Filmsite Movie Review
Freaks (1932)
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Freaks (1932) is a shocking, bizarre and unsettling horror film, but a durable cult favorite. Tod Browning directed the unusual, creepy, and gothic horror film with real-life side-show "freaks" - it was one of his best works, and has been widely considered his signature film.

To capitalize on Universal's success with their horror films in 1931, including Browning's stage-bound, horror smash hit Dracula (1931), MGM supported Browning's next follow-up film, a lurid and off-beat creation that deliberately cast real-life circus 'freaks' and various human aberrations to sensationalize its content. Its plot, co-scripted by Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon, was suggested by the story "Spurs" (the film's working title) by Tod Robbins, published in Munsey's Magazine (February 1923).

[Note: When Browning was 16 years old, he had run away to join the circus, and his experience deeply affected and influenced his future work. He had directed two other circus-related films: The Show (1927) and The Unknown (1927). After this grotesque film, Browning's career was destroyed and would never be the same - he directed only a few more films through 1939 before retiring.]

After initial disastrous preview screenings in February of 1932 (when people fled from the theatres), the prestigious MGM ordered Browning to edit down the almost-90 minute film and censor some of its distasteful segments. The infamous film was then released officially five months later at a length of 64 minutes - with severely curtailed characterizations and sideplots. Its premiere was in NYC on July 8, 1932, with "a warning that children will not be permitted to see this picture and adults not in normal health are urged not to!"

However, the drastic changes in the film did not improve the film's box-office business and to the studio's dismay, it was both a major financial and critical failure. MGM was so embarrassed and horrified by the film's premise and its reception that it withdrew the film from distribution a month after its initial release, and disowned it. It was even banned for 31 years in England (until 1963), and then released with an "X" certificate.

This controversial film redefined the concepts of beauty, love, and abnormality, but was so disturbingly ahead of its time that audiences stayed away in huge numbers. Many found it exploitative, abhorrent and "loathsome" with "unwholesome shockery," although it also sympathetically portrayed the 'abnormal and the unwanted' as resilient and adaptable human beings with complete compassion and understanding. It was only in the mixed-message ending when the freaks took savage and sadistic revenge. Overall, it made most audiences uncomfortable and engendered fright, uneasiness and animosity.

In 1947 after WWII, exhibition rights were sold and acquired by second-rate, exploitation filmmaker/distributor Dwain Esper for the next 25 years. Inevitably, he truncated it and toured it for an adults-only roadshow for the Excelsior Pictures Corporation (followed in some venues with a second film of nudist camp footage). It was advertised with alternative titles: Forbidden Love, The Monster Show, and Nature's Mistakes.

The morality play remains a truly amazing masterpiece about an odd clique of sympathetically-portrayed, but grotesquely-deformed circus "freaks" in a traveling sideshow that took revenge on a beautiful, gold-digging, heartless high-wire trapeze artist that wronged one of the freaks. In an about-face, they savagely turned her into a monstrous half-human, half-bird.

The film featured a cornucopia of 'human oddities' - real-life malformed people (true 'freaks'), including midgets, numerous dwarves including a knife-throwing Italian dwarf (Angeleno), four "pinheads" (Zip, Pip - or Elivra and Jenny-Lee Snow, Molina, and Schlitze) or microcephalics, and other notorious sideshow exhibits:

  • Daisy and Violet Hilton - Siamese twins
  • Johnny Eck - a half-bodied boy (with only the upper half of his body and nothing below his waist)
  • Prince Randian - the "Living Torso" or "Larva Man" (a man without limbs and legs who slithered on the ground, and smoked cigarettes)
  • Josephine-Joseph - a Half-woman/Half-man androgynous hermaphrodite
  • Koo Koo - The Bird Girl (aka Minnie Woolsey, suffering from progeria) with a feathery outfit
    and the very similar Elizabeth "Betty" Green (the "Stork Woman", aka Molina, a pinhead with dwarfism or nanocephaly)
  • Olga Roderick - a Bearded Lady
  • Peter Robinson (a "Human Skeleton," incredibly skinny), married to the Bearded Lady
  • Frances O'Connor (Armless Girl) - a "Living Venus de Milo"
  • Schlitze - a male, one of the 'pinheads' who wore a dress

It was an out-of-the-ordinary picture not easily forgotten, causing both revulsion and fascination. Exploitative taglines and posters shamelessly promoted the film, calling it "THE STORY OF THE LOVE LIFE OF THE SIDESHOW":

  • Do Siamese twins make love?
  • Can a full grown woman truly love a midget?
  • What sex is the half man half woman?

A newspaper advertisement promoted the film for the ROOSEVELT Theatre: "She flattered this midget with her silken embraces - for his gold...then crushed him. TOMORROW - Strange drama...strange romance...unusual people from a different world. You may laugh at their will probably weep at their heartaches.. but you'll always remember these people of the side-show. Not mere actors, but human people with aches and passions...joys and sorrows like your own!" On one Dwain Esper poster, Louella Parsons was quoted as saying: "For pure sensationalism, 'Freaks' tops any picture yet produced. It's more fantastic and grotesque than any shocker ever written."

It was unofficially remade twice in two modern retellings - She Freak (1967) and Freakshow (2007). Other horror films that picked up the idea of using real-life deformed or mutated characters (without Browning's pathos) included director Jack Cardiff's The Mutations (1974) and director Michael Winner's The Sentinel (1977). And it was widely believed that director Luis Bunuel's dinner scene in Viridiana (1961) was modeled after Browning's central "Wedding Banquet" sequence. One trivial item: the two central midgets Harry and Daisy Earles performed in brief roles in The Wizard of Oz (1939): Daisy as a Munchkin villager and Harry as a member of the Lollipop Guild.

Not surprisingly, the film did not receive any Academy Award nominations.

Plot Synopsis

Scrolling "Special Message" Prologue:

In the edited version of the film released by Esper, a two and a half-minute "Special Message" - a moralistic and preachy disclaimer - was added to the film's beginning. It referred to the film as a:


The message's purpose was to remind viewers that in ancient times, "anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil." Past history was populated with "misshapen misfits," such as Goliath, Calaban, Frankenstein, Gloucester, Tom Thumb and Kaiser Wilhelm. [Note: Some of the examples were fictional characters!] It bemoaned the fact that many of these deformed abnormals were often treated inhumanely, shunned by society, and jeered at or ridiculed:

The accident of abnormal birth was considered a disgrace and malformed children were placed out in the elements to die. If perchance, one of these freaks of nature survived, he was always regarded with suspicion.

Many of the freaks of nature were forced to beg, steal, or starve in order to survive. The prologue went on to explain how abnormalities in 'freaks' within society were often viewed with revulsion, due to a persistent "love of beauty" and "the result of long conditioning by our forefathers." Throughout the ages, however, the majority of freaks were "endowed with normal thoughts and emotions," but were treated unfairly.

Due to their prejudicial treatment, the freaks were forced to adopt a code - any crime committed against any one of them would be considered a crime against all of them:

They have built up among themselves a code of ethics to protect them from the barbs of normal people. Their rules are rigidly adhered to and the hurt of one is the hurt of all; the joy of one is the joy of all. The story about to be revealed is a story based on the effect of this code upon their lives. Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.

With humility for the many injustices done to such people (they have no power to control their lot), we present the most startling horror story of the ABNORMAL and THE UNWANTED.

Title Card and Sideshow Prologue:

The title card emphasized that this was the director's production (other credits followed the film after its conclusion). Possibly unnoticed, it provided detailed cartoon sketches of some of the sideshow characters, covered over by the capitalized title: FREAKS.

The main title card of the film was revealed to be a paper poster, torn and ripped away by a hand from behind - by a carnival sideshow barker (Murray Kinnell), who wadded up the torn paper and tossed it away. The bowler-hatted carny opened the film with an enticement to eager patrons and customers (and the startled viewing audience), as he stood next to a rack of swords and a seated Sword-Swallower (Bill Unks, not Delmo Fritz) (with a 'Bearded Lady' and 'Strong Man' out of focus in the background). He explained the sideshow freaks' code of honor:

We didn't lie to ya, folks. We told you we had living, breathing monstrosities. You laughed at them, shuddered at them and yet, but for the accident of birth, you might be even as they are. They did not ask to be brought into the world, but into the world they came. Their code is a law unto themselves. Offend one - and you offend them all.

Then, he led the patrons to a penned-up, waist-high, striped-cloth enclosure and introduced an off-screen "monstrosity" or creature, causing a woman to scream at the sight of the hideous human figure - but the sight of the creature was postponed until the film's conclusion:

And now, folks, if you'll just step this way. You are about to witness the most amazing, the most astounding living monstrosity of all time. (woman's scream) Friends - she was once a beautiful woman. A royal prince shot himself for love of her. She was known as the Peacock of the Air...

Beginning of Circus Flashback:

The film dissolved to introduce the character known as "the Peacock of the Air" -- Cleopatra (thick-accented Russian-born Olga Baclanova), a beautiful circus-act performer, who was perched atop a high-wire trapeze bar. Two German-language accented midgets, dressed in formal attire during the circus show, watched her from behind a curtain - they were the love-smitten, infatuated ringmaster Hans (Harry Earles) and his devoted fiancee-companion Frieda (Daisy Earles). [Note: It was an unusual sexual pairing, since they were actual real-life brother and sister.] Hans caused Frieda jealousy with his thoughtless, insensitive comment about her beauty and normal size:

She's the most beautiful big woman I have ever seen.

He vowed, however, that he still loved his midget-fiancee Frieda: "I have eyes for only one woman -- the woman I asked to be my wife." The circus act in the ring highlighted a strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) wrestling a bull.

After Cleopatra finished her act, the flirtatious and sexually-aggressive aerialist stood tall next to the diminutive Hans and pretended to drop her cape, so that he could retrieve it for her and drape it back on her shoulders. She denied mocking him by laughing at him for being so enamoured and lovesick with her. Hans told her of the frequent ridicule he often faced from 'big' people: "They don't realize I'm a man, with the same feelings they have." Annoyed by the spectacle of Hans succumbing to heartless Cleopatra's false attentions, Frieda watched from a distance, seated side-saddle on a white pony for the next act. Cleopatra invited Hans to later visit her: "You must come to see me sometime, and we'll have a little wine together."

French Countryside Estate:

Two Frenchmen, mustached gatekeeper Jean (Michael Visaroff) and his landowner boss Monsieur Duval (Albert Conti) spoke together about recent sightings on the woodsy grounds of Duval's estate - Jean vowed he wasn't drinking and seeing things: "A lot of horrible, twisted things, you know, crawling, whining, laughing." Jean was referring to a group of 'freaks' he had seen in the woods (a quick insert displayed a Crawling Girl (Edith) and Prince Randian on the ground) - then he pronounced he hoped there was a law to exterminate or hide them: "There must be a law in France to smother such things at birth, or lock 'em up." They came upon a clearing where three 'pinheads', a Bird Girl, and a distorted dwarf (later identified as Angeleno) were dancing and singing in a circle to the tune of a harmonica played by the Human Skeleton lying on the ground, while half-boy Johnny Eck clapped. Startled and accused of traspassing by Jean, the frightened pinheads ran for comfort to huddle with Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione), who claimed they were enjoying a day in the sunshine: "These are children in my circus....That is what most of them are -- children." The group was allowed to remain, as Madame Tetrallini reassured her charges: "Have I not told you God looks after all his children?"

At the Circus In the Evening - Introduction of Main Characters:

On the circus backlot, the side of a parked vehicle was marked: ROLLO BROS, AMERICAN ACROBATS EXTRAORDINARE. As Madame Tetrallini escorted her 'children' through the area, the Rollo Brothers (Edward Brophy and Matt McHugh), a two-person acrobatic act, mockingly greeted them, and then turned contemptuous and mean: "There she goes takin' 'em off to exercise. Nurse to a lot of mangy freaks." Behind them appeared Josephine-Joseph, an hermaphrodite split horizontally. One of the brothers imitated the circus barker's typical pitch:

Ah ha! Just as they are represented on the banners, you will meet them on the inside -- living, breathing monstrosities. Josephine-Joseph, half woman, half man.

When the two acrobats turned critical: "Have a cigar, Joseph? You dropped your lipstick, Josephine," he/she ignored them. A trained seal was guided up a ramp into its water-tank wagon by its pretty animal trainer Venus (Leila Hyams). Nearby, strongman Hercules argued with stuttering female impersonator Roscoe (Roscoe Ates) who was removing his wig and his 'Roman lady' costume. Josephine-Joseph strolled by and paused momentarily to admire Hercules' figure. Roscoe joked:

I think she likes you...but he d-don't.

After Cleopatra completed her trapeze act, she thanked Hans for his gift of flowers. Obviously, she seductively manipulated his affections to borrow money from him: "And Hans, I don't like to ask, but may I have the loan of another 1,000 Francs until my money from Paris arrives?" Hans eagerly acquiesed.

Inside his circus wagon, Hercules was in the midst of breaking up with Venus - who was gathering her belongings to permanently leave after being fooled by his sweet promises in order to live with him ("'Come little girl, I want to take care of you.' Oh, and I fell for that!"). As she stormed out, he warned: "I'm kicking you out...And don't you come around crying tonight, trying to get back in. I'm through wasting my time and money on things like you." Venus responded: "Yeah, your time, but my money!" He mumbled to himself that she was sexually promiscuous: "Ungrateful little tramp." As Venus passed the stunned, silent clown Phroso (Wallace Ford), she chastised him for eavesdropping on her messy break-up:

I guess you've been listening to every word he said. That's it. That's it, go ahead and laugh. It's funny, ain't it? Yeah. Women are funny, ain't they? They're all tramps, ain't they? Yeah. Except when you can get money from them.

He stormed after her into her wagon-trailer, where she apologized to him for venting her male hatred: "Oh, I didn't mean you. I had to take it out on somebody." Phroso refused to be taken lightly: "Yeah, you dames is all alike. You're sharpshootin' your cheek. And how you squeal when you get what's coming to ya." She broke down sobbing and admitted how she had judged Hercules wrongly: "Oh, it's my own fault. What gets me so cockeyed sore at myself is that I fell for that big bunch of beef." As he wiped off his clown makeup and became more 'normal'-looking, Phroso took the opportunity to be supportive, comfort her and offer advice:

Phroso: So you finally got wise to yourself, did you? Funny thing about you women, most of you don't get wise soon enough. You wait until you're so old, nobody wants you.
Venus: Nobody does most of the time.
Phroso: Well, you oughta be tickled to death you're washed up with him. You're not so hard to look at. Give yourself a tumble. You'll make the grade. Your breaks is comin'.
Venus: Comin'! Gone, you mean.
Phroso: Aw, now you're gonna sit there feelin' sorry for yourself.
Venus: Oh, no, I ain't. (She stood up) Don't you ever accuse me of that!
Phroso: All right! All right!. But one thing. Don't go out filling your hide with a lot of booze celebratin', 'cause fun what's got that way never done no one no good. Get me?
Venus: I got ya. Say you're a pretty good kid.
Phroso: You're darn right I am. You should've caught me before my operation. [Note: Was this a reference to impotence?]

Outside, two attached-at-the-hip Siamese twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, walked by. Daisy was getting married the following night to Roscoe, and she was ecstatic: "And I'm thrilled to death." Daisy acknowledged the awkward domestic situation with her ever-present sister: "She'll like him lots after she knows him better." Nearby, Roscoe was upset that Phroso had just flirted with Daisy: "So you were flirting with that cheap clown, were you?...I saw him getting familiar with you." Violet insisted on leaving, whether Daisy wanted to or not, and Roscoe quipped: "Oh, phooey! You're always using that for an excu- for an excu- for an ali-b-b- bi."

As the strongman Hercules strolled by Cleopatra's trailer, she enticingly inquired from her window: "Where are you going?" to catch his attention. After being coaxed, he invited himself into her living quarters as she offered him a drink for a toast and something to eat. At her stove as she was about to cook up six eggs for him, she asked as she suggestively thrust out her chest at him: "How do you like them?" - referring not to the eggs but to her breasts in his line of sight. He replied: "Not bad," and roughly grabbed her for a passionate kiss - she responded to his forceful treatment: "You're squeezing me to death....You are taking my breath away." Josephine-Joseph watched their embrace from the open door. Angered by Joseph's peeping, Hercules punched the 'him'-half in the eye, while shouting: "Now, here's something for your eye."

At a table near their trailer, fiancee Frieda was concerned that Hans was inattentive. She rebuked him for smoking a large cigar ("You must not smoke such a big cigar. Your voice was very bad at tonight's show") - implying in Freudian terms that he was too small to be enjoying a more manly phallic symbol, in order to impress Cleopatra. He tried to silence her: "I want no orders from a woman." She realized it was their first true, harsh argument since their engagement.

Back in Cleopatra's wagon with Hercules, where she was preparing a meal for him, he realized that she was extorting French money from Hans. Hercules became cruel and derogatory - and called Hans a "little ape." Hans was providing her with luxuries ordered from Paris, including a gift of a basket of fruit, and she greedily planned her next acquisition: "Next time I tell him I like champagne." When Hans knocked at her door, she lied that she was taking a bath and told him to come back later. She cautioned Hercules to quit laughing at the masquerade: "Shhh, you'll spoil everything if he hears you." She fell to her knees to kiss and embrace the strong-man.

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