This is one of my favourite movies ever, and as such this is less a review than a eulogy.. Having a tangentially medical background, I feel no abashment at admitting my fondness for anatomical anomalies (perhaps it also has something to do with seeing Romy Schneider’s webbed fingers in The Trial at an impressionable age) and Freaks has physical abnormalities galore.
The setting is a travelling circus, one of the olden days when the freakshow was de rigeur. The film opens with a hideous half-woman-half-chicken attraction, and the promise of revealing how she got that way. Flashback: Hans the midget is engaged to the similarly-sized Frieda, but pines for the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra, herself happy in the ample arms of Hercules, the strongman. Until, that is, Hans comes into a sizable inheritance and Cleopatra starts to show an interest..
But this is no mere freak show. It was directed by Tod Browning, who was rarely less than entertaining: he directed the Bela Lugosi Dracula (simultaneously in English and Spanish and somewhat less creaky in the latter, oddly) and several films with Lon Chaney including the sideshow-set The Unholy Three, the tragically-lost London After Midnight and the magnificently sadistic carnival melodrama The Unknown, co-starring Joan Crawford. One of the reasons the circus films are so good is that Browning was an ex-carny himself (one of his sideshow stints involved being buried alive) and that he knew the milieu inside out is gloriously apparent onscreen. He also knew and loved the performers of the freakshows, and had no trouble in appreciating that their unusual exteriors hide human desires and emotions no different from those of anyone else. So much so that there is little special pleading to this end in the movie; in fact, several of the freaks are shown to nurse the same petty jealousies of pride and hubris that are to be found anywhere. They share the same enjoyments also – there’s a rather touching scene of several of the freaks gamboling happily in the woods, and the siamese twins, the bearded lady and the human skeleton all enjoy sexual relationships – and in comparison to this generally warm and friendly community, and its easy-going friendships with others of the travelling performers, the villainous machinations and open contempt of the conniving Cleopatra and her lover make “normal” people the ones who seem inhuman.
And what of the freaks themselves? Harry Earles, playing Hans, was the only one with any substantial movie roles to his credit; he had co-starred in Browning’s The Unholy Three and it was he who bought the source story to the director’s attention (legend has it; it might equally have been Cedric Gibbons). His fiancee was in fact played by his sister Daisy, both of them part of a successful four-midget act from Germany. Angelo Rossitto, another midget, had appeared already as “the dwarf” in a few features and was the only one of the cast subsequently to enjoy a long and successful film and TV career. The Siamese twins were played by the famous Hilton sisters (heh heh heh). Aside from the traditional bearded lady and Pete Robinson the human skeleton there’s Frances O’Connor, a “living Venus de Milo”, an Austrian half-man-half-woman, and a contingent of pinheads, lead by the famous Schlitze.
Also, not one but two bird women: Betty Green the Stork Woman, then known as Koo Koo, although after her memorable table dance newcomer Minnie Woolsey would appropriate that name as “Koo Koo the blind girl from Mars” in a Coney Island sideshow (some claim that Betty was not actually anatomically deformed, just very ugly) . The most remarkable, however, are Johnny Eck, the “half-boy” whose body ended at the base of his rib-cage, and Prince Randian from British Guiana, armless and legless, who could nonetheless roll and light a cigarette using only his mouth (and father several children) – his struggles, his abilities and his personality a marvelous metaphor for humanity in its most basic and vulnerable state.
On the human side, the part of Cleopatra was initially considered for Myrna Loy (with Jean Harlow co-starring as kindly bareback rider Venus) but producer Irving Thalberg (it’s surely the weirdest thing on his resume) decided against casting any major stars (ie anyone with a career waiting to be ruined). The parts went instead to professional slut Olga Baclanova and the lovely Leila Hyams; the latter confessed she initially felt pity for her co-stars, but realised it was wasted when she saw they felt none for themselves. They each might pity the other freaks, but none of them felt sorry for themselves.
For all the film’s reminders of their basic humanity, the freaks were accepting their difference and did not try to hide it. Such people rarely appeared in the movies, but these were all bona fide stars in their own sphere of willing exploitation for the eager sideshow audiences, and were proud of their success (some even went distinctly “Hollywood”, taking to shades and demanding special treatment). In the same way, Browning was not going to pass up this tremendous potential for invoking a yet more ghastly fear in movie audiences with his massed all-star cast of attractions. The finale, as they crawl and scuttle through mud and straw beneath the wooden wheels of the carnival wagons to wreak their terrible, righteous revenge, thunder rolling, lightening flashing and rain lashing, is spine-tinglingly sinister however often one watches it, one of the strangest things ever committed to celluloid. And their exultant chant at Hans and Cleopatra’s wedding feast of “Gooble gobble.. One of Us” would make anyone uneasy. In fact, the freaks themselves made everyone in the MGM commissary uneasy at the time of shooting and all but the midgets and the Siamese twins were removed to a segregated outdoor canteen (F. Scott Fitzgerald, presumably one over the eight, is reported to have rushed for the bathroom at the sight, though other sources claim he preferred their company to that of the stars and executives). Needless to say, the studio was nervous when half the preview audience didn’t walk from the theatre but ran.
The movie was cut, excoriated by the press (”loathsome, obscene, grotesque, bizarre” screamed the Atlanta Journal, precising the nationwide reviews) and effectively suppressed for the next thirty years. It was intermittently unavailable since then due to dubious rights issues but its place in the popular consciousness is assured by references in The Simpsons and South Park of course, as well as The Player and even The Sopranos, the Ramones’ “Pinhead” and Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs”. At heart, it is just an everyday backstage melodrama, culminating in the defeat of its black-hearted villains. Even if attitudes towards physical irregularities and disability have mellowed considerably since 1932, it retains an eerie fascination, not least as an all-too rare documentary record and celebration of these wonderful sideshow stars and how they could be physically different, yet in their fundamental humanity no different, from anyone else.