1932 circus soap opera

Rating: 20/20

Plot: A circus strongman and a trapeze artist conspire to steal a sideshow little person's fortune. Gooble gobble.

This is a special movie. A lot of its specialness is the context. It's 1932 when talkies are mostly awkward, and as expected from both the time period and the use of non-professional actors, this is stagy. But you look past that because so much of this is stuff you've never seen on screen before and will likely never see again. Sure, certain directors revel in showing audiences the grotesque, but in Freaks, Browning shows it all so casually, and instead of exploiting the sideshow performers in this movie, they're just nonchalantly shown going about their business and are easily more likable than the "normal" characters. This is prior to the enforcement of the Hays Code, and a couple years later, this movie wouldn't have been allowed to exist. Predictably, it was banned in several places as well as being heavily edited by the studio. The studio also decided to tack on a happier ending.

Here's my context: I had heard about this movie long before I saw it. I saw a VHS copy at a library and took it home to give it a spin. I enjoyed the antics of the titular freaks, but the 1930's movie aesthetics were distracting while the story was weak. It's really a side-show soap-opera rather than the horror cult classic that I was setting myself up for. However, I couldn't shake it, especially the climactic scene in the rain that is so wonderfully filmed. I watched it again, and what I thought were flaws the first time I watched it didn't seem important at all. Now that I've seen it a third time, I think it's a masterpiece.

At the heart of the movie is Hans, the little guy whose infatuation with the "most beautiful big person" he's ever seen leads to the tragedy. He's played by Harry Earles who unfortunately has a small discography which includes another Tod Browning movie called The Unholy Three which I liked. He was also in the Lollipop Guild. His wife in this movie is played by his sister which, if you ask me, is all kinds of creepy. His character in this is such a player. Harry and his sister Daisy are both great, and they have these great little people voices. The best Hans scene is when he raves about "Swiss cheese heads" with tiny clinched fist body language. The "laughing" speech is also really good. Of course, this movie isn't just about little people. The first shot of the microcephalic children from the circus with "La la la" circles is plenty shocking, but there's also something beautiful and wonderful about the whole thing. Add conjoined twins, one who is marrying a stutterer; Johnny sans the lower half of his body whose deft maneuvering using on his arms is beyond impressive (Johnny Eck--a guy referenced in a Tom Waits' song); a marriage between a thin man and bearded lady whose offspring just made me try picturing a thin-man-and-bearded-lady sex scene in my head; a guy with no arms and no legs who lights a cigarette (Prince Randian in his only role); a bird-girl; Schlitzie, one of the "pinheads" whose incomprehensible dialogue doesn't even get subtitles; and the 2'11" Angelo Rossitto who gets the "Gooble Gobble" chant started during the great wedding reception scene. From the torn title screen leading into a carnival barker's foreshadowing intro about the "code of living monstrosities" to the shocking rain-drenched finale, this is about as fascinating as movies get, one that has really grown into one of my favorites.


cory said...

It is a masterpiece and is also one of my favorite movies. "One of Us. One of us", the rain scene, and the way the ending perfectly brings the film full circle are all things I'll never forget. Something else that shocked me is how quickly I stopped being shocked at the characters physical deformities, and how fast I just saw them as people...people capable of really getting their horrible justice/vengeance on. "Freaks" is unique, unforgettable, and is one of the greatest horror movies ever made. A 19.

Shane said... the hell is she changed into a half-woman/half-bird at the end? The freaks weren't wizards!

cory said...

I took it as her being totally mutilated by them, and that was what she sort of looked like by the time they were done with her.