Freaks

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freaks-movie-poster-1932-1085516.jpeg

(1932, directed by Tod Browning)

- inducted 2018 –

“Recently, as of this writing, it's been posed on Twitter via collections of tweets called ‘Moments’ (which act as news) that the Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson vehicle Skyscraper is noteworthy for featuring as its lead character a person with a disability. The Rock's character is a war veteran missing a leg and the film was singled out for the boldness of choosing a protagonist that lives with a disability but still kicks ass Die Hard-style. Of course rapidly the praise was met with a backlash, for while it's rare to see people with disabilities as lead characters it's even more rare to see those characters actually being represented by actors who actually live with disabilities (and very seldom get the opportunities able bodied actors get).

“Which brings us to Tod Browning's 1932 horror masterpiece Freaks. Swamped by controversies upon its release (the juciest rumor concerning a woman so disturbed by the contents of the film that she had a miscarriage) ,it was unsuccessful and little seen, especially compared to Browning's successful and wildly influential adaptation of Dracula. Set in the behind the scenes world of a traveling circus the majority of its cast is made up of actual circus ‘freaks’ of the era playing themselves (including un-PC acts such as Schlitzie the Pinhead, Prince Randian The Living Torso, The Siamese Twins, Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, a pair of dwarves and more).

“The film implicitly offers the uneasy exploitative thrills of a traveling freak show from its cast of known attractions, to its title and its sensational carnival barker opening moments which literally busts through the screen at you. But once it gets going, its perspective on its performer characters shows that exploitation is certainly not the first thing Browning had in mind. First seen frolicking in in a glade in an image both surreal and poetic the performers are soon menaced by a disgusted game warden as monstrosities. Browning, who ran away to work in the circus at 16, first and foremost sees the ‘freaks’ as people, and he regards them with a gentle humor by peppering the film with episodes where they play, drink, marry, have children (the bearded woman has an apparently adorable bearded child). He also sees their differences and showcases with some fascination the way ‘The Human Torso’ lights a cigarette with his lips, the manner in which ‘The Armless Girl’ manipulates a fork and knife with her feet and the way ‘The Half Boy” quickly runs up steps on his hands.

“In between these episodes is the melodramatic backbone of the film and the chief source of its elements of horror, the relationship between Cleopatra the beautiful trapeze artist and Hans the Dwarf. Cleopatra and her lover ,Hercules the strongman, regard the ‘freaks’ with disgust, contempt and at best as a source of amusement. Cleopatra flirts with Hans at first for fun and to hurt Hans' fiancée Frieda, but when she learns of an inheritance she stands to gain she plots to marry and kill him. In the film's best and most iconic scene the circus gathers for a wedding feast where the ‘freaks’ sing and chant their acceptance of Cleopatra (the ‘One of us’ chant, which has been twisted by time to be shorthand to signify brainwashing) who sickened by the thought responds by throwing their communal ‘loving cup’ of wine back in their faces as she screams ‘You dirty, slimy, FREAKS!’

“The exploitative fascination with the ‘freaks’ and the chance to gawk at them obviously was a driving factor in the film being made at all (and the ensuing controversy), but alongside the exploitation resides a compassion to imagine a fiction of normalcy and community for them, and a regard for the disabled to be seen. This regard and compassion has seldom been seen since except generally through the prism of big celebrities (able-bodied celebrities) who have feigned disabilities in films designed specifically to inspire general audiences and win awards. This is key to why the only film Jonathan Rosenbaum can compare the poetic Iranian leper colony documentary The House Is Black is Freaks. The mere fact of even allowing certain people to be seen can be considered a radical statement in itself.

“Of course complicating the humanist politics is the ending, a horrific sequence whose power to disturb and whose grisly implications would hardly be matched for decades in the genre of horror. Upon learning of Cleopatra's plot to kill Hans, the freaks rise up against the ‘normal’ woman and Hercules during a rainstorm, chasing them through the mud with knives. The result is an unforgettable cut to the results of their vengeance as we see the once outwardly beautiful Cleopatra mutilated into a monstrosity that one can assume mirrors her inner ugliness. It's a sight that undoubtedly has haunted the dreams of many viewers, as is the sight of the ‘freaks” stalking their victims, but as close as these moments bring the largely unambiguous heroes of the films to monsters, it's hard to admit that you're not still rooting for them to the final frame.”

~ Patrick J. Miller

Principal cast: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Rosco Ates, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Rose Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton, Schiltze, Josephine Joseph, Johnny Eck, Frances O’Connor, Peter Robinson, Olga Roderick, Koo Koo, Prince Randian, Martha Morris, Elvira Snow, Jenny Lee Snow, Elizabeth Green, Angelo Rossitto, Edward Brophy, Mat McHugh
Based on the story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins

All other crew not credited:
Screenplay by Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, with additional dialogue by Al Boasberg, Edgar Allan Woolf
Photographed by Merritt B. Gerstad
Art direction by Cedric Gibbons, Merrill Pye
Film editing by Basil Wrangell
Sound by Douglas Shearer, G.A. Burns
Produced by Tod Browning, Harry Rapf, Irving Thalberg

USA
Duration: 64 minutes
Languages: English, German, French
Filmed in black and white
Sound mix: Mono (Western Electric Sound System)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1

Produced and released in USA by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Premiered in USA on 20 February 1932

Awards and honors:
- National Film Registry selection, 1994