|One of us, one of us, gooble, gobble, gooble gobble, we accept her, we accept her! they shout as Cleopatra is accepted as one of the Freaks.|
In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.
Day 23: Freaks (1932)
Director Tod Browning enjoyed a long career in silent films, then transitioned rather easily into talkies, particularly compared to some of his contemporaries. In 1931, he helmed probably the most famous film version of the Dracula story, starring Bela Lugosi in his most iconic performance. The next year, he made Freaks. Though Browning lived into his 80s and died in 1962, he made only four more movies after Freaks, the last coming in 1939.
The film was so shocking and its story so controversial that Browning could not get work, and the kind of work he could get was not the work he wanted. So that was it. A brilliant director’s career ended much too soon, right as he seemed to be hitting his stride, in fact, because the world was not ready for his peculiar brand of filmmaking.
The irony will not be lost on anyone reading this or seeing the movie today – that a film about intolerance could be met with such derision and disgust for having this cavalcade of freaks descend upon the movie houses of Depression-era audiences. The people who successfully banned the film share more in common with the villains of the story than with its deformed heroes
Yet time has been kind of Browning’s masterpiece, and viewed through a modern lens, Freaks stands as a stirring rebuke to the prevailing prejudices of its time – and of ours. It could have been anything really, but Browning, a contortionist with the circus in his youth, had a particular soft spot for the sideshow performers who were often mistreated when they were not on stage to be mocked.
The director’s familiarity with the world of the story and his decision to cast actual sideshow performers in all of the key roles add much-needed reality to a crazy though not unbelievable tale of deceit, hatred, and misunderstanding. When little person Hans, played by Harry Earles, finds out he stands to inherit a great deal of money, trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) decides to trick him into marrying her. She plans to poison him and take his money.
She can do this because, to her, Hans is subhuman. Hans’ mistake is not realizing she sees him this way. In the movie’s most famous scene, referenced as recently as last year in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, the sideshow performers gather for the wedding feast and to accept Cleopatra as one of their own. Cleopatra is disgusted that they could ever consider her one of them.
Everything is summed up in this scene, which takes place surprisingly late in the film. The “freaks” want love and will take any that comes their way, even if their trust is misplaced and misguided. Cleopatra stands in for us and our own hate and prejudice. It is a rare instance of the audience seeing through the eyes of the villain. The choice is a stroke of genius by Browning because if you do not feel dirty by then end of this film, you are not paying attention.
Tomorrow, we visit a time when there is no one to trust, villain or ally alike.