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Freaks

March 13, 2011

68. Freaks
Directed by Tod Browning
USA, 1932
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Rachel
Third viewing

Synopsis:

Beautiful gold-digging trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) learns that Hans the midget (Harry Earles) has come into a large inheritance, and she and her Strongman lover conspire to make Hans Cleopatra’s husband. The other sideshow artists are sceptical of her motives, and keep a close eye on her. As Cleopatra becomes increasingly abusive to Hans and the other ‘freaks,’ their collective kindness and patience starts to falter.

Essential Scene:

I’ve chosen the following scene because I believe it shows the difference in attitudes, and how easy it can be for someone to be kind.

Two men walk through a wooded area. The well-dressed Monsieur Duval, evidently owns the grounds, while Jean presumably works for him.

Duval: You’re getting old, Jean. Probably, last night you had too heavy a dinner and now your imagination is.

Jean: But Monsieur Duval, at first I could not believe my own eyes! A lot of horrible, twisted things, you know, crawling, whining, laughing —

Duval: Be done, Jean! What were you drinking last night?

Jean: Nothing Monsieur, I assure you! Monsieur, there must be a law in France to smother such things at birth… or, or… lock them up!

Duval: Alright, Jean. If there’s anything like you say on my grounds, we’ll have it removed.

Cut to some of the sideshow artists dancing and listening to the “Human Skeleton” play the harmonica. The microcephalic “Pinheads” dance in a circle, joined by the Half Boy, Dwarf, Bird Girl and the Living Torso. All seem happy and content. Jean starts to yell, “Go away, all of you!” They all run towards a mature lady who comforts and holds them as a group.

Jean: Don’t you know trespassing is the same as stealing?

Madame Tetrallini: Oh I’m sorry, Monsieur. I am Madame Tetrallini. These children are in my circus.

Jean: Children? They’re monsters.

Duval: [affably] Oh, your circus! I understand.

Madame Tetrallini: So you see, Monsieur, when I get a chance, I like to take them into the sunshine and let them play like children. That is what most of them are. Children. (She is tightly embraced by Schlitze, one of the Microcephaly sufferers)

Duval: [looks at the group] Children.. Children.. Please, forget what was said, Madame. You are welcome to remain. Au revoir. Come, Jean. [The men leave]

Madame Tetrallini: Thanks a thousand, Monsieur!

[Various calls of ‘thank you’ come from the group]

Madame Tetrallini: [looks at the group] Oh, shame! Shame, shame! How many times have I told you not to be frightened? Have I not told you, God looks after all his children?

Thoughts:

Tod Browning took a huge risk with Freaks. He hired people with genuine deformities, most of whom actually did work in sideshows, and put them on the screen for a mostly volatile public to see. But Browning gives the sideshow artists dignity. He not only allows them to show their true characters, but gives them a chance to show that they can achieve some normality.

The Siamese Twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, are intelligent, very pretty and both have romantic partners by the end of the film. The Human Skeleton (Peter Robinson), is overjoyed as he celebrates the fact that his wife, the Bearded Lady (Olga Roderick), has just given birth to their child.

Johnny Eck

The very handsome Half Boy (Johnny Eck) is a joy to watch, and the sufferers of microcephaly show how gentle and affectionate they can be when given the chance. Browning gives the audience an opportunity to realise that the ignorant behaviour of turning away from people with deformities results in losing the company of some genuinely wonderful people.

The “normal” characters, with the exception of two circus workers, are portrayed as the monsters, while the “freaks” are portrayed as eccentric but kind, welcoming and incredibly inventive — Prince Randian, the Human Torso born without legs and arms, lights a cigarette using his mouth and chin.

People who abuse people with deformities are indeed monsters and, as Freaks nears its 80th anniversary, we have to ask ourselves whether society’s attitude has sufficiently improved.

At the time, making Freaks was a mistake for Browning. His career never quite recovered from the uproar and the subsequent banning of the film in numerous countries, including the UK and parts of the US. But over the years it has gained a cult status and has received the accolades it deserves.

I just wish we had the option of seeing the 90 minute original version, but it’s very possible that Freaks, at just 64 minutes, is like Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. — a short but perfectly crafted masterpiece.

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