The Story of the Love Life of the Sideshow:
I Believe He Meant Well
I had known about Freaks (1932) for years before getting up the nerve to see it. My concern had been that it would be exploitative and cringe-worthy, like race pictures of the day, and it was hard to get in the mood. Because it was mostly shown as a horror/camp classic, the posters and stills didn't do much to dispel that notion:
The thing that finally made me do it was Katherine Dunn's excellent book, Geek Love, which came out in the late 80s when there was still a happy abundance of rep theaters in the Bay Area and you could be pretty sure to catch Freaks on any given midnight at one of them. So I finally saw the picture* with Dunn's circus novel fresh on my brain, and was very happy I did. Well, maybe not "happy." Positively surprised.
And last night, for no particular reason, I watched it again after 25 years, wondering if I'd still feel the same way. Turns out Freaks is creepy and discomfiting (and not particularly well-acted) — but that's because it's set in a carnival and those are creepy and discomfiting. It's also a great story with zero ambiguity about who the bad guys are.
It begins with Hans and Frieda, the show's little people (played by real-life Ringling Bros. brother-and-sister team, Harry and Grace Earles), a nice young couple who are about to be married. They are watching the hot new new trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a big, blonde meanie. Hans is instantly smitten and starts to distance himself from Frieda. Cleopatra thinks it's amusing to flirt with the lovesick dwarf, because she's mean and he gives her presents and cash. Her real love interest is the strongman, Hercules (Henry Victor), a big thuggy jackass who recently broke up with the animal trainer, Venus (the underrated Leila Hyams), a really nice girl who could do much, much better.
Venus is pals with poor, heartbroken Frieda and a friendly clown called Phroso (Wally Ford). She hates to see Frieda so unhappy and confronts Cleopatra to tell her to lay off Hans, but in the process lets slip that Hans is actually quite wealthy. This gives Cleopatra big Scrooge McDuck dollar signs in the eyes and she decides to go all in, so when Hans inevitably proposes to her, she accepts.
The whole circus throws Cleopatra and Hans a wedding feast and all the freaks are assembled. The freaks in question were all working carnival performers that director Tod Browning pulled together for the film: "Half Boy" (Johnny Eck); conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton; Josephine-Joseph, the Half Man-Half Woman; and a host of others, including three microcephalic performers ("pinheads"), one of whom was Schlitzie, the inspiration for Bill Griffith's Zippy the Pinhead. Throughout the film, we get to see each of their specialties as they go about their daily lives: one of the twins is married, for instance, and the other gets engaged; the half man-half woman gives the brush to two roadies; the human torso rolls his own cigarettes. Yeah, it's sensational, but also kind of friendly.
At the wedding feast, the gang welcome the "normal" Cleopatra into their group, chanting "One of us! One of us!" as they all pass around and drink from a ginormous goblet of beer. The trapeze artist has been getting progressively hammered, pawing all over Hercules and laughing with him at Hans's expense. When the freaks' cup approaches her, she rejects it, horrified, and tosses it back at them. Hans is mortified and the group sheepishly disbands. Before retiring to their caravan, Cleopatra slips something into Hans's champagne, making him woozy, and she further humiliates him by carrying him on her shoulders like a child.
Cleopatra begins a slow campaign of poisoning Hans, who has not left his sickbed since the wedding. Everyone is suspicious and eventually some of the more compact freaks see her spike Hans's medicine. One night, as the carnival is traveling in blinding rain, Hercules sets out to kill Venus, who has threatened Cleopatra with exposure. This is too much for the sideshow gang, who strike out at the trapeze artist and the strongman while the caravan is stuck in the mud. They descend on Cleopatra and turn her into "one of them" (a legless, tarred-and-feathered chicken lady) and kill Hercules.
In the unedited version of the film, Hercules is castrated (!!) by the freaks, not killed, and their actual attack on Cleopatra was a scene that didn't make it in the final cut. In fact, the original running time of the film was over 90 minutes, but the studio considered the content too controversial for audiences and chopped it down to just over an hour. Wikipedia tells me that no one has seen the full version since the film was released, but I swear I remember seeing Cleopatra attacked under a tree, as well as a scene with the conjoined twins in bed with one of their husbands. I must have seen that someplace, because I'm not that imaginative.
Making Freaks at all was a big gamble for MGM. Originally, Myrna Loy was slated to play Cleopatra and Jean Harlow, Venus, but Irving Thalberg ultimately decided not to have any of his A List in the picture. The gamble did not pay off, particularly for Browning, because the film bombed and the studio couldn't wash its hands fast enough. Even though Lon Chaney was a tremendous draw for MGM, it seems that having someone play deformity was better box office than people who actually lived with them.
* but probably not that late and probably at The Roxie.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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