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  Freaks All The Fun Of The Fair?
Year: 1932
Director: Tod Browning
Stars: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Rose Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton, Schlitze, Josephine Joseph, Johnny Eck, Peter Robinson, Olga Roderick, Angelo Rossitto, Edward Brophy
Genre: Horror, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 2 votes)
Review: Roll up, roll up, and listen to the carnival barker as he guides you around the people he terms "freaks". But for an accident of nature, he says, they could be normal, but there's one exhibit who was transformed into the way she is now. She is Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), and when the punters set eyes on her they are terribly shocked; the barker continues, relating the story of how she came to be one of the disadvantaged. She originally worked in the circus as a trapeze artist, and one of the little people who worked there, Hans (Harry Earles) was besotted with her - Cleopatra was unwise to reject him so cruelly...

One of the first cult movies of the sound era, Freaks was producer Irving Thalberg's attempt to muscle in on the horror movie boom of the early thirties, but he got more than he bargained for. By using genuinely deformed and disabled individuals as cast members, the film drew opprobrium from the public who were shocked at what they regarded as heartless exploitation, and the film was quickly withdrawn, recut and released onto the roadshow circuit where it would play as something akin to a sideshow attraction, an ignominious fate.

In some countries it was banned outright, including Britain where they were prevented from seeing it until 1963, over thirty years after its premiere, and the complete and uncut version has since been lost. What remains lasts barely over an hour, but may surprise viewers expecting a lurid capitalising on the plight of the less fortunate. For the most part, Browning shows great tenderness towards the so-called freaks, and the ignorance of the supposed normal people is highlighted as reprehensible although, as you can see by the ending, he ensures that we know they can stand up for themselves if need be.

If nothing else, the film leads the audience around the carnivals of old, and there is a variety of people involved, from the ostensible stars Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams, a clown and showgirl respectively, to Hans (Henry Victor) the wicked strongman who is Cleopatra's lover (being a pre-Code effort, we're in no doubt about the sexual relationships both actual and longed for here). And then there are those who represent the title characters, including half-man Johnny Eck, Living Torso Prince Randian, some microcephalics or pinheads as they were known, a hermaphrodite, and some little people, the most recognisable being Angelo Rossitto who enjoyed a long career afterwards.

The whole message of Freaks is that the normal ones can be more monstrous than the less normal ones, so Cleopatra and Hans make memorable villains as they plan for her to marry Hans for his money and then poison him to death. There's a famous scene where the two get married and Cleo humiliates her new husband in front of his friends, which still carries an emotional punch, but largely you'll probably find the work incredibly stilted, with many lines delivered by the professional sideshow attractions unintelligible. It's that finale that sticks in the mind, however, where revenge is taken for the bad guys' misdeeds, which has the effect of making the freaks live down to the reputation that the less enlightened think of them, as monsters. It's hard to see how else it could have ended, but does pitch the film's climax at odds with the rest of the more progressive attitude it adopts for what has gone before. For that reason, this can still be a troubling work.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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