A carnival barker tells his audience the story behind the sideshow attraction they have come to see. Once a beautiful trapeze artist, Cleopatra weds sideshow midget Hans to get her hands on his inheritance. She and her lover, the strong man Hercules, plot to poison Hans, but when the other sideshow attractions realize their plan, they take revenge for one of their own kind.
Director: Tod Browning
Producer: Irving Thalberg, Tod Browning, Harry Rapf
Screenplay: Al Boasberg, Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Charles MacArthur, Edgar Allan Woolf
Based on the short story "Spurs" by Tod Robbins
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Editing: Basil Wrangell
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Merrill Pye
Cast: Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Roscoe Ates (Roscoe), Henry Victor (Hercules), Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), Daisy and Violet Hilton (Siamese Twins), Josephine Joseph (Half Woman-Half Man), Johnny Eck (Half Boy), Prince Randian (The Living Torso), Angelo Rossitto (Angeleno), Edward Brophy (Rollo Brother), Matt McHugh (Rollo Brother), Burgess Meredith (Carny Caller)
BW-64m. Closed Captioning.
Why FREAKS is Essential
is considered Tod Browning's masterpiece, both for its simple, compassionate scenes depicting the sideshow performers in their daily lives and for delirious scenes like the wedding banquet, in which the performers dance and chant while welcoming Cleopatra into their society.
In many ways, Freaks
is the culmination of a sub-genre critics have called "disability drama," pioneered by Browning in such Lon Chaney vehicles as The Unholy Three
(1925), The Road to Mandalay
(1926) and The Unknown
Browning's film is a masterpiece of audience manipulation, years ahead of itself in presenting characters who are both sympathetic and terrifying. Early scenes showing the performers going about their lives create a tremendous empathy that gradually overpowers any revulsion audiences feel toward their physical conditions. There are even moments of gentle, very human humor. In some cases, the performers are presented as innocents functioning perfectly within a world they have built for themselves. Yet the final revenge scenes twist those feelings, displaying the monstrous behavior of which they are capable in response to a threat from someone outside their group. It's a searing portrait of the humanity within all of us at its best and its worst.
had a strong influence on the late Surrealists, who were particularly intrigued by the scenes depicting the carnival performers living normally and the delirious revenge scenes at the end. Writer-artist Leonora Carrington featured such characters in her work and film director Luis Bunuel modeled parts of the dinner scene in his 1961 Viridiana
on the wedding banquet in Browning's film.
With its box-office failure, Freaks
signaled the end of Browning's reign as one of Hollywood's top directors. His career never recovered and he found it increasingly difficult to get personal projects approved by the studio heads.
captures the lives of the disabled in a period long before laws required accommodations for their conditions and when "mainstreaming" was an alien concept. The carnival performers on screen were the real thing, many of them living as virtual slaves owned by managers and sideshow owners. Only a year earlier, Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton had sued their manager to win their freedom from his total, almost abusive control of their lives and receive their fair share of past earnings. As such, the film provides a document of the lives of the disabled and attitudes toward them in less enlightened times.
by Frank Miller