|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 10 August 2004|
In 1931, the release of both “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” created a new genre: the horror movie. Both were very popular, and other studios scrambled to come up with horror movies of their own. MGM, considered (largely by itself) to be the Cadillac of the studios, held back. Their problem was that they had a star who’d made successful movies for them that were grotesque enough to teeter on the edge of horror. This was Lon Chaney (Sr.), the Man of a Thousand Faces, who died unexpectedly in 1930.
Tod Browning had directed most of the more peculiar Chaney outings, such as (the lost) “London After Midnight,” and for Universal had also directed “Dracula.” On “The Unholy Three,” Harry Earles, the German dwarf who costarred with Chaney, showed Browning a story by Tod Robbins called “Spurs.” This, they both thought, would be a great vehicle for Chaney and for Earles.
But Chaney was gone. Nonetheless, MGM and Browning forged ahead with “Freaks,” loosely based on “Spurs.” On its release in early 1932, however, “Freaks” was greeted with negative reviews, and spotty audience reaction—it did very well some places, very badly others. But at the same time, the censors—back when movies still had them—were aghast at the horror movies, and put pressure on Hollywood. MGM fiddled with “Freaks” a little, then withdrew it from release.
However, it was picked up by Dwain Esper, a master of marketing exploitation movies, and under a variety of titles, played off in smaller theaters over the next few years. Peculiarly, this later release is not mentioned in David Skal’s otherwise excellent commentary track, nor in the much-too-long documentary that accompanies the film.
There’s not a lot of story to “Freaks.” As the title promises, it’s about the physical oddities and sports who are the star attraction of a small traveling circus’ sideshow, but the plot is thin. Not so the oddities—all of which are quite real, some of whom are startling even now. There’s Prince Randian, born without arms or legs (but who fathered several children), who can roll and light a cigarette with his lips and tongue. There are a couple of armless women, who drink tea, cut up food, and feed themselves. Joseph Josephine is presumably a hermaphrodite, but for purposes of the show is divided down the middle into male and female halves. There’s the nearly indescribable Koo Koo the bird girl and several “pinheads,” most notably Schlitzie. Costumed as and referred to as a woman, he was actually male, and is one of the real delights of the movie: though obviously retarded, every gesture he makes, every expression is honest, true, real, amusing and touching. One of the most remarkable is Johnny Eck, who simply doesn’t exist from about his navel on down. He walks on his hands, does stunts, throws knives, and in general really is the best actor in the movie. The documentary includes scenes from a Tarzan movie in which Johnny played a strange bird.
The story centers on talented, baby-faced dwarf Hans (Harry Earles), who’s hopeless in love with callous—and normal-sized—aerialist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Frieda (Daisy Earles), another dwarf, is herself in love with Hans, and fears that Cleopatra and strong man Hercules (Henry Victor) are planning to exploit the surprisingly wealthy Hans. Also involved are normal clown Phroso (Wallace Ford), and equally normal Venus (Leila Hyams); their growing romance parallels Hans’ love for Cleopatra. Browning makes it clear where his sympathies lie: Cleopatra and Hercules are contemptuous of the freaks, Phroso and Venus treat them with affection and no condescension.
Cleopatra agrees to marry Hans, with plans to murder him later on—dwarves are weak, she says. She and Hercules will live high on the hog from Hans’ millions. There’s a strange wedding supper, the highlight of the film, in which all the freaks gather around a table to welcome Cleopatra into their closed-off company. Her reaction, however, is shocking and disappointing.
Cleopatra has already begun to poison Hans gradually, but he and Frieda realize what they’re up to, and with the other freaks, plan revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules. What they do to her is the still-shocking last scene of the movie.
Last, that is, except for another ending, shown separately in three versions, comforting rather than horrifying.
This Warners disc presents “Freaks” in a crisp, sharp transfer, the best this often-neglected movie has ever looked. The blacks are deep, the whites clear, and the tonal range very broad. Also, Skal’s commentary track, though often sounding read from notes (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing), is detailed and full of information, well worth listening to. For one thing, you learn that Harry and Daisy Earles were brother and sister….
On the other hand, the documentary accompanying the film is second-rate. Skal also appears, as does Jerry Maren, a dwarf who, along with Earles, was one of the “Lollipop Guild” in “The Wizard of Oz.” Cheerful, buoyant Jennifer Miller, a real bearded lady also appears. Then there is the surprisingly-named Todd Robbins, identified as a performer and historian, and sideshow performer Johnny Meah, who talk a lot but have little to say. Furthermore, faint circus music plays constantly in the background; this is similar to how the music is handled in “Freaks,” but in this documentary context, it’s distracting and annoying. The documentary would have been much better if it were half as long.
“Freaks” is a movie as curious as the people it both celebrates and exploits. There have been arguments for years as to whether Browning was showing affection or contempt for his cast of oddities; surely in the stormy last sequence, when we see such creepy sights as Prince Randian squirming through mud, a knife clenched in his teeth, Browning seems to be using the freaks for their horror value rather than showing them to be the perfectly ordinary, if distorted, people seen in most of the rest of the brief movie. It’s a movie as divided against itself as Joseph Josephine, but it’s also entertaining, and a glimpse of a world now mostly gone.