Freaks (1932)

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  • directed by Tod Browning
  • starring Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Henry Victor, Roscoe Ates, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles
  • The physically deformed “freaks” are honorable and trusting people, while the real monsters are two of the “normal” members of the circus who conspire to murder one of performers to obtain his large inheritance.

“We accept you, one of us. Gobble Gobble!”

The entirety of Freaks, outside of the main story of Cleopatra’s betrayal of Hans, is a quiet portrait of sideshow freaks as they deal with relationship troubles or just simply hang out. It is endlessly captivating and there needn’t have been a plot at all. Among the real life characters featured as freaks were: the human skeleton Peter Robinson; the bearded lady Olga Roderick; the armless wonders Frances O’Connor and Martha Morris; conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton; microcephalics Elvira, Jenny Lee Snow, and Simon Metz; half man half woman Josephine Joseph; the legless Johhny Eck; the limbless Prince Randian; Elizabeth Green the Stork Woman; and Koo Koo the Bird Girl.

Each of these characters showed a ton of warmth and personality that makes you really wonder about the nature of the sideshow business and how they feel about being put on display. That isn’t the side of the circus that Tod Browning is interested in showing us, however, instead we see things like the bearded lady giving birth to her daughter, one half of the conjoined twins arguing with her sister’s husband as if by being there all the time grants her some kind of claim to their relationship, the limbless Prince Randian rolling a cigarette and lighting it with a match all with his mouth, one of the armless girls drinks and eats with her feet, and so on and on. We don’t see them perform for a rude, heckling audience, but each gets the chance to showcase their talents behind the scenes for us.

It’s a tight knit community of friends, but their dark sides are awakened when one of their own, Hans, is discovered to have been poisoned. The stormy wagon fight at the end, in which Hercules is unable to walk, putting him on their level and under attack by a crawling, weapon-wielding mob is a crazy scene, but apparently it was the G-rated version. Browning’s original cut, which featured Hercules being forecefully castrated, was even more harsh. We see the end result of what they did to Cleopatra—limbs burned into something resembling duck feet and permanent tarring and feathering on her torso—but the surviving cut of the movie also keeps that attack hidden. It would have been interesting to see more of the scarred yet lovable friends we’re introduced to transforming into such vengeful and dangerous creatures, but damn, from the description of the footage, Browning, whose career was completely derailed after the release of Freaks, really went out in a blaze of glory.

What we’re left with is a cursory look at the sideshow phenomenon. We never get into the heads of why they do what do or how it makes them feel, but Browning did a great job at toying with our perceptions of who, in the end, are freaks after all. Is it the child born with a deformity, the adult who grows to turn that deformity into a skill, or the “normal” folks who pay money to harass and belittle.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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