Director: Tod Browning
Writer: Willis Goldbeck & Leon Gordon, suggested by the story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins
Cast: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Rose Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton
Plot: Filmed with circus performers rather than professional actors, this film smacks of classic Greek tragedy. A circus midget named Hans (Harry Earles) falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). The other circus performers discover she only wishes to marry him for an inheritance that’s waiting for him, and decide to seek retribution for their friend in a horrific fashion.
Thoughts: This is one of those films whose name I’ve always heard whispered, but didn’t really know much about. For that matter, I don’t know that I’ve ever talked to anyone who’s actually seen it. But the fact that everyone seems to know about it definitely suggests that it’s worth delving into for this little project of mine. As it turns out, it’s one of those movies responsible for stuff that’s become so pervasive that people don’t even know the origins of it anymore. (Check out the initiation scene – suddenly you’ll start to get pop culture references you never understood before.)
The structure of the film is fantastic, beginning with a carnival barker leading a crowd of onlookers to some horrifying (but yet unseen) exhibit, then cutting away to the main story. Hans is already engaged to another performer, Frieda (Daisy Earles), and initially denies that he is infatuated with the lovely Cleopatra. Cleo is already involved with the circus strongman, Hercules (Henry Victor), and with him hatches the scheme to bilk Hans out of his money.
This is one of those films that’s particularly difficult to judge, thanks to the prism of modern experience. My own gut reaction is surprise at how the story is pieced together. Although the characters, the titular “freaks,” aren’t necessarily brilliant actors, I’m intrigued at how human their depiction is. Although there are a few things played for laughs (a stutter, for example) that would seem cruel today, many of the freaks are shown displaying very normal emotion and desires, which I find surprising in a film made in 1932. I’m not sure that’s really fair of me, though. I don’t know exactly what the expected reaction would have been at the time. Certainly, we tend to think of a period nearly 80 years ago as being a less permissive, less inclusive time period, but is that the same thing as saying that a 1932 audience would have expected a group of circus sideshow performers to be less than human? Just because they were alive in the 30s? Seems rather intolerant of me, doesn’t it?
One thing that’s undeniable is that director Tod Browning – who also directed Dracula and several silent films starring Lon Chaney – places his allegiances firmly with the freaks. The members of the circus sideshow have a code of conduct and honor, particularly when it comes to how “normal” people interact with their clan of outsiders. Those “normal” people – Cleopatra and Hercules in particular – are the real monsters of the film. The horror doesn’t originate with the abnormal in this movie, but from the way ordinary people choose to treat those they view as less than human. The freaks do wind up doing some pretty nasty things, but in retaliation. Cleopatra attempts to slowly poison Hans, but with the help of his friends he grows wise to her scheme and, together, they find a grotesque retribution. Overkill, perhaps, but it’s hard to feel bad for their victim, whose own actions were just as damning emotionally as any physical torment she was put through.
The final scenes, admittedly, are hard to watch. One of the few sympathetic “normals” – a circus clown – is shoved against a burning stove by Hercules as he tries to defend Hans. Of course, what happens to ol’ Herc makes any injuries the clown gets seem almost bearable by comparison. As for Cleopatra herself, we see her flee just before we go back to the barker from the beginning of the film and see the end result of Cleopatra’s greed, a poetic justice imposed by the freaks.
Browning, from what I’ve learned, actually grew up working in a circus, so it’s quite possible that the things he saw and experienced at the time influenced this film greatly. Sadly, it seems the film influenced his career in a negative way. Audiences at the time were so horrified by it that his booming career fizzled, and he only directed four more films in his life, two of them uncredited – having directed sixty-seven previously. (And I doubt it was a question of just easing into retirement – he lived until 1962, 23 years after his final film, Miracles For Sale.) Were people that horrified? Did they find the film that threatening? One woman even sued Browning, claiming the film shocked her into having a miscarriage… not because of the human horror of the things Cleopatra did, but because of the shock of seeing the freaks in action. The film was actually changed several times, toning down some of the final scenes, cutting out nearly 30 minutes of footage (the final film’s running time is a brisk and all-too-brief 62 minutes) and grafting a happier ending that very, very much feels tacked-on. Had they left things with Cleopatra’s fate, it would have been a gut-wrenching final image that would linger with you. Instead, they drift back to Hans and Frieda one last time, evidently attempting to give the audiences some sort of good vibe to go out on. But this isn’t a movie that really suits a “good vibe.” It’s about horrible people and the horrible things they do, and leaving it on an up note weakens it.
Should you happen to get your hands on the DVD, make sure to watch the alternate endings. It’s more powerful, and considerably creepier.
We’re leaving the 1930s behind now, leaping forward in time. Join me tomorrow as we travel to 1942, and the horror classic The Cat People.
Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.