not in our stars, but in ourselves
Everyone knows Freaks (1932). Even if you’ve never seen it, even if you never want to see it, you know it. “Oh, yeah! That black & white movie about the sideshow people!” Something like that. Its reputation precedes it. It is the cultest of cult classics, the kind of film made for midnight screenings at your friendly local arthouse cinema every Halloween.
The plot, such as it is, goes like this: at a circus sideshow, horrified patrons gather around some sort of freak. The emcee assures them all that once, she was so beautiful and adored that men killed themselves for her sake. In a flashback, we meet Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a lovely trapeze artist. From behind a curtain, two members of the sideshow – Hans (Harry Earles) and Frieda (Daisy Earles) – watch her. Hans is entranced. Frieda is skeptical. They are both little people, and planning to marry each other. But Frieda sees the way Hans looks at Cleopatra, “the most beautiful big woman” he’s ever seen, and she knows he’s got it bad. Cleopatra decides to toy with Hans’s affections, first for her own amusement, and then for financial gain. Hans happens to be rich, even though he subjects himself to the degrading life of a sideshow freak, and Cleopatra decides that she and her bum of a boyfriend, strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), will get that money. She thus seals their doom, because the freaks do not take kindly to outsiders taking advantage of them.
The film that we have now is missing quite a lot, because after MGM (yes, that MGM, the MGM of Garbo and Gable, was responsible for this mad romp through the circus) studio bigwigs saw what director Tod Browning had done, they cut about half an hour from the film. That missing footage is most likely gone forever, so we have just over an hour of Freaks to watch now.
The love triangle, or quadrangle, is obviously not the point. The point is the title: “nature’s mistakes,” as some especially cruel promotional materials referred to the sideshow performers. Browning intended to make them extremely sympathetic, and to make many of the “normal” humans morally repugnant, but that doesn’t matter. We still have scenes, entirely unnecessary to the advancement of the so-called plot, where we don’t have much else to do but gawk at these people. There’s Prince Randian, a limbless man known as The Human Torso. There’s Josephine Joseph, who is male on one side and female on the other. There’s Johnny Eck, a man with no legs who gets around (quite speedily) on his hands. There’s Koo Koo the Bird Girl. There’s a Bearded Lady. There’s Schlitzie, a very good-natured microcephalic. And so on, and so forth. When Cleopatra connives her way into matrimony with Hans, the freaks chant the now-iconic “Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us, one of us.” Regardless of whether or not Browning meant it, the effect is uncanny.
Is it exploitative? Obviously, that’s my take on it. I am willing to be proven wrong, but it strikes me as little better than a minstrel show. You may remember that I wasn’t particularly impressed by Browning’s Dracula (1931), so I wonder if he just wasn’t that good of a director. Maybe he was just saddled with terrible actors, over and over. Not that you can go into something like Freaks expecting to see Olivier and Streep, but the performances (and the dialogue) are just dismal. Baclanova speaks in the same stilted, apparently phonetic English as Bela Lugosi. The Earleses were actually brother and sister, so it makes sense that the love between them rings false. Most of the other freaks have precious little acting to do, since they’re mostly there to be stared at. Victor, playing a strongman with impressive looking limbs and a rock-hard beer belly, is slightly better than Baclanova. The other two “normals” in the cast, Venus (Leila Hyams) and Phroso (Wallace Ford), are okay.
I’ve probably seen this movie too many times, since the only place it’s more popular than midnight screenings is in university film classes. It does not, in my opinion, improve on repeat viewings. If Irving Thalberg hadn’t eviscerated the original 90-minute cut of the film, maybe it would rise higher in my estimation. But I doubt it. It’s shoddily made, with a terrible script, and a questionable premise. It was too bizarre even for pre-Code filmgoers, and you know what? That’s my yardstick. If they didn’t get it in the early 1930s, I probably don’t want to get it now. Just leave me my Lubitsch, and take your Freaks elsewhere.