Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Must-See Cinema: Freaks 1932

In 1931 director Todd Browning, fresh off his successful screen adaptation of Dracula, who had previously bought the rights to a short story by Tod Robbins called Spurs, started filming what has been called a "subgenre of one" semi-horror film, now considered a cult classic, entitled Freaks.


Browning went out of his way to cast actual circus sideshow performers with real deformities in this movie, including the famous conjoined (aka "Siamese") twins, the Hilton Sisters, legless Johnny Eck, the "Human Torso" Prince Randian and many others. In an unusual move, Browning did not try to exploit the performers. Instead they are presented as fully human, with all the wants and needs and fears of the fully functional. It's the "normals" who come off as monsters here.

The film was incredibly controversial, not only for its subject matter but also for the shocking display of so many "freaks" on the screen. After an initial screening, MGM demanded many cuts before it would okay its distribution. And this was in pre-code Hollywood, even before the Hays Office and  the Motion Picture Code.

In all the studio demanded -- and got -- nearly half an hour of scenes deemed too "shocking" deleted from the movie, including the fate of strongman Hercules (in the cut scenes he is castrated by the angry "freaks" in the climactic scene from the movie and we later see him singing ... as a soprano!). The final version, which is all we can watch now, is a kind of choppy and awkward affair that would have benefited from the more detailed exposition. The cut scenes are considered to be lost forever. The studio also tagged on a new happy-ish ending.

Browning's career never quite recovered from Freaks. The movie was banned outright in England, and was hardly shown in the United States until the rediscovery of the "cult film" by the counterculture in the late 1960s. It was shown extensively as a "midnight movie" throughout the 70s and 80s, and those of us who had read about it for years finally got to see it.

Taglines:  Can a full grown woman truly love a MIDGET? "We'll Make Her One of Us!" from the gibbering mouths of these weird creatures came this frenzied cry... no wonder she cringed in horror... this beautiful woman who dared toy with the love of one of them! The Strangest... The Most Startling Human Story Ever Screened... Are You Afraid To Believe What Your Eyes See? The Love Story of a SIREN, a GIANT, and a DWARF! (As you can see, the taglines were far more exploitative than the film itself.)

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