Friday, October 17, 2014

Stubs – Freaks

Freaks (1932) Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Rosco Ates. Directed by Tod Browning. Screenplay by Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon. Based on the short story Spurs, by Tod Robbins. Produced by Tod Browning. Run Time: 65 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Horror, Drama

To be honest with you, dear readers, Freaks is a film I had, for many years, avoided seeing. However, seeing as Halloween is approaching and we wanted to do a retrospective of classic horror films, I decided to man up and watch it. I may sound squeamish, but I have never been a fan of freak shows. These poor deformed people fall under a category Woody Allen described in Annie Hall (1977) as the horrible, people you don’t know how they get through life. I don’t find amusement in their deformities, nor do I relish watching them perform. But while these freaks might be the “stars” of the film, their deformities are not the real focus.

The film opens with patrons at a circus freak show. The barker (Murray Kinnell) leads them over to a horrifying display that makes women gasp. He explains to the crowd that the pitiful specimen inside this particular case was once a beautiful aerialist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who was known as the "Peacock of the Air." For most of the film, we hear her story as it is related to the gathered crowd.

Hans (Harry Earles), one of the carnival's dwarfs, is infatuated with the normal size Cleopatra's beauty, much to the dismay of his fiancée, Frieda (Daisy Earles), who is Hans' size. Cleopatra delights in toying with Hans' affections and making Frieda jealous, and she continually borrows large sums of money from Hans, who is only to happy to oblige. Despite his stature, Hans desperately wants to be taken seriously as a man and he apparently feels Cleopatra’s affections are proof of that.

Hans (Harry Earles) and his fiancee, Frieda (Daisy Earles). In real life they were brother and sister.

The freaks in the show are considered second class creatures by most of the other performers, who make fun of them to their faces. And this treatment is not limited to the circus itself. When one of the minders takes some of the freaks outside the circus grounds to let them run and play like children, they encounter Monsieur Duval (Albert Conti) and his caretaker, Jean (Michael Visaroff). Jean wants to run them removed from Duval’s land immediately, but the landowner takes pity and lets them stay.

One day, Hercules (Henry Victor), the strongman in the show, ends his relationship with Venus (Leila Hyams), one of the other "normal" members of the carnival. Venus turns to and is comforted by one of the clowns, Phroso (Wallace Ford), and her friends, the freaks. Roscoe (Rosco Ates), another of the circus clowns, is married to Daisy Hilton, one of the carnival's Siamese twins.

Venus (Leila Hyams) and Phroso (Wallace Ford), one of the clowns in the circus.

Hercules takes up almost immediately with Cleopatra, who shares with her his cruel attitude toward, and his disdain of, the freaks. Hercules sees nothing wrong with beating the Half Woman – Half Man (Josephine Joseph) when he thinks she’s eavesdropping on them.

Hans is increasingly ignoring Frieda to moon over Cleopatra. But Cleopatra is only interested in Hercules’ money. Venus, who doesn’t have a problem with the freaks, talks openly with Frieda about Hans’ fascination with Cleopatra. Venus tries to convince her that Cleopatra doesn’t love him. But that’s not what Frieda is worried about. She only wants Hans to be happy.

But Cleopatra doesn’t love Hans and even has him rub her shoulders to amuse other circus performers. Basically, everyone but Hans knows what’s going on with him and Cleopatra.

Cleopatra has Hans rub her shoulders for the amusement of the other performers.

Not all of the normals treat the freaks badly. Venus and Phroso don’t have problems with associating with them and are told when the Bearded Lady (Olga Roderick) gives birth to the Human Skeleton’s (Peter Robinson) daughter. Phroso even “flirts” with Schlitze, one of the so-called pinheads in the show, making her feel special by the attention.

Schlitze is one of the pinheads in the show. Despite the dress, Schlitze was a man.

Meanwhile, Venus and Phroso’s relationship continues to blossom. Love must be in the air as Violet Hilton, Daisy’s sister, also gets engaged to a Mr. Rogers (Demetrius Alexis). This promises to make for a very weird marriage for all. But not all love ends well.

Frieda goes to Hans to try and talk him out of his infatuation with Cleopatra. She tells him that the circus is laughing at him behind his back, but Hans doesn’t want to hear it and breaks off his engagement to Frieda.

Hans then gives Cleopatra an expensive platinum bracelet, causing Hercules to ask where the pollywog gets his money. Frieda goes to Cleopatra and begs her to cease leading Hans on. But Cleopatra laughs at her. Frieda then inadvertently tells Cleopatra about the fortune Hans has inherited, which only makes things worse as Cleopatra and Hercules plot to get his money. Cleopatra can marry him and then kill him.

Frieda goes to Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and asks her to leave Hans alone.

And indeed, Cleopatra marries Hans. At the wedding feast, she openly makes out with Hercules much to the disdain of Hans and the other freaks. Frieda, who can’t stand witnessing Hans' humiliation, leaves the table.

When the drunken freaks pass around a ceremonial cup, all take a drink from it and chant "Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble. We accept her. One of us, one of us,” as they do. When the cup is presented to Cleopatra, as a sign her acceptance, she calls them freaks and tells them they make her want to puke. When Hans tells her that she makes him feel ashamed, she further humiliates Hans by carrying him around on her shoulders like he is a child, not a man.

Cleopatra doesn't want to be "One of  us, one of us."

Later that night, Cleopatra and Hercules reveal to Hans that the marriage is a joke. While they’re talking, Hans collapses from poison she’s given him. Cleopatra carries him back to his caravan. The next morning, a doctor (Hooper Atchley) determines that Hans has been poisoned, but that he will recover. Venus confronts Hercules, but he refuses to tell her what poison Cleopatra used.

After the wedding, Hercules and Cleopatra reveal to Hans that the marriage is a joke.

A week passes and Cleopatra has stayed by Hans’ bedside, but that night, she doctors Hans’ medicine. After she gives it to him, he secretly spits it out. When she leaves to see Hercules, Hans and the other freaks, who have been watching her closely, plot their revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules.

That night, a thunderstorm begins, and the caravan starts moving. Cleopatra tries to give Hans more medicine, but Hans, with other freaks around him, demands to see the bottle. There is an accident and some of the wagons are overturned. Cleopatra tries to run away, but some of the freaks chase after her. Others go to protect Venus, who has been attacked by Hercules. Phroso, who has come to Venus’ aid, is saved when one of the freaks throws a knife into Hercules. Cleopatra is chased into the rainy night by knife wielding freaks. We don’t see the attack, just the results.

The barker concludes his story and shows everyone what has become of Cleopatra; once a great beauty, she has been mysteriously transformed into a grotesque "duck woman" who is on display with the other freaks in the show.

Cleopatra is transformed into the "duck woman".

In an epilogue, years have passed and Hans, who has long since retired from the circus, is reintroduced to Frieda by Phroso and Venus. Hans has hidden himself away after that rainy night and Frieda tells Hans she still loves him.

This film seems like an odd choice for a studio like MGM, but at the time Tod Browning was a hot commodity, having just made Dracula (1931) the year before. While Dracula was a Universal picture, Browning’s career had really taken off while he was at MGM, working with Lon Chaney in such films as The Unholy Three (1925), The Blackbird (1926), The Road to Mandalay (1926) and London After Midnight (1927). It was during his tenure at MGM that Browning convinced Irving Thalberg to buy the short story Spurs, by Tod Robbins.

After making Dracula under a one picture deal, Browning returned to MGM. Thalberg offered him the opportunity to direct Arsene Lupin (1932), but Browning declined, preferring instead to develop Freaks. Being a studio picture, major stars were originally considered, including Victor McLaglen as Hercules, Myrna Loy as Cleopatra and Jean Harlow as Venus. Instead, Thalberg decided on a relative no-name cast.

Wallace Ford, at the time the picture was made, was a relative newcomer. Freaks was only his fourth feature length film. Ford would go on to appear in over 200 films, including a number of Westerns and B-pictures, including 13 films for director John Ford.

Leila Hyams made her first film in 1924, Sandra. She appeared in MGM’s first partial-talkie, Alias Johnny Valentine (1928), Buster Keaton’s Spite Marriage (1929), as Robert Montgomery’s sister in The Big House (1930) and with Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman (1932). She retired from filmmaking in 1936, after appearing in Yellow Dust, at the age of 31.

Cleopatra was played by Olga Baclanova. If you don’t remember her, you’re probably not alone. With the exception of Freaks, the Russian born actress made few sound films. A beautiful woman, she appeared in several silent features, including The Docks of New York (1928) and The Man Who Laughs (1928), but had a difficult transition to sound given her thick accent. Following Freaks, she only made three feature films, the last being Claudia (1943).

Rosco Ates, who plays the stuttering clown Roscoe, actually had a stutter, which he had overcome as a child. While he initially tried to be a violinist, he found success on the Vaudeville stage as a comedian with a stutter. Ates would have a long career as an actor in both features and shorts and on television.

But the strength of Freaks is not the direction of Browning or the acting of his “stars”, it comes from the real life circus freaks Browning used. Having worked in a travelling circus in his youth, Browning had a different view than most of these sideshow attractions. They are portrayed as honorable people, mistreated and misunderstood by the rest of the world.

Hans and Frieda were played by actual siblings, Harry Doll Earles and Daisy Doll Earles, from the Doll Family, a quartet of German-born dwarf siblings who performed in sideshows in the U.S. until the 1950’s. While Hans was a big role for Harry (no pun intended), he is probably best remembered as one of the members of The Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Harry Doll Earles (r) is part of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz.

But Hans and Frieda were simply miniatures. Many of the freaks in the movie had far worse deformities. For example, The Hilton sisters were real-life Siamese Twins; Johnny Eck, the legless Half Boy; Schlitze, a male pinhead; and Prince Randian, the armless, legless Living Torso all make powerful impressions. And while that impression is still strong today, it worked against the film when it was first released.

Daisy and Violet Hilton were real-life Siamese Twins.

Test screenings of the original 90 minute film would be considered disastrous. Extensive edits were made, removing what were considered over-the-top sequences like the freaks attacking Cleopatra and castrating Hercules were excised (thank you). So were some comedy routines and the first of the film’s epilogues. All the edited out sequences are now considered lost. The prologue with the circus barker was added, as was the happy ending reuniting Hans and Frieda. The resulting film was only 65 minutes.

But shorter length didn’t matter. The film received overall negative reviews and was outright banned in some countries, like the UK, where it wasn’t shown for 30 years. Let’s just say the world wasn’t ready for a strong dose of circus freaks and film did not do well at the box office.

Browning’s career apparently suffered too, derailed by the film’s response. He only directed four more films before retiring from the business. For him, Freaks had been a failure he couldn’t recover from.

The film itself would be resurrected from the ash heap of obscurity in the 1960’s and become a darling of the counterculture and be shown regularly as a midnight movie in the 1970’s and 80’s. In 1994, the National Film Registry included the film because it is considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" (All the films on the National Film Registry are).

While meant to be horrifying, the film is instead more of a curiosity than anything else. An infamous film about a world most of us don’t know and probably don’t want to know either. A lot of people think studio films from the 1930’s are safe, in that Hollywood was starting to develop a formula that would lead to its worldwide success. Freaks is an example of a major studio and a major director who didn’t play it safe.

Now I can report that I didn’t suffer any nightmares from watching it, but this is not a really enjoyable film to view. And it’s not the deformed actors that are to blame as this is simply not a very good movie. Some of this may have to do with the editing. You can’t subtract nearly a half hour of footage, a third of the film, without something suffering along the way. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a flawed classic either, but simply a flawed film.

Freaks can be viewed at Warner Archive Instant:

1 comment:

  1. For recent research into Josephine Joseph: