1932 • 64 Minutes • 1.37 : 1 • United States
Black & White • English • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Cast: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Rosco Ates, Henry Victor
Screenplay: Clarence Aaron Robbins
Producers: Tod Browning, Harry Rapf, Irving Thalberg
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Awards and Honors
The Essential Films
National Film Preservation Board
Entered in the National Film Registry - 1994
They're going to make you one of them, my peacock!
A melodramatic tale of love, deceit, treachery and murder... all taking place in the backdrop of a traveling circus freak show. Hans the dwarf has just inherited a fortune from his father, when suddenly the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra takes an interest in him. Together with the strong man Hercules, Cleopatra hatches a plan to marry Hans and kill him to inherit the money. The other circus freaks see right through the evil trapeze artist... and they wish to make her one of them, permanently.
WHY IS IT ESSENTIAL?
A controversial horror film
It's often argued that Freaks is not a horror movie. It is a complex human drama, and a tragic one at that. And I agree. It is a drama. But it IS also a horror film. At least, it was certainly a horror film in the 1930s. What makes this film unique is that Tod Browning used actual circus freaks in the film as actors. Browning probably got the idea because of his travels as a young man as circus performer. Screenings of the original 90-minute cut of the film (much of the film was cut at the studio's insistence and these scenes are considered lost) caused such horror and disgust in people, one woman even threatened to sue MGM because she claimed the film caused her to miscarry. The film feature such blunt depictions of the circus sideshow (including a pair of conjoined twins and Prince Randian the Human Torso) that it caused audiences extreme discomfort. Because of this extreme controversy, the film was even banned in the United Kingdom for decades.
The end of a career
Tod Browning's career never recovered from this film. The director the famed Universal Pictures classic monster movie Dracula made only a few other films following Freaks. Not only was the film ahead of its time and audiences, it was also a commercial failure. All of this led to Browning's career being thrown off track. Studios failed to trust him, and few of his projects were greenlit from that point forward.
A sideshow on film
Sideshows are pretty much extinct in modern society. The idea of exploiting people's deformities for financial gain is an unpopular idea today. The film seemingly doesn't take this position. While watching the film, it takes great care as to not show the freaks as... well, freaks, but as people who are just trying to survive and get by. It shows them performing everyday tasks like getting dressed, eating, shaving, lighting a cigarette... and more abstract concepts like falling in love. While shunned from the outside world, the freaks have a strong and loyal community. In the infamous "gobble, gobble" scene, they are accepting the new bride of Hans, the beautiful Cleopatra into their group. Because she's beautiful, SHE's the outsider, and they accept her as one of their own. When she spurns them, they repay her in kind. The film is very profound in this matter.