The plot is very basic: a bad woman uses a good man for his money. It’s been told in many movies and happens thousands of times every day in real life. What makes this movie so different is that it happens in the setting of a circus, among a set of carnival performers collectively known as “circus freaks”.
A beautiful trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is aware that the dwarf Hans (Harry Earles) is infatuated with her. She pretends to like him both as part of a cruel game and to get as much out of him in money and gifts as she can. Hans loved a dwarf woman named Frieda (Daisy Earles) before he met Cleopatra, and Frieda still loves him. She tries to get Cleopatra to stop using Hans because she knows he will get hurt. Unfortunately, while doing this she lets Cleopatra know that Hans is due to come into an inheritance. He’s going to be rich.
Cleopatra and her real lover Hercules (Henry Victor), the circus strongman, come up with a plan for Cleopatra to marry Hans and then poison him once he gets his inheritance. That way she will have his money and then she and Hercules can run off together. It works up until the point that the other “freaks” find out about the plan. They decide to take action. The ending of the movie is both horrific and surreal.
All of the “freaks” that appear in this film were actual circus performers. For most of them this was the only time they ever appeared in a movie. Director Tod Browning originally had a clear message in the movie that the supposed freaks were actually the nice people, and the supposed beautiful people were actually the real monsters. Unfortunately, part of this message got lost when the movie got re-cut. Browning mostly got criticism that he was exploiting these people the exact same way their real circuses exploited them.
Of course, there is the whole debate of what is and is not exploitation. If you pay someone a good wage for an honest job, then is that exploitation? What if that person would not have been allowed by society at the time to have a regular job? Hattie McDaniel famously said about still usually playing maids in movies after winning an Oscar for her performance in Gone with the Wind, “I’d rather play a maid for $800 a week than be one for $8 a week.” Is it right that she was limited like this? Of course not, but she was pointing out that even being “used” like she was, she was still better off than most other people.
That question of whether these performers were being exploited by Browning, or given a good chance by him, is one of the reasons to watch this film. You have to see it to decide for yourself. You also should see it because Browning’s original message does come through a little clearer today than it did back when it was released because people’s understanding of birth defects are much better than they were 80 years ago. They are no longer believed to be “punishments from God” or any such nonsense.
Of course, large numbers of people have never gotten over their fascination with “freak shows”; that’s why TV reality shows are so popular. Despite this, there is no way that this movie could ever be made today because the studios would not want to open themselves up to the charge of exploitation.
By the way, even though this movie was made pre-Code, Hans and Frieda are not shown ever really being loving with each other. They just speak their words of love, but barely ever touch. This was for a good reason: they were brother and sister in real life.
Finally, if you’ve ever heard a movie person all of a sudden chanting, “One of us! One of us!”, then after you’ve seen this film you’ll know what it’s about.
As you can tell, this movie is not for everyone, or even most people. It can certainly still offend. Personally, I found some of the scenes of the “freaks” made me uncomfortable and I don’t honestly know if it was because I thought the scenes were wrong, or if seeing these oh so different people triggered something primal inside me. You may think that this sounds like a horrible film, and you may be right from your perspective, but you owe it to yourself to actually watch it and see what your opinion will be. For that reason I recommend that you give it a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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