by Jay Seaver
Movie lovers know certain lines even if they haven't seen the films they are spoken in: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." "Round up the usual suspects." "It's alive! It's alive!" And, of course, "Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, we accept you, one of us!" "Freaks" is the film that spawned that strange final refrain, and though its reputation is often more infamy than fame, it's every bit the classic as the others.The film opens with a scroll of text, telling us that throughout history, those who were either born deformed or who became that way through misadventure were often abandoned by their villages and families to die in the wilderness, but they would sometimes form communities, and woe betide the man who attacked one member! In this case, the community is attached to a traveling circus, where little people Hans (Harry Earles) and Frieda (Daisy Earles) are engaged. But Hans finds aerialist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) very attractive, at least for a "big person", showering her with compliments and gifts. Cleopatra acts sweet, but cruelly laughs at Hans with her lover, Hercules (Henry Victor) - at least, until she finds out that Hans has an inheritance coming. Then, she gets serious - deadly serious. But, wrong one freak, and you anger them all...
"A classic, and not just in the cult manner."
Freaks is commonly billed as a horror movie, and it certainly has horror elements - especially the utterly bizarre revelation at the end. But in many ways, to see it entirely as a freakshow is to miss filmmaker Tod Browning's point that these outcasts are as human as anyone, while the traditionally attractive Cleopatra and Hercules were frequently monstrous. A great deal of this was apparently lost when the studio cut its length by nearly a third (from approximately 90 minutes to 64), but it's such a basic part of the film that even without some of its more directly satirical or declarative scenes, the message can't help but come through.
That is, in large part, because the title characters are a rather genial lot, despite being initially unnerving to look at - especially the likes of "living torso" Prince Randian and "half boy" Johnny Eck. Most of them were real-life circus performers, and thus maybe not the greatest actors, although conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton display some comedic ability in a subplot about the difficulties of their married life. While siblings Harry and Daisy Earles do project a certain amount of dignity and heartbreak in their scenes, their delivery is often close to incomprehensible; Harry Earles, especially, has a thick accent and a reedy voice.
Fortunately, a certain level of theatricality was acceptable in early, pre-code talkies like Freaks. Olga Baclanova and Henry Victor certainly fit right in, playing to the balconies and letting their villain flags fly. It's grandiose, but it works. Leila Hyams and Wallace Ford don't chew quite so much scenery as Venus and Phroso, an animal trainer and clown notable for treating the sideshow acts well.
We see more of Venus and Phroso than perhaps is warranted, but I suspect that very little of their pleasant romance got left on the cutting room floor as too disturbing for a 1932 audience. The film benefits from its short running time, though; the story is economically told and the theatrical performances don't grate on an modern audience used to something more naturalistic. And while Browning is, for the most part, going for empathy, the climax of the movie is legitimately thrilling - there's a well done chase scene in the driving rain, for instance, and while the audience might initially laugh at a little person pulling a knife, that scene becomes chilling in a hurry.It's a shame that so much of "Freaks" is lost; it would be very interesting to see what Browning's original satiric vision looked like. Of course, some might argue that what exists is quite enough - and not because more might have ruined the pacing! Many of those people will never see it, though, and discover that it is far more empathic than exploitive.
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originally posted: 03/26/10 06:46:25