are usually more humane than most of their "normal" counterparts. These outcasts mirror the rejection we all feel at one time or another in our lives, and they remind us that kindness and loyalty will always be more valuable human traits than mere physical beauty.