Director Tod Browning, loved and worked at a circus in his youth, he enjoyed and often remarked about the excitement it had to offer, and with success from Dracula (1931) already wanted to show behind the scenes glimpse into this world tricks and talents. He liked the experience to that of movie sets, the friendships and bonding relationships especially, among sideshow attractions aka the freaks. However, for Browning and the studio MGM which released the film, the public didn’t approve of this film, the critics slammed it and cities nationwide banned it, if fact the laws exist on the ledgers, but long since forgotten. Audiences just couldn’t understand and accept these incredible people for them, and doing more, not letting their physical limitations prevent them from enjoying life, others of ‘normal’ society saw them as curses from God and deformities best locked away. Although at the time, circuses and carnivals drew large sizes, so a bit hypocrisy existed in the viewers. Tod hoped that people could see past the physical looks to understand the person, the soul of these great friendly characters, which the movie had real ‘freaks’ in it, sadly many did not. By 1932, films such as Frankenstein (1931) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), which shocked and astonished the viewers, many covering their eyes to the horrors displayed in front of them, the studios wanted more macabre tales to amaze the audiences, of this new genre called horror. Browning, an already accomplished and successful director from past hits of The Unknown (1927) and London After Midnight (1927) – a lost film, and with encouragement of Harry Earles to take a 1923 short story by Tod Robbins called “Spurs” thereby using is a basis for this movie. At the time, Lon Chaney prepared for the movie, but his sudden death caused a bit of panic and tension, however the commitment to the project continued forward, even without any named star attached to the project.
Louis B. Mayer, the MGM studio owner and head of productions tried to cancel the film upon discovering the cast of sideshow entertainers, which simply horrified him. However, producer Irving Thalberg of Universal Studios joined the obscure film and convinced MGM’s Mayer of the merits and possible b-movie options for the movie. Although this continued on a shaky path for the Freaks movie, as a woman who attended a 1932 test screening for the film claimed later that she suffered a miscarriage resulting from the film’s shocking nature, and threatened to sue MGM. It is unknown if a settlement occurred however at the time, this tidbit did find itself used with marketing because the censors and religious predicaments. Upon the release the film suffered enormous criticism and caused a major backlash to film, so much it became a banned movie, the potential sequel scrapped immediately and Tod Browning banished from directing for 3-years, for his disturbing imagery inflicted upon the public and trying to tear down morals. In some cities it enjoyed success but the critics drown the film negativity, forced MGM to pull it quickly, and later selling it to Dwain Esper, a master of marketing exploitation movies. He used his vast array of talents, recreating new titles and understanding the different markets around the country used smaller and lesser-known venues to screen the film. The movie started to create a cult status in 1960s and expounded from there, and in 1994, the film became a classic, earning a place on the National Film Registry.
Freaks known for stagnant camera work, and tight confining sets, and yes, the dialogue well dated still succeeds with its inclusion of classic cinema, with horror implied, than shown, aside the final sequence. The film’s message still reins supremely true today, ‘acceptance for those who seem different’ unfortunately few were willing to accept it, even to this day. Noted director Guillermo del Toro definitely enjoys the many facets of the film, so much that in his famous Bleak House exists full size creation statues of Schlitzie the Pinhead and Koo Koo the Bird Girl, along with Hans and Johnny Eck.
There’s not much of a lot of story, a tale of greed, lust and murder, surrounding a talented performer (who worked with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus ) and stands just over three feet tall Hans (Harry Earles), who’s hopelessly in love with trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova, who personal felt sorry for her shorter in size only cast mates). Cleopatra laughs off Hans’ interest, however changes her mind and actions when she learns, from her ruthless lover Hercules the Strong Man (Henry Victor), Han’s pending inheritance. Nevertheless, another little person performer also finds herself attracted to Hans, Frieda (Daisy Earles) and fears both Cleopatra and Hercules. The roles between Hans and Frieda were quite difficult to perform, as they were real life brother and sister. Cleopatra encouraged Hercules about the killing stating “they (little people) are weak”, words in horror words people tend to later regret, and this time a freakish end. After a brief romance, their bliss connected and a marriage, but she’s has a plan to rid her new husband and spend it with her lover. At a strange and highlighted moment in the film, the dinner celebration, she shows affection for Hercules in front of Hans, and slipping in poison to drink. The old Latin phrase ‘in vino veritas’ translate “in wine, (there’s) truth” Cleopatra’s blurts out her intentions, all while saddening Hans demeanor, which his friends the other so-called ‘freaks’ take no joy in learning of this pain and humiliation. As the festivities at the dinner continue the passing around of drinks, sword swallowing, and fire eating tricks, lead to the disturbing chanting from them to Cleopatra “We Accept Her, One of Us, Gooble Gobble!” The characters definitely fit the category of unusual, although Browning wrongly charged with wanting to exploit their deformities, rather likely wanting to show each as their creator wanted and how they adjust to life itself.
The actors portraying the characters known more on screen as freaks were true people, and hence too much for the viewer of a sheltered life in 1932. A cursory glance of them, included the bearded lady (Olga Roderick), the half-man/half-woman (Josephine Joseph) likely the famous Half-Boy (Johnny Eck) who was born without legs, nothing existing below the waist, but adapting to life by walking on his hands, stunts, and throwing knives. However one cannot look pass the great Prince Randian, ‘The Living Torso’ born with no limbs, was a father, and in the film shows his ability to light a cigarette with his lips and tongue, a habit of lurking in the frightening guests a scary yell. In addition Schlitzie born with microcephaly (smaller head to the size of the body and other features disproportional) and some intellectual disabilities was the most notable in the film though others did exist, and the Siamese twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) conjoined at the pelvis. Lastly, the incredible, Martha Morris, known in the film as Armless Girl, as she did everything with her feet, as her name stated had no arms.
Freaks or the unusual skilled people part of today’s modern sideshows filled with fire breathers and sword swallowers, and some featured in Freakshow (2007) from director Drew Bell, retelling of this film. HBO’s Carnivale (2003-2005) initial conception came from Daniel Knauf noting the treatment of ‘freaks’ and carnivals in general. Later, American Horror Story: Freak Show entered for the 2014 season with an adventure into this territory involving Fräulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities set in 1952, which referenced many of the oddities featured in Browning’s movie. In fact, perhaps Ward Hall might actually be the last event that contains the three categories of ‘Freaks’, which are: “self-made (the tattooed lady), working acts (sword swallowers, fire breathers, knife throwers) and the natural-born” [*1], all included in The World of Wonders Sideshow. The Ripley’s Believe or Not attraction, shows a wonderful insight to this nearing closed-out to the past now that Ringling Brothers Circus shutting down and ending a 146-year run of curious entertainment. Sword swallowers actually featured on America’s got Talent, and even have their own hall of fame, dating back to the Indian Fakirs of 2000 B.C. This reviewer actually saw the legendary sword swallower John Red Lawrence Stuart perform twice at an art event and the Terror Film Festival, who is now currently a part of The World of Wonders Sideshow. Many of these working acts now perform at traveling sideshows and Tattoo Conventions, and other so-called bizarre events to ‘normal’ society’s interpretation of properness.
The film that tests both society’s limits and shows them actually a reflection of themselves regarding what is acceptable and their rejection only adding to the cruelty of those who appearance differs from theirs. To an extent everyone with flaws might seem as disfigurements to others but the conceptual thought to look past the person, and rather at their actions. The film uses shadows and trickery with both light and darkness, creating a series of iconic imagines though none more horrific than the rain and mud scene, which terrorizes both on and off screen.
This movie’s message transcends time, and perhaps even more important today, as it preaches through a horror film of implied imaginary that looking past the surface truly holds the intent of the person and their characteristics and all of it making each unique. While other movies touch on the subject none ever achieve this level, likely it should not, not with CGI either, one can only hope they never remake this movie.
[*1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/feb/26/welcome-to-gibtown-the-last-freakshow-town-in-america Kim Wall and Caterina Clerici in Gibsonton, Florida – Thursday 26 February 2015 09.15 EST