Freaks (1932)

May 12, 2014

[ Post contains spoilers ] 

Freaks is most definitely a favorite movie of mine and I have watched it quite a lot of times, too. You see, as far as I can remember I have always been fascinated by the  - now dying if not already dead  - phenomenon of sideshows. Suffice to say that I like the exploitive side less! However, the Elephant man for instance, stole my heart when I was a child; the movie stayed in my mind for weeks. I was not afraid of him, or horrifed, like many people were, but instead I felt so sorry and sad for Joseph Merrick's (The Elephant man's real name.) destiny. These "human oddities" struck a chord with me; they were clearly alienated throughout their lives, and that alienated feeling was something I could relate to. I always felt different than other people and I never quite fit in. 

Anyway, I hate to use the words 'freak' or 'human oddities', but I never lost my interest in these 'freaks', and that's why I am a regular visitor of the website The Human Marvels. What I love about that website - beside its interesting content - is its slogan: some may call them freaks and human oddities - but they are truly human marvels! And I could not have said it better myself. Some people back in the day may have tend to forget that, no matter how frightening these people might have looked, they were still people after all - with feelings and wishes of their own. This is also where my fancy for the movie Freaks steps in. Although this movie is listed as a horror, it truly isn't. Well yeah, ofcourse, for people in the 1930s it was. Being much, much less exposed to media-sensationalized differences in the human appearance than we are today, this was a truly shocking movie. One woman even claimed that, after attending a test screening, she suffered a miscarriage because of the horror-esque appearances of the actors she witnessed.

Correct, the movie Freaks used real life 'freaks'. Many moviegoers thought of it as abhorrent, and one woman even wrote a letter to director Tod Browning, exclaiming "You must have the mental equipment of a freak yourself to devise such a picture." This movie destroyed Tod Browning's career, just after he celebrated a peak because of his well received movie Dracula (1931).

What people didn't see back then, was that Browning sent a message with his Freaks. Cause in the end you ask yourself who the real freaks truly were: the "normal" people or the sideshow oddities!? The freaks gave a heartwarming performance, and although the movie may be seen as exploitive, the actors were happy to have some work.

For this movie, Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow were the first choices, with Myrna cast as Cleopatra and Jean as Venus. Both balked to do the movie, as they felt the script was too offensive. In the end, the role of Cleopatra went to Olga Baclanova and that of Venus went to Leila Hyams. The movie was banned in a number of states and cities in the US, and are still technically banned in some, as some of the laws were never officially repealed. In the UK, this movie was banned for 30 years after its release and this makes Freaks the longest banned film in British cinema history.

Doesn't look Leila Hyams stunning here? That hair!

Immediately after the disastrous test screening, production chief Irving Thalberg wanted to re-cut the film, but he couldn't cancel its world premiere on the 28th of January in the Fox Theatre in San Diego - the only venue where the uncut version of Freaks is known to have played. However, Freaks appeared to be a box-office hit and people lined up around the block to see the movie. 

In its original ending, you see Hercules (the strongman) singing Soprano, in a new sideshow, because he has been castrated by the freaks out of revenge. This was received negative with the audience, who thought it so offensive, that the scene was cut and is now officially regarded as lost.

The plot
Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a circus trapeze artist takes an interest in Hans (Harry Earles) who is a midget and works in the circus' sideshow. Although Hans is convinced otherwise, Cleopatra is not interested in Hans, but merely in the fortune he is inheriting. Cleopatra also secretly carries an affaire with the circus' strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), former boyfriend of Venus (Leila Hyams). Hans' fiancée Frieda (Daisy Earles - in real life Harry Earles sister) does everything in her reach to convince Hans that Cleopatra is using him for his money, but to no avail. At their wedding party, when Cleopatra is drunk, she tells the freaks what she really thinks of them; the freaks then plan for revenge and decide to make her one of their own.

If you're interested in cinema history, Freaks comes with my highest recommendation. Do not think of it as a horror movie; it truly was a horror movie back in the 1930s - and it was shelved for many years, as the studio didn't want anything to do with the movie. However, these days we are much more familiar with the oddities of the human body and it is not a scary picture at all, for us modern people. The movie is still enjoyable to watch and I couldn't help but feel pity, yet a lot of warmth for the Freaks actors. The movie is a must-watch.

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  1. I love this movie! I, too, am fascinated by sideshows (the not so exploitative sideshows, like you) and Freaks is probably one of the reasons for it! Good choice!

    1. Yes absolutely wonderful film!

  2. THIS film I must see.. as a matter of fact, it this moody, rainy weather continues, I'm going to watch it TODAY - I doubt that what was terrifying in 1932 is as scary and gore as today's movie masters do.
    ...and thank you for the link to FREAKS, GEEKS AND HUMAN ODDITIES site... I'm fascinated by them!


    1. Oh please let me know what you thought of the film when you have seen it Marija!
      Human Marvels is indeed a great website!


    2. I have managed to find and I've seen the film last night.
      A perfect evening for this sort of film: strong wind and heavy rain, moody weather outside.
      It was, as I have imagined, not a horror film for me. It was way much more, I dare say it was an anthropological experiance.
      The film showed me something we now find somewhat odd, but consider normal, something we call "genetic disorder" and therefore accept people with such existance. I have grown up surrounded by so much diversity that I have instinctively learned to accept all sort of people, that might be "strange" to others.
      In the time this film was, however, it was yet so strange (and gore?) so I can imagine what was the effect and the impact of this film. For instance, the man who plays the mouth-organ, have you seen anything strange and odd there? I haven't, since all he is.. is anorexic to the extreme.
      The ending was glorious, and I rather liked it overall.

      So, thank you for recomendation, dear!


    3. I am glad you liked it! This film is a great example on how times have changed and what media does to us; and also to what we are exposed to these days.

  3. I did not know the movie Freaks until recently. I have an art gallery and last month I came across some incredible drawings from an artist called Isabel Alonso. I learnt later on they were drawings based on the characters of this movie. I was captivated by them and added them to my website. You can visit them here Aren't they incredible?


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