A controversial, one of a kind Pre-Code horror film
This week, in honor of Halloween, I thought I’d present a classic film which literally freaked me out (pun intended) when I first saw it while in college. An unsettling love story of sorts, primarily starring actual sideshow (or what used to be called “Freak Show”) performers. “Freaks” is a fictitious behind the scenes peek at a circus, following the story of carnival sideshow little person “Hans”, who is smitten with a standard sized conniving trapeze artist named “Cleopatra”. It is so engrossing and shocking at times, I can guarantee it is a film you will never forget. Banned from cities around the world (and in the UK for 30 years) and a box office failure when first released, it was rediscovered in the 1960s in art houses and midnight shows, and has since become a cult classic.
The carnival barker who opens the film, proclaims to a crowd, “You are about to witness a most amazing, the most astonishing living monstrosity of all time”, letting us know from the start we are in for a chilling surprise. While “Freaks” was a horror film made for pure entertainment, it does express an important theme. It reminds us we are all human and deserving of respect no matter how different. The barker also mentions that the “freaks” live by their own code of ethics, and “offend one and you offend them all”, and we are subsequently presented with a horrifying lesson on the consequences of not treating others with dignity. “Freaks” can also be interpreted as a cautionary tale about the dangers of the pursuit of beauty for beauty’s sake. I can safely assert that this is a film like no other you’ve ever seen.
“Freaks” is short in length, running only 64 minutes. And while it is a Pre-Code film, and showing just about anything was fair game, about thirty minutes were cut due to people reportedly leaving the theater screaming in shock at the first screenings (there is even an unconfirmed story that a woman had a miscarriage while watching it). The atmosphere in “Freaks” is so real, you become part of a world you feel really exists. In the film, the viewer gets a chance to be up close and personal with people whom we would most likely never meet. The film’s theatrical sets and lighting heighten the circus world feel, while the unusual cast is hypnotizing to watch. All of this makes for riveting, edge of your seat viewing.
"Freaks" was made by MGM to try and cash in on the huge success of Universal’s 1931 horror film “Dracula”, so MGM hired “Dracula’s” director, Tod Browning to direct “Freaks”. Browning specialized in dark films, often about outsiders, so this film was right up his alley. Browning actually started as a performer in the circus and in sideshows, and then moved to vaudeville. Starting in 1913 he became a film actor working with the most important director of that generation, D.W. Griffith. Browning acted in just over 50 films, mostly silent shorts. He began directing films in 1915 and directed over 60 films, the bulk of which were silent. He is best remembered for directing two sound classics - “Freaks” and “Dracula”, which is considered one of cinema’s early masterpieces. Browning often worked with one of silent film’s biggest stars and most talented actors, Lon Chaney, nicknamed "The Man of a Thousand Faces". They made ten films together including "The Unknown” (also with Joan Crawford), "London After Midnight", and "The Unholy Three” (which also featured Harry Earles who plays "Hans" in “Freaks”). “Freaks” was originally set to be another vehicle for Chaney, but he died before the film came into being. Browning’s films were often controversial and his career declined after “Freaks” (partly because of this film, and largely because he never warmed up to making sound films). He stopped making films in 1939. A few of his other notable films include "Peggy, the Will O' the Wisp", "The Iron Man" (with Jean Harlow), "Outside the Law", and "The Devil-Doll". Unfortunately, many of Browning’s films have been lost. Tod Browning died in 1962 at the age of 82.
The cast of "Freaks" was assembled to include a handful of actors alongside many respected, real life sideshow artists from around the world. The sideshow artists, or the “freaks” in the film, are all presented matter-of-factly, as human beings with thoughts and emotions just like everyone. In a very smart reversal of what would be expected, we relate and empathize with the “freaks” and not the “normal” people in the film.
Due to the unusual nature of this film, I'm going to write this post differently from my others, and the actor's profiles will appear in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section. This is a film that should be seen first, and talked about later. It is more enjoyable and definitely more shocking the less you know and I don't want to spoil anything for first time viewers! So if you plan on watching the film (especially for the first time), don't read past the photo below (or look at the photos) until after you've seen it.
This exceptional, unsettling, unforgettable, one-of-a-kind film is one from which you won’t be able to look away. Get ready for a thrilling and chilling time with a film like no other. Enjoy “Freaks”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
There are so many unforgettable performers in “Freaks”, it's almost an ensemble piece. I'll briefly mention a few...
The standout in “Freaks” is Harry Earles who plays “Hans”. He is filled with emotions that ring so true he gives the film its heart. Interestingly, Daisy Earles, who plays his fiancee “Frieda”, was his real life sister (perhaps that’s why they don’t kiss in the film). They were both born in Germany and speak some German in the film. Along with their two sisters, also little people, they became known as The Doll Family and performed on stage and in circuses such as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. They also appeared in films, and at one point were known as The Moving Picture Midgets. Harry appeared in about a dozen films, three that were memorable: the silent “The Unholy Three” (repeating his role in a later sound version - both directed by Browning”); “Freaks”; and his final film appearance, as one of three Lollipop Guild munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz” (Harry is on the right in the blue shirt). Daisy appeared in only five films, one of which was also playing a munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz”. At one point she was nicknamed the "miniature Mae West”. Harry Earles died in 1985 at the age of 83. Daisy Earles died in 1980 at the age of 72.
Wallace Ford who plays the sympathetic clown “Phroso”, adds some levity to the film with his wise guy nature. Ford was a prolific character actor and leading actor in many B films, primarily in the 1930s and 40s. He also had smaller roles in A-list films, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Spellbound”. He appeared in over 160 films and TV shows, including films such as “The Rainmaker”, "Harvey", "The Informer", "The Rogues' Tavern", and his final film in 1965, "A Patch of Blue" starring Sidney Poitier and Shelley Winters. Wallace Ford died in 1966 at the age of 68.
Leila Hyams does a fine job as the beautiful seal trainer “Venus”. Hyams was a very successful actress who appeared in just over fifty films, most of them in the 1930s. Besides “Freaks”, her other best remembered role is the female lead in another classic horror film, 1932’s “Island of Lost Souls”. She retired in 1936. Leila Hyams died in 1977 at the age of 72. Jean Harlow, who had previously worked with Browning, was originally set to play this role, but at the last minute MGM decided it wasn’t the right vehicle for her. Funny enough, Hyams very next film following “Freaks”, was as second lead to Harlow in the fabulous Pre-Code classic, “Red-Headed Woman”.
Olga Baclanova is perfect as the villainous, gold digging “Cleopatra”. Baclanova was a Russian actress who appeared in silent Russian films and became known as the "Russian Tigress”. She defected from Russia and began appearing in Hollywood films in 1927, and is best remembered for her roles in “Freaks” and the silent classic "The Man Who Laughs”. She appeared in just over thirty films and TV shows, mostly working in the 1920s and 30s. Olga Baclanova died in 1974 at the age of 81. Myrna Loy was originally cast in this role but begged MGM not to make her do it, fearing she’d be typecast as a villain.
Henry Victor, who plays “Hercules”, brings a boyishness to this brute. Victor had a successful early film career playing leading roles in British silent films. A British actor raised Germany, due to his German accent, with the coming of sound he was regulated to character parts, often playing Nazis. Of his 106 films, “Freaks” is his best remembered role, followed by his performance as "Captain Schultz" in the classic “To Be or Not to Be” in 1942. Henry Victor died in 1945 at the age of 52 from a brain tumor.
Daisy and Violet Hilton, who play the "Siamese Twin”, were undoubtedly the most famous of the performers playing the “freaks”. They were conjoined twins, joined at the hip, and at the time were the only pair that survived more than a few weeks in the UK. They had a very rough life, as their mother sold them after birth to her midwife who saw them only as a way from which to make money. Physical abuse and virtual enslavement forced them into a life of performing. They were ruthlessly taught to sing, dance and play instruments, with all their earnings going to their caretakers. At 23 years old they sued their caretakers and won, breaking free from their contract and getting a hefty cash settlement. They appeared in vaudeville and burlesque, and in two films, “Freaks” and the 1951 exploitation film "Chained for Life”, and were the subject of several documentaries. They would face poverty for much of their lives. They both married once (Daisy for ten days), each to gay men, evidently for publicity stunts. In 1997, there was a Broadway musical, “Side Show”, based on their lives. The production was short lived, even with good reviews and Tony nominations. I was lucky to see a performance of it in California and it was wonderfully moving. I loved it. Daisy and Violet Hilton both died in 1969 at the age of 60.
One of the film’s most astonishing scenes in "Freaks" features Prince Randian (credited in the film as Rardion), who plays “The Living Torso”. He is the Black man with no arms or legs who lights the cigarette. The ease with which he performs is mind-blowing. Born with no limbs at birth, he worked in sideshows most of his life and “Freaks” was his only film appearance. Evidently, what you see in the film was just a part of his real-life act, which also included rolling the cigarette. He spoke four languages, was a carpenter of sorts, married, and had five children. Prince Randian died in 1934 at the age of 63.
Schlitze, who appears as “Pin Head”, was actually a “he”, not a “she”. So full of energy and love, he steals your attention every time he appears. Schlitze suffered from the conditions of microcephaly and mental retardation. He was in sideshows most of his life and was a major attraction with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He was usually billed as a girl since he wore dresses due to medical issues. He appeared in five films, all in uncredited roles except for “Freaks”. Schlitze died in 1971 at the age of 70.
Johnny Eck who plays “Half-Boy”, is also wonderful to watch giving a great performance in his brief scenes. In addition to performing, he was also an artist and photographer. Born without the lower half of his body, he would appear in sideshows and magic acts with his twin brother, who had a complete torso. He appeared in four films, “Freaks” being his first, followed by three of the “Tarzan” series of films, in which he wore a costume and played some sort of bird. Johnny Eck died in 1991 at the age of 79.
Angelo Rossitto who plays “Angeleno”, was a little person with a big career. You can tell by his performance in “Freaks” he was talented, as his scenes peering through the window as “Cleopatra” poisons “Hans” are filled with great expression and emotion. He appeared in nearly 100 films and TV shows, including "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome", "Invasion of the Saucer Men", "Alex in Wonderland", as a munchkin in "The Wizard of Oz", "The Greatest Show on Earth", and on the TV series, "Baretta". He was also one of the founders of the Little People of America. Angelo Rossitto died in 1991 at the age of 83.