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DVD SAVANT

Freaks


Freaks
Warner DVD
1932 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 64 62 min. / Forbidden Love, Nature's Mistakes / Street Date August 10, 2004 / 19.97
Starring Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Henry Victor, Roscoe Ates, Rose Dione
Cinematography Merritt B. Gerstad
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons, Merrill Pye
Film Editor Basil Wrangell
Written by Tod Robbins from his novel Spurs
Produced and Directed by Tod Browning

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The most notorious and misunderstood of the first wave of Hollywood horror films is Freaks, MGM's commercial miscalculation of 1932. Although it seems less shocking now, in the beginning of the depression it was considered a huge blunder of taste and was said to have been rejected by audiences everywhere. That probably actually meant it was rejected by exhibitors and newspaper pundits everywhere, arbiters of taste that surely judged its hard look at real carnival life as worse than pornography.

Mass entertainment is 20 times less flexible now in terms of what is considered acceptable for general public viewing but in 1932 it is easy to imagine Irving Thalberg giving Tod Browning the green light for his sideshow epic, with the idea that what people were used to seeing in travelling carnivals could become an incredibly popular film. But Browning gave MGM a movie that tangled real sideshow oddities with notions of sex, both in the comedy relief and in half a dozen creepy subtexts. Whatever the reason, Freaks was dropped like a hot potato to exist as only a whisper for over forty years. People my age became curious about it through Forrest Ackerman's Famous Monsters magazine.

Savant first saw freaks in about 1972; pal Doug Haise had his own print and Randy Cook screened it in the UCLA dorms. The film we saw wasn't what we expected, especially from the quixotic master of cruelty Tod Browning. Freaks is not only not disgusting, it's one of the more compassionate films that's ever been made about being human.

Synopsis:

The sideshow of Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione) is going well until acrobat Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), in league with strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) decides to marry and murder the rich midget Hans (Harry Earles) for his inheritance. Hans' midget girlfriend Frieda (Daisy Earles) can do nothing, and neither can circus clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) or 'normal' performer Venus (Leila Hyams). But Hans is not alone: The freaks have an unwritten code among themselves to punish cruel outsiders.

Sure, the sight of the misshapen performers of Freaks is bound to a little unsettling. We are commonly shielded from so many unpleasant things in the world that deformities are still shocking. For the greater part of its running time the revenge tale of Freaks takes a back seat to its sideshow attractions. The core content are the scenes where we see the 'stars' in full-on mastershots. One cannot look at the bisected Johnny Eck or the limbless Prince Randian without contemplating what life would be like in their place. For insecure people the idea of losing their hair is a disaster, so these sights are nothing less than a nightmare.

Freaks is up close and personal, much more so than would be a trip to the sideshow - do sideshows still exist? Besides the gross physical deformities, some of the freaks simply look strange or exaggerated, as with the 'skeleton man' Peter Robinson or Koo Koo, the bird girl. But others are more familiar microencephalics (pinheads) with birth defects that are actually quite common. We're confronted by Schlitze, a beautiful child trapped in a simple-minded existence. Schlitze is sweet, affectionate and dear. He hugs Rose Dione and laughs with joy at everything he sees. His handlers tied a bow in his hair and passed him off as female in a frock dress for practical purposes (incontinence). The best scene in the movie, and one of the most compassionate things I've ever seen, is the moment when Wallace Ford compliments Schlitze on her new dress. Schlitze fawns and preens and shows without a doubt that she's completely charmed. It's a vision of horror (humanity trapped in a flawed form) ten times more real than a movie monster, and yet met with understanding and love (Ford's kindness). The scene may be staged but Schlitze is real. Freaks is partly a documentary.

The social politics of Freaks has only been touched on in one more movie, Elephant Man, in which a doctor questions whether his compassion for a 'freak' is really another form of exploitation. If we lock up the world's Schlitzes and throw away the key, where do we draw the line? What's acceptable and what's not? Surely intelligent oddities like Johnny Eck must have thought the world of normal people was a hellish mob of intolerance and cruelty. Being considered abnormal physically (or politically) in society brings a high penalty.

The rest of Freaks is an effective horror show, even after bits and pieces here and there were lost to censors and frantic re-cuttings. Most of the acting is primitive or stylized and except for the fluid Ford, Hyams and Dione we're stuck with grand posturings or foreigners mangling their English lines.  1 Olga Baclanova is grandly contemptuous; she and Henry Victor succeed in making their 'handsome' people into pigs deserving slaughter. The wedding banquet is almost the only fully-realized normal scene in the film, and it's a corker. 'Normals' and freaks are celebrating harmoniously, until Cleopatra and Hercules' human ugliness shows up like a bad stain.

Brother and sister Harry and Daisy Earles carry the show with their soap-opera love story, and they're great, even if Harry is hard to understand at times. His midget is full of honest feelings of pride and shame, even when his dialogue rehashes them so bluntly: "Oh mein Frieda, I am so ashamed!" Naturally, Tod Browning makes the proceedings perverse by giving the diabolical content to the victims of the story, the freaks. Harry's great moment is when his childish face suddenly turns dark and twisted as he contemplates Cleopatra's treachery, a trick he mastered earlier in The Unholy Three. Brandishing guns and knives, his comrades suddenly become the monsters we fear them to be, monsters created by the cruelty of 'normal' people. Harmless freaks to be gawked at, they turn accusingly at us, weapons in hand. Cleopatra had screamed "Dirty, slimy .... FREAKS!," as if trying to shift her own evil to her victims. Now the victims will have their day. Freaks is also a political parable, as interpretable as King Kong.

Freaks is said to have originally been a half hour longer. The final cut is almost purely sympathetic toward its subject. There is no public in the movie - we in the movie audience play that role. Editing distills the horror content to a few memorably scary shots and a wraparound flashback ending that raises a lot of 'huh?' questions. Unless the freaks have the surgical talents of Frankenstein or Dr. Moreau, the ending is ridiculous.  2

Freaks is at its most weirdly sordid on the subject of sex. Tod Browning's movies were often about perverse relationships, with strange subtexts of father-daughter incest only one common theme. Here almost every freak is mocked sexually. The bearded lady's baby is reduced to a one-line gag and the half man-half woman is taunted with dialogue later echoed in Some Like it Hot. We always took the half-half performer to be a fake, but do you really want to know? Browning seems fascinated by the idea that these creatures are still human and therefore still have sexual drives. The Hilton siamese twins are normal enough to be a running gag that encourages all kinds of thoughts about group sex, and there's nothing abnormal about the locker-room thoughts that accompany contemplating Cleopatra's relationship with Hans, either as love between people of mismatched size, or sex with a child. This was surely the aspect that fired the accusations of abomination in 1932 - I can just imagine the mail and phone calls to MGM and Irving Thalberg wondering where he'd gone wrong. The concept of Taboo is still there, and Freaks is itself a freak of a film.

One detail in Freaks that still throws me: Phroso hugs Venus and runs away happily, saying, "You should have caught me before my operation!" We know he's a clown, but in the context of this movie that's a really creepy line.

I showed Freaks to my teenage kids and they found it not be disturbing at all, even if a bit depressing. My most interesting memory is taking my wife to see it and Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on a double bill at the Vagabond theater in about 1977. Although filmed in the same year, Hyde is far more technologically and cinematically advanced, making Freaks look like some kind of fossil from the silent era. But compared to the Browning film Mamoulian's movie is emotionally cold. Freaks really reaches into us for inner responses. In movies, technical polish loses to emotional truth every time.


Warner's DVD of Freaks looks fine with a B&W image that seems smoother than the laserdisc from about nine years ago. The soundtrack is also clear and that English subtitle track is very useful for lines read too quickly by a cast that sometimes seems to be speaking in a foreign language.

The text prologue is kept separate from the film, which accounts for the two minute discrepancy in official running times. The 'reunion' happy ending has been retained, obviously from an inferior source.

There's a commentary and a long, long docu that cover mostly the same ground. Author David J. Skal presents the filmic facts while a carny veteran who knew some of the performers adds comments, joined with a poorly-identified 'sideshow historian' lacking in credibility and prone to making generalizations and judgmental conclusions. Overall the docu lacks organization, with topics constantly being brought up and then not fully addressed. The interviewees have been matted into a garish orange and yellow carnival tent background, with canned 'circus' music running constantly below them. The docu would have been better half as long and with less music.

A final piece discusses the alternate endings to the film, merely repeating the 'reunion' scene in its entirety and showing re-edited endings with end titles and credits that have to be from the forties or fifties. That doesn't jibe with the claim that the movie was shelved and forgotten forever: Dwain Esper bought it for his exploitation circuit so it definitely stayed in underground distribution. David Skal's good explanation of the cut endings would have been better lumped into the main docu.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Freaks rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, docu, alternate ending featurette
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 1, 2004


Footnote:

1. I've never been more grateful for English subtitles, although the Warner people of course can't decipher Prince Randian's mid-African shout, and some of the German is left untranslated.
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2. From Gary Teetzel: "My interpretation of the "duck woman" ending is NOT that Cleopatra was literally transformed into a bird woman, but that she was severely mutilated by the freaks and wears the duck suit either to conceal her mangled lower body, or - more likely - to make her more of an attraction by making her appear more freakish. The duck suit was left over from a deleted sequence from West of Zanzibar."
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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