Freaks,released in February 1932,was and is a title that says as much about itself as it does about its' subject matter.It was a curiosity then and remains so to this day.Judged on its' merits as a film,and all that that implies,it comes up far short of its'intended goals.
Browning had previously worked with Lon Chaney who was THE master of grotesquery in his characterizations.He also had directed the horror hit Dracula the year previously.Mix this with the so called "Great Depression" and the studios desperation to keep their heads above water and looking for new ideas to intice patrons into the theatres,and you have the movie Freaks.
The movies' centrepiece is two midgets,Hans and Frieda(Harry and Daisy Earles-real life brother and sister).Both are part of the "freak" section of the circus performers and are engaged to be married.Enter trapeze artist Cleopatra(Olga Baclanova)who catches the eye of little Hans.She humours and eggs him on by flirting openly with him,much to Frieda's chagrin and embarrassement.Cleopatra however goes for the circus strongman Hercules(Henry Victor) and they both take great delight in humiliating Hans and the other "freaks" frequently.
When Cleopatra learns that Hans has alot of money she talks him into marrying her.Frieda tries to tell Hans it's a sham,but he won't listen and goes ahead with the marriage.During a reception it becomes apparent to Hans things aren't what they should be when Hercules kisses Cleopatra openly.And when the "freaks" in attendance chant that they "accept her"(Cleopatra),she becomes enraged at the thought and tells them to take a hike.During the reception she had slipped a poison into Hans drink-starting early to get rid of him and collect on his money.She carries him back to the wagon and a doctor is summoned,as she feigns innocence.She convinces the doctor but the spurned"freaks" are getting wise to the situation and keep a close watch.Sure enough when Cleopatra is alone she slips poison into Hans medicine.Hans however has gotten wise himself and spits out each dose when Cleo isn't looking.Hans has had it and decides,along with his friends,to take care of cheating/murdering Cleopatra and Hercules.When Hercules goes after his ex girlfriend Venus,who threatened to take what she knew about the two of them to the police,the "freaks" are right there.On a rain soaked,mud filled ground Hercules tries to crawl away with a knife in his side from the approaching threat,but he is eventually overtaken.At the same time Cleopatra runs screaming into the night from her wagon only to be followed by more "freaks",who get their woman.The movie ends as it had begun,with people standing around a large square enclosure,inside which is the former Cleopatra,now a "freak" and a much deformed "duck woman".
This slight tale of revenge was banned in a few countries around the world due to its' graphic and exploitative subject matter.It was released ,pulled,re-released again and again(parred down),but it still received terrible reviews and bombed at the box office.Actual circus performers("freaks") as you can see were "used" heavily in the movie for authenticity.You have pinheads,a half woman-half man,more than one armless woman,siamese twins,the living torso,bird girl,a dwarf,a legless dwarf,and several others.What brings the movie down isn't so much the obviously contrived script of righting a wrong but the poor acting involved.Most of the "freaks" did fairly well all things considered,but Olga Baclanova as Cleo and her brutish boyfriend Hercules played by Henry Victor,troll for new depths in bad acting.Olga plays it way,way over the top and Victor comes along to push down them both down the slippery slope on the other side.You actually wonder what took them so long to do them in! On the other side of the coin is Venus(Leila Hyams) and Phroso(Wallace Ford),who save the film from total oblivion.Rose Dione as Madame Tetrallini also manages to make the most of her on screen time.
Sure one feels an empathy towards these men and women,the underbelly of the circus world,but it is an empathy that Browning unnecessarily pounds home.Not only does he show fellow "normal" circus perfomers shunning them(not generally the case in real life)just to achieve a modicum of a plot,the re-issue prologue REALLY pounds home the sympathy message by its' sermonization.At the end of the day however there just is not enough good to overcome the bad in this film.It was a brave experiment on Browning's and MGM's parts,but it didn't come off.
As you know the film we see today is a cut down version of the original.Unless some archive somewhere turns up a longer copy,this is the film posterity will be left with.Having said that though,I do not believe this film would have been helped by the extra footage.I think it would just have prolonged the agony and possibly made it even worse than what we have today.The film was revived some 30 years or more ago by a film enthusiast and caught on with other film devotees due to its' unsual subject matter,which caused MGM to eventually rustle through its' holdings,dig it out and dust off its' copies.It was re-released On VHS in 1990 and now it is on DVD.
The DVD's print here is of good quality and sound.The sound in fact has been improved since its' 1990 release on tape.You can now understand most of the dialogue,though some spoken by the circus performers are still a little hard to catch.This release contains three alternate endings to the film,a re-issue prologue,a commentary and two featurettes,one on Tod Browning and one on the movie itself.
In conclusion Freaks,an interesting curiosity-yes;an experiment not fulfilled or succesful-yes.An example of good film making?....definitely not.