Tod Browning, who directed Bela Lugosi in the original Dracula, stepped into even eerier territory with this 1932 story of betrayal and retribution in the circus. Evil trapeze artist Olga Baclanova seduces and marries a midget in the circus sideshow, hoping to inherit his wealth. But in doing so, she has crossed the wrong folks: the tightly knit group of nature's aberrations, who stick together like family--and who set out to avenge their little pal. Browning brought in some of the most famous sideshow attractions of the era, include Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton and Johnny Eck the Legless Boy, as well as Zip and Pip, microcephalics whose appearance in this film inspired cartoonist Bill Griffith to create his comic strip, "Zippy the Pinhead." So disturbing that it was banned for 30 years in Great Britain. --Marshall Fine
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The plot? Boy meets a nice girl. They fall in love. Then a gorgeous blond arrives on the scene that turns the boys head and he falls head over heels. Gorgeous blond wants nothing to do with the boy till she finds out he is rich. The gorgeous blond is a goldigger who will do what she can to get his money. The boy leaves the nice girl for the gorgeous blond and soon his life is in danger. As I said a plot that has been done before in movies but there is one slight difference. The story takes place in a circus and the boy is a little person part of a freak show with the circus. The nice girl he loves is also a little person. Together they are part of a family with all the other "freaks" who are part of the circus. You have the usual cast of characters including a breaded lady, a half man half woman, a geek, a strongman and various others who make up the circus freak show. They all look out for each other the way a family would and love each other as a family does.
The gorgeous blond is a trapeze artist with the circus who is in love with Hercules the strongman. The gorgeous
blond whose name is Cleopatra knows the little person, Hans, is smitten with her and plays along as a joke until she finds out he is very rich. Her "feelings" towards Hans start to change then once she realizes just how much money he has and starts paying a whole lot more attention to him. Soon they are married and it is not very much
long after that Cleopatra starts slowly poisoning her new husband as she schemes to get his money. That's
where her problems begin. His "family" is worried about his health and become suspicious Cleopatra is killing
him. For anyone who has not seen this movie before I will not tell anymore of the plot to prevent a spoiler alert.
This is truly a movie you have to see to experience and get caught up in.
The interesting thing about this movie is the performers. The people playing the circus freaks are not actors. All of the freaks in the movie are actual circus performers who worked for circuses. Because of that it helps to bring a reality to the film that couldn't be achieved with actors just playing the part. And that is what makes this movie so interesting to watch. You really become interested in these people and who they are and care about them. And while they may have physical abnormalities you soon realize it is they who are not the freaks but rather the so called "normal" people are. The so called freaks care for and look out for each other and are just trying to make a living and live their lives with some kind of dignity while the so called normal people are only interested in themselves and what they can take and connive from others for their own selfish gain.
This is not great cinema here but what it is is a very good story well told, well directed and very well acted. With todays politically correct climate a movie like this couldn't be made today. Not at least without creating some controversy or protest in the process. But really "Freaks" doesn't portray these people as being odd or unusual or exploit them in any way. Rather they show these circus performers as individuals and with nothing but respect. This is a movie you owe it to yourself to see at least once. If you do I bet it won't take long while watching before you come to think that the movie "Freaks" isn't referring to the circus performers but to the other so called "normal" people in the story.
On my second viewing the acting became more evident, in a good way. The actors playing the roles of "normal" folk hit their marks with such clarity whether they were the good guys or the bad guys. In many of these pre-code and thirties movies the acting can seem stiff or amateurish. We have to give allowances for how these performances, all of them including the freaks, were the style of the era. They were also dealing with improving filming techniques in movie after movie. In many of these films where immigrants are depicted by non-immigrant actors the dialects are so awful. In this case they were as real as the freaks themselves, their own speech patterns, making it more fun to listen to their pronunciations and structure.
The focus is on them all as people. Warmhearted, friendly, happy people for the most part. They support each other and because of the freakish ways in which they are treated by us they need to care for each other in ways we could not understand. This glimpse into the lives of those who are very different should teach us something about ourselves. This film is their "coming out party." Unforgettable.
They are all gone now but to their memory I say BRAVO!
Having watched this a couple of times with others, I am impressed with the fact that many get quickly bored and seek other entertainment (that is, walk out of the room). The movie does start out very slowly. In addition, several of the actors speak in a tinny voice that is difficult if not impossible to understand. You can buy the script online for around $20 bucks if you are really interested in all of the dialogue. I prefer to save the $20 and guess.
My favorite characters are Henry Earles and Schlitze. If you don't love these two guys, then you simply don't posses a heart. Henry and his sister Daisy of course went on to appear in the Wizard of Oz as munchkins.
This is a simple morality play with a simplified script. It is always listed as a horror show but we know better. As previously noted, it has been alleged that most of the great scenes were clipped from the movie. Too bad. Nevertheless, the remaining scenes are still classic and everyone should take a turn at viewing this. Maybe it is your cup or tea or maybe not. For the price of a fast-food meal, what's the harm?
I hope you find this opinion helpful.
Michael L. Gooch
Author of Wingtips with Spurs.