Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Silly Cinema: Freaks (1932)

"Before proceeding 
with the showing of the following 
HIGHLY 
UNUSUAL ATTRACTION
a few words must be said about
 the amazing subject matter.  
BELIEVE IT OR NOT ----
 STRANGE AS IT SEEMS.  
In ancient times anything that 
deviated from the normal was 
considered an omen of ill luck or 
representative of evil.  Gods of
misfortune and adversity were
invariably cast in the form of
monstrosities, and deeds of injustice
and hardships have been attributed
to the many crippled and deformed 
tyrants of Europe and Asia.
HISTORY, RELIGION,
FOLKLORE and LITERATURE
abound in tales of misshapen
misfits who have altered the
world's course.  GOLIATH,
CALABAN, FRANKENSTEIN, 
just a few, whose fame is world
wide.
The accident of abnormal birth was
considered a disgrace and mal-
formed children were placed out 
in the elements to die.  If per-
chance, one of these freaks of 
nature survived, he was always 
regarded with suspicion.  Society
shunned him because of his de-
formity, and a family so hampered
was always ashamed of the curse
put upon it.
Occasionally, one of theses unfortu-
nates was taken to court to be
jeered at or ridiculed for the 
amusement of the nobles.  Others
were left to eke out a living by
begging, stealing or starving.
For the love of beauty is a deep
seated urge which dates back to 
the beginning of civilization.  The
revulsion with which we view the
abnormal, the malformed and the
mutilated is the result of long 
conditioning by our forefathers.
The majority of freaks, themselves,
are endowed with normal thoughts
and emotions.  Their lot is truly a
heart-breaking one.
They are forced into the most
unnatural of lives.  Therefore, they
have built up among themselves
a code of ethics to protect them 
from the barbs of normal people.
Their rules are rigidly adhered to 
and the hurt of one is the hurt
of all; the joy of one is the joy
of all.  The story about to be
revealed is a story based on the
effect of this code upon their lives.
Never again will such a story be
filmed, as modern science and
teratology is rapidly eliminating
such blunders of nature from the
world.
With humility for the many injustices
done to such people, (they have
no power to control their lot) we
present the most startling horror
story of the ABNORMAL and
THE UNWANTED."

-Prologue to Tod Browning's Freaks (1932)  


(Source)

There is no politically correct way to discuss Tod Browning's 1932 masterpiece, Freaks.  It is the story of greed, corruption, and betrayal with a cast heavily-populated by real 1930's sideshow freaks.

Freaks is really a proto-Noir picture, filmed within the transitional period of the Hays Code that carved a path both thematically and stylistically for future, film noir classics like Nightmare Alley.  Its noir-ish tendencies are found in the theme, style, cinematography, and cast of seriously-flawed characters motivated by their own anger, avarice, and jealousy.  In a movie like this, it is tough to find anyone for which to root - except for the freaks!

Nightmare Alley (1947)
(Source)

The story is about trapeze artist, Cleopatra, "Queen of the Air," who uses her feminine wiles to charm Hans, a little person, out of his inherited fortune.


"Can a full grown woman truly love a midget?"


Cleopatra & Hans
(Originally, rising M-G-M star, Myrna Loy, was tagged
for the part of Cleopatra but she refused the highly-unlikable role.)

Before viewers can start feeling too sorry for Hans, it is made known that he is engaged to fellow performer Frieda.  Unfortunately, he just cannot resist the "most beautiful big woman in the world."

Hans & Frieda
(These performers, Harry & Daisy Earles, were real-life siblings)

Meanwhile, Cleopatra, along with her strongman boyfriend, Hercules, plots a wedding for Hans and Cleo so they can kill him and make off with Hans' fortune.

Hercules & Cleo are obviously turned on by greed and murder.

Hans and Cleopatra do get married and host a wedding feast.  The open-hearted freaks are fully prepared to accept Cleopatra but, revolted by the thought of being "one of them," she reacts rather impolitely.


"One of us, one of us, gooble gobble, gooble gobble..."

Justifiably offended, and apprised of her motives, the freaks plan a future for Cleopatra far different from the one she had envisioned with Hercules.  To find out just what they have planned, you must watch Freaks!

Price Randian "The Living Torso" & Johnny Eck "Half Boy" say,
"You're either 'one of us' or you're not..."
(Source)

It is easy to see the type of circus sideshow depicted in the film, and even the film itself, as exploitive and inhumane.  Considering the era (Depression) and the prevailing attitudes of society, circuses actually provided a haven for people born with disabilities, disorders, and odd appearances.  The sideshow became a means of earning both money and a new "family" in a time when families were discarding or selling off these "accidents of nature."  Fortunately, time and science have been on society's side and we seem to have gotten at least slightly more enlightened and compassionate. An interesting tidbit that I learned in researching this movie is that Elizabeth Green, "The Stork Woman," was actually a "normal" business woman (she owned several apartment buildings); she used her business savvy to capitalize on her odd appearance and joined the circus.

Billed as "The Stork Woman" and "Koo Koo the Bird Girl," Elizabeth Green
talks to Wallace Ford "Phroso the Clown" in a scene from Freaks.

"Louella Parsons says - For pure sensationalism 'Freaks' tops any picture yet produced.
It' s more fantastic and grotesque than any shocker ever written."
(Source)

Without giving away too much, Browning betrays a profound love and respect for the "freaks" throughout his film.  His behind-the-scenes portrayal of life in an early-20th Century circus/side show illuminates the simple dignity with which the "freaks" lived in spite of the heretofore untold indignities they were forced to endure.  Somehow, through it all, he imbues their story with great humanity while allowing the audience to find justice through their unique code of solidarity.  It might sound trite, but in the end, we are left seeing the "normal" characters, with their cynicism, their manipulative and mean spirits, and ultimately, their sociopathic tendencies, as the real deviants - the freaks.  While the filmization  of the contemporary novel, Water for Elephants, may show the ugly machinations of a Depression-era circus, no film other than Freaks has offered such a dynamic portrait of backstage-circus life for the real stars of the show, the sideshow performers.

The cast of Freaks
(Source)


Cheers!

Mr. Tiny

1 comment:

  1. i just love schlitzy and wish i could change my name

    ReplyDelete