Director: Tod Browning
Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Corp.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 90 minutes originally, later 64 minutes, some sources state that existing copies are 53 minutes. Released February 1932, New York and San Francisco. Filmed in Hollywood.
Producer: Irving Thalberg with Harry Sharock (some filmographies state Dwain Esper as producer, but he was responsible for the 1940s re-issue, other sources list Browning as producer); screenplay: Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Al Boasberg, and Edgar Allen Woolf, from the book Spurs by Clarence Tod Robbins; photography: Merritt B. Gerstad; editor: Basil Wrangell; sound engineer: Gavin Barns; art directors: Cedric Gibbons with Merrill Pye; music: Gavin Barns.
Cast: Olga Baclanova ( Cleopatra ); Henry Victor ( Hercules ); Wallace Ford ( Phroso ); Harry Earles ( Hans ); Leila Hyams ( Venus ); Roscoe Ates ( Roscoe ); Rose Dione ( Mme. Tetralini ); Daisy and Violet Hilton ( Siamese Twins ); Schlitze ( Herself ); Peter Robinson ( Human Skeleton ); Elisabeth Green ( Bird Woman ); Randion ( Larva Man , or Living Torso ); Joseph-Josephine ( Androgyne ); Johnny Eck ( Trunk Man ); Frances O'Connor and Martha Morris ( Women without arms ); Olga Roderich ( Bearded Woman ); Koo-Koo ( Herself ); Edward Brophy and Mat-Mac Huch ( The Rollo Brothers ); Angelo Rossitto ( Angeleno ); Daisy Earles ( Frieda ); Zip and Flip ( Pinheads ).
Award: Honored at the Venice Film Festival, 1962.
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* * *
Although it has been seldom shown in the fifty years since its introduction in 1932 as a "masterpiece of horror," Tod Browning's Freaks has achieved near-legendary cult status and continues to exert a major influence on modern attempts at the baroque film. Certainly the powers of its wedding feast sequence was not lost on Luis Buñuel when he staged the tramp's "last supper" in his 1961 Viridiana . And the works of such diverse filmmakers as Max Ophüls, Federico Fellini, and Ingmar Bergman have shown traces of the film's influence.
Today it is difficult to believe that the film was produced at MGM. It more closely resembles the kind of horror films being released during the 1930s by Universal Studios, which had in fact made a fortune with Browning's earlier Dracula , as well as James Whale's Frankenstein . However, Irving Thalberg, MGM's president, noting the success of these two efforts, purchased Clarence Robbins's grisly tale Spurs , hired Browning and, over considerable objections within the studio, adapted it for the screen as Freaks . Yet in the transition to film, the story deviated from the traditional horror format and evolved into gothic social commentary that closely resembled the kind of sociological treatments being attempted by Warner Bros. in their great gangster films of the period.
If Freaks is not totally satisfactory to audiences of today, that is perhaps due, for the most part, to the fundamental conflicts inherent in merging horror and social criticism. Although Browning was successful in portraying his deformed subjects sympathetically and causing his viewer to re-evaluate their concepts of what is normal, he succumbs to the obvious temptation to "scare the pants" off his viewers in the film's final scene. For most of the film, he portrays the freaks as human beings going about their daily rituals. (Significantly, we never see them on stage as sideshow performers.) At the wedding feast, however, when one of their number marries a "normal" person, we sense their solidarity as they go through an elaborate ritual to admit Cleo to their circle. This triggers a course of events in which the innate humanity of the freaks is juxtaposed with the inherent ugliness, evil and abnormality of the so-called normal people.
But in the film's final sequences, Browning emphasizes the physical grotesqueness of the freaks as they slither and crawl through the mud to exact their revenge on Cleo and the strong man Hercules after she has betrayed them. At the end of the film, we find that Cleo has turned into a freak herself at the hands of the little people. The scene, contrived as it is, clouds the image of the humanity of the deformed creatures by emphasizing the enormity of their vengeance, and because the costuming of Cleo as a freak is technically crude, it erodes the worthwhile themes of the film and makes its subjects objects of scorn.
Still, individual scenes, in their power and construction, provide unforgettable images and truly extend the boundaries of baroque filmmaking. The film is still today a virtual textbook on the horror film, and enough of its nobler aspirations come through to allow it to remain as undoubtedly the ultimate challenge to the old fiction that beauty is necessarily synonymous with truth. Although it was banned in many countries for its graphic depiction of this theme, it was honored in 1962 at the Venice Film Festival and has been shown periodically thereafter.
—Stephen L. Hanson