20 August 2014

(1932)

One of us, one of us
Gooble gobble, Gooble gobble
We accept her, we accept her
One of us, one of us

Long before The Sentinel (1977) shocked audiences with its use of non-actors with real deformities, there was Tod Browning's Freaks (1932).

Browning, who had directed the classic Dracula in 1931, was a former actor and circus performer. He got his start in the movie business by working for D. W. Griffith and began directing for Universal in 1919.

It was perhaps Browning's experience with the circus that stirred his interest in Freaks, an MGM production.

If Dracula is his best known work, this is his masterpiece...a film that writer David Thompson calls "an allegory on the antagonism between the beautiful and the damned, and an inexplicably harrowing insight from the studio of so much glamour."

Indeed, it is a horror movie with a message and was widely banned for 30 years, practically ruining the career of its director in the process.

Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is known as the "peacock of the air." It was said that a prince once shot himself over her. A glamorous trapeze artist with the circus, she is the envy of every woman...and most men are struck by her beauty.

In particular, Hans (Harry Earles), a little person, takes notice of Cleo...much to the consternation of Frieda (Daisy Earles), the girl he has asked to marry. Hans tells Frieda that she's the only one for him.

Vain Cleo is delighted by the attention and finds it humorous that a midget has a crush on her. Hans senses this and tells her that most people don't realize he's a man who has the same feelings they do. She assures him that she is not mocking him. Nearby, Frieda is concerned...as much for Hans as for her future with him.

The circus is run by Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione), who has taken in society's rejects. Many of them were born with various defects that render them unable to function in any other capacity. It's an extended family of sorts...albeit an unconventional one.

There are the pinheads, Elvira and Jenny Lee (played by themselves) and Schlitze (also herself). And people with missing limbs, including the human torso (Radian).

Most of the townspeople are repulsed by these unfortunates but Madame Tetrallini looks after them as she would her own children. There are "normal" people in the circus, of course.

But they are not always as sympathetic towards what they consider to be "freaks." A pair of acrobats, the Rollo brothers (Edward Murphy and Matt McHugh) relish the opportunity to make fun of the half-man/half-woman, Josephine/Joseph.

Cleo starts to abuse the interest that Hans for her. She asks to borrow money and he complies. Meanwhile, Venus (Leila Hyams) breaks up with her boyfriend Hercules (Henry Victor), the circus muscle man - and finds solace in the arms of Phroso (Wallace Ford) the clown.

Before long, Cleo turns her attention to Hercules and invites him to her wagon for a drink. When Hercules sees Josephine/Joseph watching them in an embrace, he punches her/him square in the face.

Hans starts to shower Cleo with gifts. Behind his back, Cleo and Hercules make fun of the little guy and laugh at how Cleo is able to take advantage of him.

Frieda confides in Venus that she is jealous. There is no love lost between Venus and Cleo and Frieda has a sympathetic ear. In addition, Venus treats everyone with the dignity they deserve.

As much as is possible, life is relatively normal in the circus. The bearded lady (Olga Roderick) gives birth to a girl and people are thrilled. The father is the human skeleton (Peter Robinson) and the new dad hands out cigars. Daisy and Violet, the Siamese Hilton sisters (played by themselves) become engaged.

Some folks begin to have suspicions about Cleo's intentions. An armless girl (Frances O'Connor) makes the observation that Cleo isn't one of them. "We're just filthy things to her. She'd spit on Hans if he wasn't giving her presents," she tells the half-boy (Johnny Eck).

Venus and Phroso are two of the only "normal" people who treat the others with respect. In one touching moment, Phroso even takes the time to compliment Schlitze on her dress.

Hans continues to court Cleo and his marriage to Frieda is called off. Frieda pays him a visit and tries to warn him that his obsession is unhealthy. "To me you're a man...but to her you're only something to laugh at," she tells him. The whole circus is making fun of the situation but Hans doesn't care. However, he is sorry for the way he's treated Frieda and he apologizes.

After Hans presents Cleo with a platinum necklace...Cleo and Hercules wonder how much it's worth and where Hans is getting his money. Frieda tries to intervene by trying to talk to Cleo but when she inadvertently blurts out that Hans has inherited a fortune, Cleo decides to marry him. Frieda leaves and Cleo tells Hercules, "midgets are not strong...he could get sick."

At the wedding feast, the occasion is festive. But Cleo openly flirts with Hercules and brazenly calls her new husband her little "green-eyed monster" to his face. Frieda storms out in tears, followed closely by Madame Tetrallini.

With much sincerity, the circus people seated around the table begin a chant for Cleo. "One of us, one of us...we accept her, we accept her..." Cleo begins to get uncomfortable as the giddy chant continues. "One of us...gooble gobble, one of us..."

Angrily, Cleo grabs a wineglass that the half-boy has been passing around the table. "Filthy, slimy, freaks!" she screams. She tosses the drink at her guests...who then sheepishly proceed to walk out.

Hans is hurt but doesn't have the nerve to confront Cleo - or Hercules, who is egging her on. Cleo humiliates Hans further by giving him a horsy-back ride on her shoulders.

Cleo and Hercules apologize to him but Hans is so drunk, he only passes out. Hans soon becomes ill and a doctor blames it on poison. It's obvious who is behind it and Venus confronts Hercules and threatens to inform the police.

"So...you'll tell on your own people," he says. "My people are decent circus folks, not dirty rats that would kill a freak to get his money," she responds.

The circus family close ranks. The half-boy spies on Cleo and sees her putting poison in Hans' medicine. What Cleo doesn't know is that her husband is onto her and he spits it out behind her back. A plan is put into motion for that evening.

During an intense rainstorm, Hans lets Cleo know that he is aware of her plot. He asks for the bottle of poison and Cleo hands it to him. She has no choice. Several of Hans' friends are in her wagon and threaten her with a switchblade and a gun.

Meanwhile, Hercules attempts to murder Venus to keep her quiet. Phroso saves her but is injured when Hercules sticks his head in the flame of a stove.

Hercules soon gets his comeuppance when various circus folk - armed with knives...slither and crawl through the rain and inflict their own brand of justice. Cleo doesn't get away with her treachery either. She is captured and mutilated.

In due time, she is turned into one of the freaks she so disdained and put on display in the circus for people to gawk at...

Hans leaves the circus and he and Frieda are soon reunited by Phroso and Venus.

Director Browning could never quite live down the controversy of Freaks and he was ostracized and blackballed by most studios. He did manage to make Mark of the Vampire with Lionel Barrymore, a remake of London After Midnight, and The Devil Doll before retiring from films in 1939 and going into real estate. He died in 1962.

The casting in Freaks is extraordinary, since all the "actors and actresses" are real and basically play themselves. Of special note is the fact that Harry and Daisy Earles (Hans and Frieda) are actually brother and sister...which may explain why their onscreen relationship is underplayed.

Original casting prospects sought Myrna Loy as Cleopatra, Jean Harlow as Venus and Victor McLaglen as Hercules but they all "balked" at the prospect of co-starring with "sideshow exhibitions."

At once both (beautifully) politically incorrect and also lovingly poignant, Freaks is a quirky horror masterpiece from director Browning...and sadly, a product the likes of which we'll never see again.

The lost commercial art of sideshow oddities (both human and agricultural) must certainly have been one of the first casualties of the PC onslaught over the past 20 years.

Big brother censorship came not from the political right (as so often predicted), but instead from the 'sensitive' left that decided midway freaks was an inhumane form of entertainment exploitation. Browning's Freaks stands as a burning, eternal testament to a time before this mass mushy cleanup.

But in such arguments, don't the subjects deserve a primary say? The carnival attractions of Freaks form an insulary brotherhood: protective, strong and unforgiving. Their revenge is awesome and showcases their resilience. And their livelihood is the midway. Put them working in a business office alongside Baclanova...and you've stripped them of any accrued power.

Browning did a masterful job portraying nature's "freaks" as a loving, caring kind of alternative family. You might say that what happens at the end of the film is justified. Revenge was never sweeter.

The turning point of the story has to be the wedding feast. Everyone is having a good time, with the exception of Frieda...who has been onto Cleo's malevolence from the start. A chicken man named Koo Koo is dancing on the table. The armless lady, the half-man/half-woman, etc. are enjoying the (what to them is) a joyous occasion.

When Cleo throws the drink and lets loose with her tirade, you can't help but feel revulsion and sadness for the "freaks." It's a heartbreaking and wrenchingly memorable scene...one of many in this excellent film.

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