“Freaks” is a movie that has to be seen more than once. It generates a kaleidoscope of reactions when seen for the first time, and it’s impossible to sort them all out. A single viewing will overwhelm you emotionally, but it takes repeated visits to this surreal masterpiece to determine an intellectual response.
It’s a movie that's rich with anecdotes. One has Irving Thalberg, the film’s uncredited producer, telling director Tod Browning that he wanted to make the horror movie to end all horror movies, and then saying, when he saw the finished product, “Well, I asked for it and I got it.”
One story has it that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was under contract as a writer at MGM when the picture was made, bolted from the studio commissary and threw-up when the unusual cast came in for lunch. Another version has it that Fitzgerald felt more at ease with the cast of “Freaks” than he did with the studio big shots and so sat with them and lunched at their table.
Some say that Tod Browning exploited the cast (only Olga Roderick, the Bearded Lady, went on record later as saying she regretted her participation in the production) while others claim that Browning, a former circus and sideshow man himself, befriended the performers and set them up for life by turning them into international celebrities.
One thing is certain: no other Hollywood movie has ever generated legends like these.
As the story opens, we are moving slowly through a sideshow. The indoor talker, who bears a striking resemblance to Tod Browning, begins to tell his audience the back story of the show’s most unusual attraction. He and his audience gather around to top of a walled pit from the interior of which a light is shining up. Then we slip into the past . . .
A well-tailored dwarf named Hans (Harry Earles, who had worked with Browning in the silent version of “The Unholy Three”) is engaged to Frieda, another dwarf (Daisy Earles, Harry’s sister in real life). Despite his betrothal to Frieda, Hans is smitten by Cleopatra, the circus’ star aerialist (Olga Baclanova). Cleopatra encourages the little man’s attentions because he is willing to loan her money and buy her presents.
Cleo’s casual cruelty is the talk of the circus. Everyone knows that she is playing Hans for a sucker except Hans, who continues to harbor the delusion that she likes him.
Unknown to Hans, Cleo is actually romantically involved with Hercules, the strong man (Henry Victor). We first see Hercules as he wrestles a bull, the animal’s horns representing both the phallus and the traditional crown of the cuckold.
Finally, Frieda confronts Cleopatra and begs the big woman to leave Hans alone. She lets slip that Hans has inherited a fortune and we can see on Cleo’s face that she decides to change her amused encouragement of the little man to a determined attempt to woo him. She soon maneuvers Hans into a proposal, which she accepts with a plan to poison him and steal his money.
The wedding feast provides the background for the film’s most celebrated and quoted scene. Cleopatra, Hercules, the freaks and the other normals with the circus who have befriended them are gathered around a large table under the big top. Cleo and Hercules think the event is one huge joke, knowing as they do what they intend for Hans.
But then another dwarf stands on the table and brings a loving cup to everyone gathered. They each take a sip while chanting the words that make Cleopatra a member of their community--“Gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us.” When the loving cup is thrust toward Cleopatra she rises, the full horror of what they’re saying dawning on her. “You. Dirty. Slimy. Freaks!” she screams, stilling the crowd.
Obviously, the party is over and soon the only ones left at the table are Hercules, Cleopatra and Hans. The drunken strong man lifts Hans from his bench and puts him on Cleo’s shoulders telling the woman to give her new husband a horsey ride back to his wagon.
Hans soon falls ill, but the freaks have overheard the plotting of Hercules and Cleopatra. Off screen they tell Hans what his wife and her lover are up to and one dark stormy night the freaks take their revenge.
The film ends back at the indoor sideshow. A woman looks down into the pit and screams. Then Browning shows us the nature of the freak’s revenge. Cleopatra is now a freak herself, the Human Duck Woman. Legless and covered with feathers, she stands on her hands and emits quacking sounds.
Absurd? Oh yeah. Effective? You better believe it.
An overview of the plot, which is a standard morality/revenge tale, does nothing to prepare you for viewing the film. The cadre of freaks is made up of dwarfs, microcephalics (referred to in the movie as “pinheads”), Siamese twins, people who are armless and legless—and in one case, both—a bearded lady, an hermaphrodite, and persons the description of whom are beyond my vocabulary.
The characters play their reaction to the sideshow performers several ways. Some of the normals abuse them. Some are casually cruel and some are deliberately so. Other normals befriend the freaks. Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams are Phroso the clown (a name used by Lon Chaney in Browning’s silent “West of Zanzibar,” also with a circus background) and Venus, the bareback rider, who, while sometimes a bit patronizing, are intended to represent acceptance.
More problematic is Browning’s attitude as evidenced in the film. We first see the freaks, described as “children” although several of them are anything but, frolicking on a picnic. As they skip around in a circle they look all the world as if Browning wanted to parody the fairies in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Of course, Max Reinhardt’s film of that play wouldn’t be made for another three years, but the suggestion of Arcadian fantasy turned into a sick joke is inescapable.
In fact, any joke involving the freaks must come across as black humor. One of the Siamese twins, Daisy Hilton, is married to a clown (Roscoe Ates) and the second twin, Violet, becomes engaged. The two men ask each other to bring their wives over for a visit.
But sometimes the joke is used to suggest that there isn’t much difference between one world and another. We first meet the half-man/half-woman Joseph Josephine as s/he strolls between the wagons and Roscoe is changing out of the costume of a Roman lady. The male/female combination is emphasized.
And occasionally the humor is just as bizarre as the visuals. When Phroso comforts Venus, who has just broken up with her boyfriend, she tells him, “Say, you’re a pretty good kid.” “You’re darn right,” he responds. “You should have caught me before my operation.” Whatever that may mean.
There really isn’t much of horror in this horror movie, although there is a lot of unease beginning when the freaks figure out that Hercules and Cleopatra intend to murder Hans. Everywhere the big woman turns, there are two or three of her unusual enemies watching from the shadows.
Things turn more grotesque during the climactic storm when the wagons carrying Cleopatra and Hercules tip over in the mud. One of the little men throws a knife at the strong man, dropping him and allowing several more freaks to attack him. Cleopatra rushes off into the woods before she is brought down.
Originally, Browning intended a tree to fall on Cleo, thereby giving the freaks the opportunity they need to carve her up. Hercules was supposed to be seen in the epilog singing like a counter-tenor, having been emasculated. As the film now stands, Hercules is last seen being swarmed under. Only Cleopatra survives to become truly, “one of us.”
But perhaps as shocking and horrifying as the appearance of the freaks to audiences of 1932 is the film’s sexual innuendo. Cleopatra is blatantly sexual. When Hercules comes to her wagon, she offers to cook some eggs for him. She turns to him, puts her hands on her hips, thrusts her breasts toward him and asks, theoretically about the eggs, “How do you like them?”
Pre-code audiences were used to stuff like that, but they hadn’t been exposed, in mainstream films at least, to the necessity of public sex when Siamese twins cohabitate with their husbands. The idea of a dwarf and a “big woman” having a sexual relationship can still generate some ribald snickering, but there’s undeniably off-putting in the mental image as well.
Part of this problem springs from the tragic gut-feeling that the freaks are somehow less than human, a delusion that the movie tries so hard to correct. But the question is: can it? Can any film move audiences completely beyond the unwanted and unwarranted notion that there is something unnaturally wrong with people who look so different?
Browning’s camera jumps in and out, and tracks with the movement of the characters with a freedom he had rarely allowed himself previously. But during those last moments, when the freaks wreak their vengeance, the camera stands still, their faces lunging at us in close-up, and even the most sensitive ones among us are likely to push backward in our seats to put as much distance as possible between us and the grotesque image on the screen.