Sideshow Performers and 1930s Gore: Why I Love "Freaks"

The horror film "Freaks" employed the use of actual circus sideshow performers, courting a hell of a lot of controversy whilst showcasing new age gore on a new level...
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The horror film "Freaks" employed the use of actual circus sideshow performers, courting a hell of a lot of controversy whilst showcasing new age gore on a new level...
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On its initial release in 1932 it was reviled, but in subsequent years, baroque horror classic, Freaks is regarded as an eccentric gem which was too enlightened for its time, primarily because the majority of its ensemble cast were disabled sideshow performers.

Based on the short story 'Spurs', by Clarence 'Tod' Robbins, the film centres on Hans, (Harry Earles) a midget who is engaged yet falls for beautiful trapeze artist and wanton strumpet Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). He showers her with gifts much to the chagrin of his fiancé, the equally diminutive Frieda (Daisy Earles) who is so consumed by distress, she inadvertently reveals to Cleopatra that her betrothed is rich. Following the disclosure, and in cahoots with her no-good, no-mark lover, Hercules (Henry Victor), Cleopatra conspires to marry Hans and relieve him of his inheritance.

At their wedding feast, and fully ensconced in shameless baggage mode, Cleopatra spikes Hans' drink and teases him mercilessly. A loving cup is passed around in a misguided attempt by the 'freaks' to accept her as 'one of us'. In response an inebriated Cleopatra showers them with the contents of the cup and derides them as 'dirty, slimy freaks'.

As he retires to his sickbed, Hans' coterie close ranks and are ever watchful while an oblivious Cleopatra continues in her campaign to poison him. Unfortunately, she and her strongman beau are also unaware that their denouement has been sealed, and during a thunderstorm it is enacted with horrific proficiency by the aforementioned 'dirty, slimy freaks'.

The film was directed by Tod Browning who was already equipped with a fine back catalogue in esoteric productions which featured the struggles and machinations of the outsider in pivotal roles, including The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1927) starring a Browning stalwart, Lon Chaney as a fugitive posing as an armless knife thrower with designs on fellow circus performer, Joan Crawford. However, it was his successful adaptation of Dracula (1931) featuring Bela Lugosi which afforded Browning additional backing by producer, Irving Thalberg and the required leverage to persuade the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer to fund his pet project; Freaks.

Its cast of performers included conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, microcephalics Zip and Pip referred to as 'Pinheads', the inter-sexual Josephine Joseph, 'Half Boy' Johnny Eck and 'The Human Torso' Prince Randian amongst others. Browning mined his experiences of working in a circus from the age of sixteen and in doing so represented the troupe not as aliens or a sub-human species but as multi-faceted human beings, engaged in everyday activities just like everybody else.

Nonetheless, as a result of his intransigence in disregarding the rudimentary studio approach of using make-up and costumes to present the illusion of disfigurement in able-bodied actors, Browning and Thalberg were subjected to a maelstrom of criticism and setbacks from the outset which threatened to derail the shoot despite their shared, unshakable belief in Browning's vision.

The films' editor, Basil Wrangell often complained that regarding the actors on a movieola for eighteen hours a day, 'made his skin crawl'. Executives were steadfast in their objections to the performers high visibility on set which resulted in most of them being forced to dine in a private room with the exception of Harry and Daisy Earles and the Hilton twins whose access to the MGM commisionary upset many of a delicate disposition, including F.Scott Fitzgerald who fled in revulsion to reacquaint himself with his lunch. As a consequence, they were all bussed to and from the set as soon as filming finished to keep their contact with the outside world to a minimum.

Unsurprisingly, the studio, preview audiences, censors and some of the sideshow performers, were less than enamoured with the finished print, despite three alternative endings and an extensive thirty-minute cut. In San Diego where it premiered, the public and critics alike found the film so disconcerting it was quickly withdrawn, and a blanket-ban followed in many other countries, including Britain where it was denied certification until 1963.

Although the version shown for cinema release was condemned in its entirety, it seems its resolution attracted most of the consternation, due to the abrupt change in the 'freaks' collective demeanour from sweet-natured to terrifying as they slithered through the mud amid torrential rain in the dead of night, armed to the teeth with knives slowly encroaching on an injured, cowed Hercules. It was as though they were revealing their true essence of otherness; as shark-eyed, unpredictable abominations, thus reinforcing any sense of bigotry which the viewer may have possessed in the first instance.

Even so, it was also the potency of deleted scenes pertaining to the original finale which reportedly left Mayer and his entourage of naysayers slack-jawed in disbelief, as they revealed Cleopatra trapped by a fallen tree with crushed legs as her adversaries manically engulfed her. And although it transpired that Hercules was still alive, he perhaps suffered a fate worst than death since evidently stripped of both his machismo and his testicles he was presented singing tenor falsetto at another sideshow, with a quacking Cleopatra appearing alongside him.

While Freaks is universally acknowledged as a cult classic since its belated celebration at the 1962 Canne Film Festival as an allegory of social exploitation, it's regrettable that Browning who was virtually blackballed in Hollywood following his masterpiece, was denied the opportunity to revel in the acclaim he so richly deserved.