Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Freaks (1932)

Here's the story in a nutshell: Hans and Frieda are engaged, but he can't hide his infatuation for Cleo, a woman out of his reach. Cleo is dismissive and condescending towards him. Cleo is with Herc, a big strong man. When they learn that Hans has inherited a fortune, they hatch a plan to marry him, poison him, and collect the inheritance. When Hans' coworkers learn of their plot, they extract their revenge.

Not much of a story. Nothing too original or shocking. But what makes Freaks stand out is that Hans and Frieda are circus midgets, and his co-workers include a man with no lower body, a woman without arms, conjoined twins, and other circus freaks. And instead of hiring actors to play the roles, director Tod Browning hired actual circus freaks. The mere sight of pinheads and bird ladies through audiences into the kind of panic that movie makers today just dream about. Imagine someone claiming your movie caused a miscarriage! But back in '32, that was poison.

What shocked audiences most may have been that the freaks were the good guys. Cleo (Cleopatra) and Herc (Hercules) were a normal trapeze artist and strong man. People seem to need to remind themselves of their elevated status. They want someone to look down on, figuratively and literally. Can we cope with the reality that midgets deserve respect?

Ok, off the soap box, Fred. Here is some interesting stuff: conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton established that if one were touched, the other would feel it. To complicate matters, one sister was married and the other becomes engaged. How's THAT supposed to work? And they weren't bad looking, either!

Prince Randian was a man born without arms or legs. Despite this, he was fairly self sufficient. There is a scene where he lights his own cigarette. According to DVD commentary, the original scene showed him rolling it first, but it was cut. He was assisted in his career by his son, further testimony to his ability.

Not a great movie. The acting ranged from ok to terrible. Some of the dialog was unintelligible. The original script was apparently censored but what we are left with could only have been made pre-code. The cut scenes, if they were filmed at all, would be very interesting, but are likely lost forever.

Banned for thirty years, Freaks was picked up by the 60's counter culture who embraced them as heroes. Maybe too late for the performers, who after seeing the audiences reaction to them and their lives, regretted making the movie. Not great film making, but unique and memorable. And re-watchable. AMRU 4.0.
"We accept her, we accept her! One of us! One of us!"

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