Friday, October 30, 2009

Freaks (1932)

Freaks is probably the quintessential Pre-code horror film. Such a movie could never be made today, unless make-up effects were used in place of real-life people with deformities. Even cut back to 64 minutes from 90 or so, the film was too intense for post-code Hollywood. The fascination with the daily lives of people with deformities mirrors the period's fascination with the prostitute film. Browning had been a circus performer and was able to present the tale that was still horrifying and yet showed the "freaks" mostly sympathetically. During the Depression self- exploitation film, be it exploitation of circus performers or prostitutes, was considered more justifiable. People have to make a living and studios certainly didn't mind profiting from the fact that people wanted to see exploitation movies. MGM tasked Browning with giving them something unique that would compete with Univerisal's tremendously profitable horror franchises. While Freaks was certainly unique, it wasn't profitable. The film was just too strange and the studio backed away from casting major stars or doing much publicity for it. It was more or less forgotten until the 1970s when it was revived and appreciated for the first time..

A great deal of plot actually revolves around the so-called "normals" in the circus the good couple, Venus (Leila Hyams) and Phrenso (Wallace Ford) and the bad couple Cleo (Olga Baclanova) and Hercules (Henry Victor). There is a third couple, little people, Hans and Freida (played by brother and sister Harry and Daisy Earles), who become involved making Freaks a six-sided love polygon. Cleo who is having an affair with Hercules, marries Hans for his inheritance. At the wedding banquet, the freaks, generously, but perhaps optimistically move to accept Cleo into their group by chanting "one of us" and drinking from a huge goblet. Cleo flips out and offends them. After that they are suspicious and soon figure out her plan to murder Hans and steal his money.

The side-show performers and their routines are strung onto this relatively straight-forward skeleton of a plot. Many of the cuts came from these areas of the film, which may have detracted focus from the central story. These are parts of the film that are the most compulsively watchable. While the love drama wears out quite quickly, it is impossible to be bored while a guy (Prince Randian) with no arms and legs smokes a cigarette. Also, after watching Freaks, I really want an old-school circus house wagon. They are awesome.

The ending of Freaks is where it changes into a true horror movie. I think that cut back as it is, the ending is a bit confusing. I thought that Cleo was changed into the chicken woman through some sort of magic since none of her mutilation is shown. Apparently there were intensely brutal scenes of Cleo and Hercules being attacked with knives. Hercules is castrated and Cleo winds up loosing her legs, an eye and use of her voice. The studio insisted that a happy ending be filmed that resolves the relationship between Freida and Hans and has a carnival barker explaining about Cleo's transformation into the human chicken. Part of me is glad that those scenes were lost to posterity, even though the integrity of the film was compromised by the "softer" ending. It is a lot easier to sympathize with the freaks if you don't have to watch them mutilate people.

Note: Well it turns out having a three year old during Halloween week is not the optimal situation for maintaining a blog about pre-code horror movies. Between parties, costume contests, pumpkin carving contests and actual trick or treating, I'm not getting a whole lot of spare time to flap my gums about pre-code horror. I have a backlog of movies I didn't get to. I may just extend Halloween week through the 7th of November. Yeah, that makes sense!


Sarah said...

I was just talking about this film with a friend of mine! I saw it a few years ago and what stood out to me most was the ending when they all got together to "deal" with Hercules and Cleo. Especially the legless woman(?) who crawled out from beneath a caravan. Shivers!

AbbyNormal said...

I watched this, but didn't have the chutzpah to really blog about it. I wasn't sure what to say, to be honest.

I see this as a classic and definitely something anyone interested in early films should watch. I think Browning did a terrific job of having the audience feel like an outsider while watching the bond of the "freaks". It is a memorable film that I thought was brilliant.

I just have a really hard time with cruelty in films. Not only were people cruel to the "freaks" but Hans was cruel to Frieda. I think everyone was cruel to everyone, with the possible exception of sweet Frieda who only wanted Hans to be happy.

I guess I am just a sap :-)

SteveQ said...

When I first heard about this movie, it was because there was a demonstration outside the theater - 50 years after it first came out! I actually ended up meeting most of the surviving cast. Olga, the bearded lady, ended up owning (with her sister) a movie theater near Coney Island. This was the first film for dwarf Angelo Rossitto, whose next film was with Laurel and Hardy (!); he went on to a Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film, "The Trip" with Peter Fonda and ended with "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" for a 50 year career in film; I looked for him many times in "The Wizard of Oz" and when I met him, found out he missed it because of pneumonia. Johnny Eck (legless "half-man") lived with his brother and supplemented the family income by selling his paintings.

KooKoo the Bird Lady had nothing wrong with her except being unattractive; she joined the circus sideshow voluntarily, unlike the rest. Zip and Pip, the microcephalics, did much to help people with their condition, as they showed they were much more capable than anyone had thought possible.

I'm pretty sure Harry and Daisy were married, not siblings (this would be a good place for a White Stripes remark). Prince Randian (armless and legless) must not have lived long after this film, as there are almost no records of him. And I've never known the name of the "human skeleton," though not for lack of effort.

My kind of people, I guess.

Jennythenipper said...

From Wikipedia:

"The Doll Family was a group of four dwarf siblings from Germany who were popular performers in circuses and sideshows in the United States from the 1920s until their retirement in the mid 1950s.

Gracie, Harry, Daisy, and Tiny..."

I read it a couple of other places online as well. I'd assumed they were husband and wife until I looked it up. Of course, Wikipedia could be wrong.

Daisy and Harry were in Wizard of Oz, which was their main film credit besides Freaks.

Thanks for the info Steve. It's nice to see that most of them moved beyond the self-exploitation racket.

Abby: I totally get where you're coming from on this. I'm not a huge fan of cruelty either. Still Venus and Phrenso were positive characters who weren't mean to anyone.

SteveQ said...

I was thinking that four children with a recessive type of dwarfism would be astronomically rare - I hadn't thought of the obvious: both of their parents also were dwarves.

BTW, Daisy and Violet Hilton (conjoined twins) had one starring role in "Chained For Life," an interesting exploitation flick.

SteveQ said...

Just discovered the "Living Skeleton" was Pete Robinson. Not that anyone cares. So now I know the names of all the cast except the armless woman.

Jennythenipper said...

Hey, good job, Steve. I care, really I do. You should at least send that info to the IMDB, yo!

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