The other day when I posted my tribute to The Wizard of Oz, I realized that there was one other major MGM film on which I’d written about nearly every cast member and other related artists, but hadn’t done a dedicated post about: Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). (I’ve written about Browning’s horror work in general, but haven’t done one that focuses entirely on Freaks).
Leila Hyams’ romantic subplot with clown Wallace Ford is the most conventional thing about this notorious horror movie. Freaks is the freak show to end all freak shows—no real life side show ever boasted this many or this diverse a menu of freaks. In a way, the film represents the culmination of the entire history of sideshows, and a documentation of its last days, although the makers couldn’t have known it at the time. The freak show was about to die. This movie puts the period on the form even as it catches it on celluloid. But did it also cause the downfall?
At any rate, where else can you see all at the same time Ford and Hyams as well as Olga Baclanova as cruel Cleopatra, stuttering Rosco Ates, Harry and Daisy Earles of the Doll Family, half-man Johnny Eck, the conjoined Hilton Sisters, Schlitzie the Pinhead, Koo-Koo the Bird Girl (and Elizabeth Green the other Bird Girl), he/she Josephine Joseph, limbless Prince Randian, pinheads Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow, armless Frances O’Connor, living skeleton Peter Robinson, little person Angelo Rossitto, and bearded lady Olga Roderick? Nowhere, that’s where! There’s also giant John Aasen, Edward Brophy and Frank McHugh as the Rollo Brothers, Henry Victor as Hercules the strong man, sword swallower Delmo Fritz, and little person Jerry Austin (the guy who throws the knife).
The plot can be summed up in a sentence almost. It has what I call the Hop Frog plot, after the famous story by Edgar Allan Poe (the film is actually based on the story Spurs by Todd Robbins). Such a plot consists of the ugly revenge by an outcast upon the powerful people who once ridiculed him. A most satisfying, primal and barbaric form of entertainment. In this, a midget (Earles) is cruelly used by the beautiful Cleopatra (Baclanova). She toys with him. When she learns he is rich, she marries him and tries to poison him. And then…the terrifying revenge of the freaks.
Though it is priceless and indispensable and endlessly rewarding, the film always was and always will be a mess. Because many of the cast are freaks and/ or foreign you really can’t hear a good half of the dialogue. But anyway, dialogue never was Tod Browning’s forte, it’s all about the pictures. Still, the tone of the film is confusing….we side with the freaks but we also are made to identify with the villains (the beautiful trapeze artist and strong man) when the freaks’ revenge comes…it is a nightmare, they are being pursued on a rainy night by creatures crawling through the mud. At back of it—we recognize it as our own comeuppance for being cruel to those born different, the reckoning we always suspected would come. If the film is so accepting of freaks (as many claim it is, and the early scenes seem to be), I’m not sure the film-makers would also depict freaks as our nightmare at the climax of the film. But it is smart. We are complicit in this exploitation. Every few scenes the plot stops so we can have a gratuitously theatrical scene with freaks where we see them do amazing things, just as we would in a sideshow.
We accept her, we accept her, gooble gobble, gooble gobble!!!!
For more on performing little people please check out Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People in Vaudeville.