Freaks: a sympathetic work that pleads on behalf of its performers and turns normality on its head

Todd Browning, “Freaks” (1932)

A unique cult film of the kind that can be said to be the only film of its genre – outsider film, perhaps – “Freaks” is actually a sympathetic work highlighting the abilities of several of its cast members who had physical or mental disabilities. The title itself is intended to be ironic, forcing viewers to question who the real freaks in the movie are. All the action takes place in a circus, which itself is significant becauseĀ for Under Southern Eye readers of a certain age, that was the traditional repository where children dreamed of running away to, if conditions at home were bad, and where they knew they would be accepted for what they were, be they beautiful or ugly or deformed, because everyone in the circus was an outsider of some kind or another. The very venue of a circus becomes a place where “normality” is interrogated and turned on its head, and the audience is forced to consider institutions like family and concepts like loyalty, payback and revenge anew.

The plot is related in flashback, and this in itself turns the whole film into a parable about acceptance and discrimination, and what happens if by threatening one individual, an entire community is threatened. Hans (Harry Earle), a circus midget, falls head over heels in love with normal-sized trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), despite being engaged to Freda (Daisy Earle, Harry’s sister). Cleopatra treats Hans patronisingly until she discovers that he is heir to a massive fortune. She then conspires with fellow performer and secret lover Hercules for her to marry Hans, get rid of him and abscond with the fortune together with Hercules. She goes through with the first part of the plan but Hans discovers the plot to kill him through her and Hercules’ indiscretion and with the help of the circus sideshow freak community foils the two lovers’ evil plot.

Along the way viewers are treated to character vignettes of the various sideshow freak performers which generate sub-plots that unfortunately go nowhere. The film was originally 90 minutes long but cuts forced by the studio that funded it reduced the film’s length to 75 minutes and most of the 15 minutes that were cut well and truly ended up in the Great Garbage Bin in the Sky. Thus we never learn how the conjoined twin sisters Daisy and Violet (Daisy and Violet Hilton) manage to live with Daisy’s husband, a stuttering performer in Hercules’ routine, and the circus owner’s son who woos Violet and asks her to marry him (she accepts), nor whether Venus (Leila Hyams), Hercules’ ex-girlfriend, finally escapes Hercules’ temper and violence and finds happiness with Frozo (Wallace Ford) the clown. We also do not know what really happens to Hercules at the end of the film – apparently in the cuts, there is the suggestion that he was castrated – or, more importantly, whether Hans and Freda find happiness together.

The acting can be very uneven – the Earle siblings are not too convincing as would-be lovers but one doubts that actors who areĀ siblings in real life would be able to play lovers very convincingly – and in parts the plot appears very rushed, particularly in the wedding feast scene where Cleopatra and Hercules reveal a bit too obviously to Hans and the wedding guests their affection for one another.

The film can be read as a plea for viewers to accept people with deformities as humans with all the passions and feelings that the rest of us take for granted, and that they are entitled to the same hopes for happiness, peace and love as all humans should be. The sideshow performers close ranks around Hans when they realise Cleopatra and Hercules are exploiting him. (One might expect that by the same token, had Hans spurned them, the sideshow performers would show him the consequences of his actions – by abandoning him when he most needs them.) All the sideshow cast are given significant roles and perform them to the best of their abilities – even the Human Torso (Prince Randian) gets a close-up scene all his own, if just to demonstrate how he lights up a cigarette.

When first released in pre-Depression America, the film flopped but since 1962, its cult status has grown in parallel with a growing sympathy for people with mental and physical disabilities; at the same time, the increasing rarity of such people in public and the cessation of avenues that highlight their differences might serve to separate them further from the general public so the apparent acceptance of people who look and behave very differently from the rest of us might be superficial.