Freaks (1932)
October 23, 2022 1:23 PM - Subscribe

A beautiful, but conniving trapeze artist joins a a group of carnival sideshow performers with a plan to seduce and murder a dwarf in the troupe to gain his inheritance. However, her plot proves to have dangerous consequences.

Freaks is notable as a 1932 American pre-Code horror film. Filmed in Los Angeles in the fall of 1931, some employees at MGM were discomfited by the presence of the actors portraying the "freaks" on set, and, other than the so-called more normal looking "freaks", the Siamese twins and the Earles, the performers were not allowed to be on the studio lot, relegated instead to a specially-built tent. The film had test screenings in January 1932, with many members of the audience reacting negatively, finding the film too grotesque. In response to this, MGM executive Irving Thalberg, without consent of director Browning, edited the original 90-minute feature, which was significantly cut, with additional alternate footage incorporated to help increase the running time. The final abridged cut of the film, released in February 1932, was 64 minutes; the original version no longer exists.

Despite the cuts made to the film, Freaks still garnered notice for the portrayal of its eponymous characters by people who worked as sideshow performers and had real disabilities. These cast members included dwarf siblings Harry and Daisy Earles; Johnny Eck, who had sacral agenesis; the conjoined twin sisters Daisy and Violet Hilton; and Schlitzie, a man with microcephaly. Because of its controversial content, the film was banned in the United Kingdom for over 30 years, and was labelled as "brutal and grotesque" in Canada.

Though it received critical backlash and was a box-office failure upon initial release, Freaks was subject to public and critical reappraisal in the 1960s, as a long forgotten Hollywood classic, particularly in Europe, and was screened at the 1962 Venice Film Festival. In retrospect, numerous film critics have suggested that the film presents a starkly sympathetic portrait of its sideshow characters rather than an exploitative one, with Andrew Sarris declaring Freaks one of the "most compassionate" films ever made. Nonetheless, critics have continued to take note of the film's horror elements; in 2009, Joe Morgenstern proclaimed that Freaks contains some of the most terrifying scenes in film history. Film scholars have interpreted the film as a metaphor for class conflict, reflecting the Great Depression, and it has been studied for its portrayal of people with disabilities, with theorists arguing that it presents an anti-eugenics message. The film has been highly influential, has become a cult classic, and, in 1994, was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry, which seeks to preserve films that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Starring Harry Earles, Olga Baclanova, Daisy Earles, Henry Victor, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Roscoe Ates, Angelo Rossitto, Jerry Austin, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton, Schlitzie, Josephine Joseph, Johnny Eck, Frances O'Connor, Peter Robinson, Olga Roderick, Koo Koo, Prince Randian, Martha Morris, Elvira Snow, Jenny Lee Snow, Elizabeth Green, Edward Brophy, Matt McHugh, Rose Dione, John Aasen, Ernie Adams, Demetrius Alexis, Hooper Atchley, Sidney Bracey, Mathilde Comont, Albert Conti, Tiny Doll, Edith, Delmo Fritz, Murray Kinnell, Constantine Romanoff, Michael Visaroff.

Directed by Tod Browning (Dracula). Screenplay by Willis Goldbeck & Leon Gordon, suggested by the short story "Spurs" by Tod Robbins.

95% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

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posted by DirtyOldTown (3 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Gooble Gabble. One of Us.
posted by Faintdreams at 2:20 PM on October 23, 2022 [6 favorites]

I was a little uneasy about how it seemed the attention given to the "freaks" was a wee bit exploitative; I wondered how many had been pulled out of side shows and then stuck back there into obscurity again after the film. So I was surprised to learn two things:

1. Harry Earles, who plays "Hans" (the little person who's conned into the marriage), was the one who came up with the idea. He wanted a better and meatier role for himself than the kinds of things he was otherwise getting.

2. Angelo Rossitto, who plays "Angelino" (the little person who actually starts the "One of us! One of us!" chant at the wedding dinner), had a surprisingly long post-Freaks career - including being the "Master" half of "Master-Blaster" from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:34 PM on October 23, 2022 [4 favorites]

Great movie - - even those who are dead set against classic B&W movies can't seem to forget Freaks once they've seen it.

The Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra in Freaks) website has a fascinating 5-part reference section examining the background of the film.
posted by fairmettle at 11:20 PM on October 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

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