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Banned in the UK, "Freaks" is Tod Browning's best film,
This review is from: Freaks [VHS] (VHS Tape)
For years I had heard about the legendary Tod Browning film "Freaks" that so upset audiences it was banned in Boston and Great Britain. I had read the short story "Spurs" on which it was based and when the film was finally screened on campus I talked my roommate into going with me. Most of the people sitting around us knew nothing about the film and when I told them about it everybody started to get nervous. Then the film began...and we all loved it! My roommate and I both had crushes on Daisy Earles who plays Frieda in the film, opposite her brother Harry as Hans.
The story is quite simple: Hans and Frieda are a pair of midgets in love, but Hans thinks that Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) the bareback rider is beautiful. Cleopatra plays with Hans' affections until she learns he has money. Over the objections of her boyfriend, Hercules (Henry Victor) the freak show strongman, she accepts Hans' proposal. During the wedding feast when the freaks accept her into their ranks, she makes it clear how much she despises them all. But when Hans starts to become ill because of the poison she is feeding him, the freaks decide it is time to take matters into their own hands. The film's climax, when the freaks chase Cleopatra and Hercules during a rainstorm, is truly chilling, although Cleopatra's final fate is as unreal as it is ironic (and was supposed to be even worse: but the scene of Hercules singing soprano in Madame Tetralini's new sideshow--think about it--was too intense for early audiences and was cut).
All Browning really did to terrify audience was to include real freaks in his film, such as Daisy and Violet Hilton the Siamese Twins, Schlitze the Pinhead Girl, Josephine Joseph the Half-Woman/Half-Man, Johnny Eck the Half Boy, Frances O'Connor the Turtle Girl, Peter Robinson the Living Human Skeleton, Olga Roderick the Bearded Lady, Koo Koo the Bird Girl, Martha Morris the Armless Wonder, and Randion the Living Torso, who rolls his own cigarettes despite having neither arms nor legs. The original short story "Spurs" by Tod Robbins had a midget falling for a bareback rider who marries him for his money and at their wedding feast puts her husband on her shoulders and boasts that she will carry him across France. With the aid of his large, angry dog he forces her to do just that. Browning's film expands the scope of the story into something more complex and much more satisfying.
However, the film clearly portrays the "Freaks" with dignity. As Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione) tells someone, "These are all God's children." The true monsters in this film are the "normal" human beings, who receive their just desserts. But when "Freaks" was relased it was banned in the United Kingdom for thirty years (and is still banned in Sweden). During that period Browning was blackballed in Hollywood. He had promised MGM the ultimate scary movie and given the reaction you have to conclude that he delivered. The film was originally intended to have what we would now consider an A-List cast with Victor McLaglen as Hercules, Myrna Loy as Cleopatra, and Jean Harlow as Venus. However, all of the stars reportedly balked at the prospect being in a film with "sideshow exhibitions."
This 1932 film is clearly Browning's best film, vastly superior to the more famous "Dracula," which, after all, was basically a filmed stage play for the most part. It is not even close. You might screen this film for the first time because of its reputation, but you will watch it again because it is a pretty good film, especially given the time at which it was made.