Is there a more perfect midnight movie for the TCM Classic Film Festival than FREAKS (1932)?
One of the most infamous and unique films ever released by a Hollywood studio, it was so badly received by audiences, critics, and even the studio that made it (the unlikely MGM), that it destroyed its director’s career and built a reputation for vile, despicable hideousness that persists in some quarters even to this day. The truth is that FREAKS is barely even a horror movie. It turns into one at the end, but up to that point the main tone of the piece is not dread and fear, but compassion. The Freaks are human oddities — physically deformed people, in some cases horribly so. They are midgets, Siamese twins, lacking in arms or legs (or both), a bearded lady, pinheads, a “human skeleton” and so forth, and they work as circus performers. They are real human beings, not normal-bodied actors in make-up. And they are the most humane, warm and kind people in the film.
The “monsters” of the story are among the “normal” people, two in particular, who tease, berate and manipulate the Freaks for their own advantage. Their scenes of cruel treatment of the Freaks are by far the most shocking moments of the picture, even when they don’t involve physical violence.
When the two main villains of the story — trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and strong man Hercules (Henry Victor) — conspire to try and fleece a midget (Harry Earles) for his money and slowly poison him to death in the process, the rest of the Freaks eventually have enough and take matters into their own hands, leading to a climax brimming with thunder, lightning, mud, and murder. Thanks to director Tod Browning, it looks like something out of his Dracula (1931), but with more kinetic, cinematic movement than that earlier picture, which, iconic as it is, is a bit on the static side.
Comedian Dana Gould delivered a marvelously entertaining introduction to the energized midnight crowd on Saturday night, joking that Tod Browning “made David Lynch look like Garry Marshall.” FREAKS, he said, stands as “Browning’s defining achievement, and the film that also destroyed him. It was a disaster! It was the Jack and Jill (2011) of its day! A woman threatened to sue MGM because she said the film made her have a miscarriage. It is truly an astounding and astonishing motion picture.”
Browning was obsessed with making this film, and he was by all accounts extremely difficult to work with — sarcastic and difficult to please — except when it came to the Freaks. He loved them and treated them gingerly and sensitively, just as he does on screen, underscoring his interest in the melancholy theme of people who cn’t fit in.
There’s also great pre-Code fun to be had in FREAKS. Its reputation as a disturbing horror film tends to mask the fact that it is as sexually provocative and racy as many other pre-Coders. In one scene, actress Leila Hyams speaks to Wallace Ford (they play good “normal” people) who appears to be naked in a bathtub. Hyams leans over the edge, talking casually to him. Only at the end of the scene do we see that Ford was actually wearing pants and wasn’t taking a bath at all. In another scene, Olga Baclanova is about to cook eggs for Henry Victor when she unties her robe, sticks out her chest and asks, “How do you like them?”
But best of all is a moment where one of the Siamese twins kisses her fiance, and her sister, joined at the hip, registers pleasure on her face. Now that’s messed up, Mr. Browning!
FREAKS was originally a good 20-30 minutes longer than its current 62-minute running time. The original release drew such outrage and condemnation that MGM cut the film, softened the ending, then pulled it from circulation. Some cities and states banned the film outright, and Great Britain banned it for thirty years.
“FREAKS is too gruesome for the Better Films Council of Rhode Island,” stated one news item. “The [woman's organization] protested to Capt. George W. Cowan, police censor, to see if the film couldn’t be toned down. Capt. Cowan, however, said he had seen the film three times and that it was okay as far as he was concerned.”
Capt. Cowan and his freakishly good taste notwithstanding, most people of 1932 would probably think it insane that FREAKS, 82 years later, would be acclaimed as a great film and selected to play in an event like the TCM Classic Film Festival.
Here’s a clip of one of FREAKS’ weirdest, most quoted, and most deliriously wonderful scenes: Gooble gobble indeed!