Sunday, September 3, 2017


          In 1932, riding the wave of success he enjoyed the previous year with his smash hit Dracula, director Tod Browning was given free reign for his next project. Expand this latitude further considering the Hays Code limiting film would not be in effect for two more years.
          Yet the product which resulted from such promise so disgusted audiences, Freaks quickly ruined Tod Browning's career.
          In this story featuring a circus community, diminutive Hans (Earles) loves Cleopatra (Baclanova), the beautiful trapeze artist. She in turn loves the circus strong man, Hercules (Victor). At first she finds little Hans' big interest in her amusing, but when she learns of his inheritance, she decides to actually marry him with the plan of killing him to inherit the fortune herself.
          When Hans' sideshow freak friends learn of Cleopatra and Hercules' plan, they take matters in hand...or with whatever they've got.
          Some of the performers lack limbs altogether. (And yet can still roll a cigarette!) Others shock viewers more deeply. Schlitze, for example.
          Born micro-cephalic, standing 4' 2", his family sold him at age 9 to a traveling sideshow. When the camera shows such clearly challenged individuals, and audiences see that, this time, Lon Chaney is dead, and the special effects are real, audiences respond viscerally.
          The film was reviled. Pulled from release, banned.
          No one saw it for what it was:
          A powerful Great Depression statement concerning the defeat of the scheming minority privileged by the abused and hideous masses.
          From Browning's perspective, the reception of his film was the real horror. He had left a well-to-do family at 16 to travel with the circus. He had become inured long prior to sights others find unforgivably offensive. As a filmmaker he drew on what he knew. He was, as Stephen King says, "playing for keepsies."
          Browning finished out the bulk of the decade with only four more films, two of which wherein he went uncredited. The good one, Mark of the Vampire, stars Lionel Barrymore and features Bela Lugosi in a cameo.
          Harold Russell, not a professional actor, yet missing both hands, won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). In that case, conventional wisdom said that impact would have been lost to cast an actor merely acting.
          In the case of Freaks, an innovative director embraced verisimilitude, yet lost conventional access to film for simply doing his job too well.

Starring Harry Earles,
Daisy Earles,
Wallace Ford,
Leila Hyams,
Olga Baclanova,
Henry Victor,
Josephine Joseph,
Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Tod Robbins,
Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon
Runtime 64 minutes

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