Friday, October 19, 2012


Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)  During the pre-Code days, the director of Dracula was given an edict by Irving Thalberg of M-G-M to "outdo" Frankenstein and so produced this mind-blowing soap opera about dysfunction in a circus, with the ambition to show that "they" are as normal as "us" (even though that's hardly a three-ringing endorsement!).  The film was deemed "exploitive," despite casting the human rarities as "good guys" and the venal "normals" as "bad guys," as folks couldn't get past the visuals and pay attention to what the film was actually saying.  Thus, the film was banned in some countries for many years (and there are still probably some antiquated laws on the books in some U.S. states prohibiting the showing of it—in which case, tough luck TCM!)

We are introduced to the story in flashback as a carnival "barker" presents one particular exhibit, the story of it being what makes up the bulk of the movie.  And despite the physical hardships of the various displays, the human rarities seem more concerned with the gossipy interactions, than with dealing with, or suffering, their handicaps.  The mongoloids (called "pinheads") are happily in a family unit, the siamese twins are dealing with in-law problems (as well you could imagine), the half-man/half-woman sets him/herself apart from the others, eyeing in the various male/female conflicts by looking inward, and the midget couple are squabbling—he has eyes for the beautiful trapeze artist (but then, he's a social climber), while she has set her sights considerably lower.

Browning has measured, semi-respectful fun with the populace, saving his contempt for the true freaks at the circus—the angry strong-man and the high-flying trapeze artist.  They're mean-spirited, wicked people out to exploit weakness—and there's a lot of it in this circus.  The metaphor is pushed hard, the lessons imposed in a Grand Guignol style that climaxes in a thunderstorm when the oppressed take on their oppressors (there's one image that's particularly striking—Prince Randian "the Human Torso," born without arms and legs, unstealthily but menacingly approaches his intended victim with a knife between his teeth.  One wonders if he can accomplish the task, but one is quite sure he will and it won't be pleasant, having seen how dexterously he opens a box of matches and lights his own cigarettes).  Exploitative?  Certainly.  But it's also a radical statement of revolution meant to make the complacent less so, given the context with which the film operates—one only imagines an updated version for these times with the Strong Man berating the half-man for the "entitlement" of having arms (ignoring that he has no legs).  A bizarre, though-provoking film—if one can get past the distractions up-front, and get into the tent where the real show is.    

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