Archive for the ‘sideshows’ Tag

Freaks (1932)   11 comments

freaks poster

Hot off his success directing DRACULA for Universal Studios, Tod Browning had carte blanche to decide what he’d like to do next. Browning chose to film Tod Robbins’ story Spurs. The dark tale of life in a traveling carnival appealed to Browning who had left home at sixteen to join the circus. Browning liked Robbins’ macabre stories. He directed the 1925 version of Robbins’ THE UNHOLY THREE starring Lon Chaney.


FREAKS takes place in a traveling sideshow filled with trapeze artists, animal acts, clowns, and human anomalies. The performers live together in a cluster of caravans not unlike a small town. The little community, made up of outcasts and people on the fringes of society is a tight knit group. Their fear of ridicule and distrust of the outside world bands them together. Just how much only comes out when a so-called normal person threatens one of their number and they act as one to retaliate.

Director Tod Browning and some of his cast

Hans and Frieda (Harry & Daisy Earles) play little people engaged to marry. In real life, the two were brother and sister, performing all over the United States with two other sisters as The Doll Family. Hans loves Frieda, but has a crush on Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), the glamorous, and tall acrobat. Cleopatra considers Hans’ infatuation a joke, but puts up with it because of the gifts he gives her. When Cleopatra discovers Hans has inherited a great deal of money, she and her lover Hercules (Henry Victor) decide she will marry him to get her hands on it. She says to Hercules, “Midgets are not strong. He could get sick.” Thus they hatch a plot to kill Hans.

Hans and Frieda in happier times

Unfortunately for the evil couple, they’re not too bright and their plan is pretty obvious from the get go. Here we see the famous wedding feast scene. Hans, Cleopatra, and the entire company including the jilted Frieda, sit at a long table drinking champagne to celebrate the nuptials. As Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto) passes a loving cup full of champagne from one performer to the next, he calls out, “Gooble gobble one of us! We accept her! We accept her!”

“Slimy freaks!”

As the glass nears Cleopatra we see her face harden. She screams, “You filth make me want to puke!” Happy honeymoon!

Strike one.

Cleopatra and Hercules start dosing Hans with a slow-acting poison right after the wedding. He’s bedridden immediately and under the care of his doting new wife. Hans’ convenient illness arouses the suspicions of his friends and soon Cleopatra and Hercules fall under their watchful eyes.

Oh us? Just hanging out. *whistles*

Everywhere the conspirators go, freaks, as outsiders refer to the sideshow performers, watch their every move. When Cleopatra and Hercules are caught red-handed, they find themselves at the mercy of the freaks and their brutal code of justice.

freak attack
We’re coming to get you, Olga.

FREAKS does a lovely job of showing the beauty and ugliness in people. Cleopatra and Hercules look attractive, athletic, and healthy, but under their shiny appearance lurks ugliness, cruelty, and disdain for those they consider beneath them. The freaks, on the other hand may be physically abnormal, but they love, trust, and protect each other like a family. The beautiful Cleopatra and Hercules plot against Hans for money while the ‘ugly’ freaks celebrate the birth of a child. Over and over we see examples of the nastiness of Cleopatra and Hercules juxtaposed with the kindness of one of the freaks. Of course, when crossed, the sideshow denizens show their violent sides too. This works because it shows these people to be exactly what many normal people think they are not…human.

The Bearded Lady’s new baby

Not all supposedly normal people in FREAKS are heartless jerks. The marvelous character actor Wallace Ford plays Phroso, the Clown. He treats the sideshow performers as he would anyone. He’s affable and genuine. If you’re kind to him, he’s kind to you. Leila Hyams as Venus is also a friend to the freaks as is Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione) who cares for her microcephalic ‘children’.

Wallace Ford and Elizabeth Green

Madame Tetrallini and her charges

Tod Browning cast FREAKS from sideshows all over the United States and Europe. He hired popular acts like Johnny Eck, the half boy, conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, and Harry Earles, who later gained fame as one of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz. Angelo Rossitto, was a popular performer who worked on and off until the 1980s. Among many other roles, he played The Master in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The Armless Girl, Frances O’Connor worked under the name The Living Venus DeMilo in circuses and sideshows. Beautiful, gregarious, and dextrous, Frances was a sought after performer for years.

Frances havin’ some suds

Schlitze and the other microcephalic members of the company were often called pinheads and billed as Aztec Children in the sideshow circuit.


Then there’s Prince Randian. Often called The Living Torso, Randian has an incredible scene in FREAKS in which he lights a cigarette. He opens a matchbox, takes out a match, closes the matchbox, and lights the match and his cigarette. It’s fascinating to watch. What you should know is they cut an earlier part of the scene showing Randian rolling that cigarette. Randian lived to his 60s, worked in circuses, married, and had kids.

Prince Randian

I’ve always loved FREAKS because of its engaging story, compelling characters, and because it affords us a glimpse into a world we’d never see if not for the film. Since the 1960s when FREAKS started showing in art house theatres, it’s gained a cult following, but the controversial setting, plot, and especially the characters did not thrill audiences or critics in 1932. In fact, the reaction to FREAKS killed Tod Browning’s career. Even though he lived until the 1960s, Browning only made four films after FREAKS. Audiences did not want to know about these people. In my opinion, it’s one of the reasons freak shows and carnivals started closing. It was just too ugly for refined people to see. They called it exploitation and put many performers, who made a good living, out on the street. Unable to get other jobs, many had to rely on charity to survive. Even critics who didn’t hate the film said that though it was well made, the film had no chance of working because there was no way a normal man or woman could empathize with a midget. That’s sad because there’s so much to love about this film and the characters in it. Browning manages in sixty-four minutes to let us into this closed world. FREAKS pulls you in and lets you see things from another point of view which is one of the best things about film.


I wrote this piece for the Pre-Code Blogathon hosted by Karen @TheDarkPages and
Danny @PreCodeDotCom

Another fun idea, you two!


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