Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Catching Up On The Classics: Freaks (1932)

Freaks is a very rare kind of movie. In the special message prologue preceding the movie, it is said that "never again will such a story be filmed" and I think for the time being that that is probably true. Though based on a much darker short story called "Spurs," director Tod Browning still wanted to be able to tale a truly horrific story with Freaks - something he very much succeeded in because the film was widely controversial upon its release. Over time, audiences have come to more appreciate this tale of deception, prejudice and revenge; though it no doubt also still has the power to unsettle and disturb those who see it.

As a sort of "circus soap opera" (as one interviewee on the DVD feature put it), Freaks follows the behind-the-scenes lives of performers in a traveling sideshow circus. When dwarf Hans becomes infatuated with Cleopatra, the "normal"-sized beautiful trapeze artist, she plays along with him to get him to buy her things and laugh at him with her real beau, strongman Hercules. Cleopatra then finds out that Hans is actually due a large inheritance, and she schemes to marry him and then slowly murder him with poison to collect the money. Hans and the other freaks at the circus discover this and soon concoct their own plan for revenge.

(Simply for the purposes of brevity and avoiding confusion, let me just say that I will refer to any of the actors with real deformities here as "freaks." I'm not trying to be disrespectful or mean, obviously. Hopefully you get it.)

I loved this movie, but it's almost hard for me admit to that without feeling a little bad. My conflict is this: while I think the movie is well played out and expresses great empathy for the freaks, something in me niggles a bit at Browning's choice to cast people with real physical deformities. Freaks is often described as an exploitation film probably because of this choice. If (goodness help us) Freaks were ever remade today, there is no absolutely no chance that they would ever get away with using people with real deformities. I don't think Freaks is an exploitation film in the sense that it uses the real freaks to shock us. I think it is that the audience only feels like they are the ones exploiting these people simply by watching the movie, and perhaps trying to see as much as it can of their lives and what they can do. I felt like a peeping tom looking in on their private lives and guilty for wanting to see more.

Browning seems to even play on this a few times. There are several seemingly unimportant scenes with a few of the different freaks and Browning's intentions are either confusing or misinterpreted, depending on who you ask. He has short bits with the Living Torso lighting a cigarette with his mouth, one of the Armless Girls eating dinner with her feet, and a sideplot with the Siamese Twins and their respective fiances. Because these scenes have nothing to do with the central plot, I can see how some might think Browning included them just to "show off" the freaks and their freaky skills. It seems to me though that Browning actually had a lot of respect and love for them, though, and these scenes were included to show that the freaks were very normal people and it was only what was on the outside that was different about them.

All this confusion is made all the more difficult to deal with while watching the movie because the freaks are all awesome people. Aside from Venus the animal trainer and Phroso the clown (who is actually very annoying at times), it is the so-called normal people - Cleopatra and Hercules - who are the ones we hate the most for their prejudice of the freaks; their self-centeredness; their manipulation of Hans and Frieda; and their greed. The freaks are sweet, fun people who obviously feel very comfortable and at home in their community, despite the fact that their jobs are to show off their deformities for gawkers. Even when the freaks take their revenge at the end, a part of you is definitely rooting for them. I also have to point out here that while I hated her character Cleopatra, I absolutely loved Olga Baclanova's portrayal of her. The way she speaks and all her little gestures really sell that this woman is completely full of herself and just a really bad human being. Olga at the wedding feast is fantastic - every annoying drunk person you ever knew, right there.

That wedding feast scene and the final scene are probably the two most famous from the film. The former because of all the freaks chanting "We accept her, we accept her! One of us, one of us!" and the latter because of its very creepy and scary imagery. The whole sequence is really just stunning as the freaks go after Hercules and Cleopatra during a rainstorm. The shots of the freaks crawling in the mud under the wagons, weapons in hand, or running in the woods toward Cleopatra are all so incredibly beautiful and well composed and very disturbing all at the same time. It's what everybody remembers most about the movie, except maybe for the reveal of Cleopatra as the human duck thing in the next scene. In the version of the movie I watched, there was this whole denouement scene with Hans, Frieda, Venus, and Phroso, but I really didn't like that or think it was necessary. I think it would have been much more effective to end the movie on Cleopatra the duck.

So I've finally seen Freaks and I'm so glad that I did. Like I said before, it is a very, very rare movie in that we will never see anything like it ever again. A truly unique and fascinating tale, Tod Browning's Freaks was saved from obscurity to be enjoyed and appreciated for future generations and I think we all need to do our part to keep that going.