Tuesday, October 12, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: Freaks

 1932's Freaks is easily one of the most controversial films ever made. A pet project of Dracula director Tod Browning, the film had a gestation period of several years before he was finally able to make it at MGM, where he had several of his earlier cinematic triumphs with star Lon Chaney.

The story revolves around little person Hans(Harry Earles), who has a large inheritance, and aerialist Cleopatra(Olga Baclanova), who seduces him so she can marry him, murder him, and get his fortune. She is aided in this scehme by strong man Hercules(Henry Victor). Heartbroken Frieda(Daisy Earles), who truly loves Hans, tries to prevent this from happening.

That's the plot in a nutshell. There are also many "slice of life" scenes which give us a peek at the everyday goings-on in the lives of the sideshow performers. Browning made the controversial decision to use actual sideshow performers for nearly the entire cast, and these scenes were intended to humanize the often misunderstood people in the eyes of the 1930's moviegoers.

Some of the sideshow performers featured in the film include the aforementioned Harry and Daisy Earles, microcephalics Schlitzie, Zip, and Pip, conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, armless and leggless Prince Randian, who withdraws and lights a cigarette with his tongue in one scene, armless Frances O'Connor, and hermaphrodite (this claim has been disputed) half male/half female Josephine Joseph.

The film was not received well. After horrific results from test screenings, a series of cuts and re-shoots were ordered. The film's length went from 90 minutes to 64, including a new prologue and epilogue that were added. Unfortunately, the excised footage is now lost.

Even with these changes, the film still provoked outrage. The film was banned in Britain, and remained so for the next three decades. The disastrous reaction to the film virtually ruined Tod Browning's career; the previously prolific director would would make only four more films after this.

The film was rediscovered in the '60s, and quickly gained a cult following. It has since been recognized for its artistry, as well as its attempts to humanize the sideshow performers, so often the objects of scorn and derision. Indeed, the so-called "freaks" are good and trustworthy people in the film, while two "normal" humans are the only ones who behave in a manner befitting  true monsters.

It's no longer so controversial, but Freaks remains one of the treasures of Hollywood's golden age. The climax of the film remains one of the most atmospheric and chilling scenes ever shot, and is worth a viewing for that scene alone(you'll know it when you get there). The film is truly deserving of the accolades it has gotten in recent years.

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