Diamond in the Rough
Tod Browning's "Freaks"
By Dan Schneider
May 2, 2006

Tod Browning’s 1932 cult classic film Freaks is not what most people seem to think it is. It is neither a blatantly exploitative film nor a film of profound compassion. Of all of his films, silent or not, it is in many ways both his most artlessly produced yet also his most indelible -- even more so than Dracula, which came out a year before. Most of all, though, it is not a horror film. Yes, it is horrifying to look at the poor characters onscreen, and the film has the exterior trappings of a horror film, in terms of mood and sets, but the film is really about the human desire for love, and the often impotent pursuit of it. Even the "normal" people in the film are not able to achieve real love.

The tale of the film is almost as well known as the tale within the film. The exterior story is how the film was critically lambasted, after MGM's decisions led to its demotion from a film with A List  stars (Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow) to a B List film Irving Thalberg couldn’t stand (reputedly exclaiming, "Well, I asked for a horror film, and this film is horrible!"). This drubbing by critics and lack of care by the studio led to the film’s poor box office, and its being pulled from circulation for nearly thirty years, after being banned in many cities. However, it did enjoy more success in Europe, which fed its reputation, and a desire to be seen in its natal country by a newer, hipper generation. Then, in the early 1960s, it was pulled out of mothballs stateside and became a hit on the college and late night film circuit under many different titles, including Nature’s Mistakes. In the 1980s, when videotapes of films became popular, rentals and sales cemented its niche as one of the greatest comeback films in Hollywood history. Not even the much documented travails of It’s A Wonderful Life could compare with what Freaks had to endure to attain its status as a classic. 

But, classic does not always equal great, nor masterpiece -- two terms that are now often associated with the film. That’s because the interior story of the film, and its execution, simply do not hold up well. The basic tale is about a carnival full of human oddities, and how the strongman (Henry Victor) and female acrobat (Olga Baclanova) plot to steal the fortune of the star attraction -- a midget named Hans (Harry Earles), by having her marry him, then killing him. The other freaks find out the truth about what is going on, then conspire to foil the plot, killing the strongman and making a freak out of the acrobat. There are some funny scenes, some touching scenes, but the truth is that most of the freaks -- be they the human worm, the dwarves, the pinheads, the hermaphrodite (Josephine Joseph), the human skeleton (Peter Robinson), the Siamese Twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton), etc., simply are not good actors, Often they are merely reading their lines, and you can see them do so. The actual tale, too, much bowdlerized to conform with mounting political pressure on pre-Movie Code Hollywood to put out decent entertainment (the more things change, eh?), is so disjunct -- even aside from the non-acting by the freaks, and the over-acting by the normal people (especially Baclanova), that any claims to cinematic greatness as a film are utterly laughable.

Even the basic things, such as the lighting, cinematography, and framing of shots are very poor. As a sociological event, though, the gathering of so many real human freaks for one purpose is invaluable. The truth is that most carnivals never had nearly as many freaks in one show, so seeing so many freaks cope with their difficulties, and each other, does provide some interesting viewing moments, considering that sideshows, as that depicted, are almost all gone nowadays. Never again will there be a sense of what that bygone era was like.

Especially weak is the ending,  which follows the revelation of the freakization of the female acrobat, where Hans, after playing the pint-sized Godfather, in ordering the two scheming normal folk be "taken out" by his freakish assassins, is reduced to blubbering over his own criminal guilt. Then, fade to black, as this brief hour and two minute film ends. 

As for the features on the DVD, there are three alternate endings, which document just how abused this film was, and to what lengths the producers went to satisfy censors. There’s also a filmed prologue that was added to the film, to appease some censors. In addition, there is a making of featurette called Freaks: Sideshow Cinema, that documents the lives of the freaks like Prince Randian, the Living Torso; Olga Roderick, the Bearded Lady; Johnny Eck, The Half-Boy; Frances O’Connor and Martha Morris, the armless girls; Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow and Schlitze, the Pinheads; and Elizabeth Green, the Bird Girl, along with those named above, before and after the film, and unsurprisingly, most of the freaks were embittered over the film. There is also a film commentary by David J. Skal, a film historian who authored a book called Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood’s Master of the Macabre. His comments are mostly a perfunctory reading of facts, such as telling us that Harry Earles’ real name was Kurt Schneider. Much of the material and information he provides is also available in the featurette. In short (no pun intended), Freaks is neither bad nor brilliant, nor does it carry any deep nor important message, but it is fascinating to watch, albeit in the way a festering sore, or one insect eating another, can be. Is its depiction of thwarted love, vengeance, and bigotry exploitative? Of course. Is it sympathetic? Yes. The two are not mutually exclusive, and with that knowledge imparted, perhaps Freaks serves its highest, best, and only purpose.



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