Tomorrow, see SB Jon’s own Freaky Photos
“I first saw this film at Marlboro College in 1967, where it was shown on Hallowe’en! I loved the film, which has had cult status for the few people who have seen it. I’ve compiled the following excerpts, taken verbatim from the sites I’ve linked, in a story line that I think makes sense. “
— SB Jon (Quaker Silverbacks)
The story centres on the machinations of a femme fatale, the “normal” trapeze artist Cleopatra (played by Olga Baclanova), who seduces and marries one of the “freaks,” the little person Hans (Harry Earles), after learning that he has inherited a large fortune. Once the other sideshow performers learn of her self-serving plot to poison Hans with the help of her lover, circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), they exact a horrific revenge on the two, stabbing the strongman and viciously mutilating Cleopatra. At the end of the film as originally cut, Hercules is seen singing falsetto after being castrated, while Cleopatra—now tarred and feathered, minus her tongue and legs, with her hands deformed—is shown squawking and performing in her new role as a “chicken woman.” In subsequent cuts the castration scene was removed. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer also filmed a revised ending in which Hans reunites with his original lover, the little person Frieda (Daisy Earles).
Browning, who once traveled with a circus, cast real carnival performers—including people of short stature, conjoined twins, bearded ladies, microcephalics, and limbless sideshow performers. He contrasted their honesty and integrity with the degeneracy displayed by the true monsters in the film, the so-called “normal” people. Called “ghastly” and “repellent” by critics, Freaks was banned in several places—including in the United Kingdom for some 30 years. Though it later attained cult status, the controversial film effectively ended Browning’s directorial career.
Did I mention the cast of human marvels, self-identified circus freaks and human oddities? Quite literally, almost every major sideshow star of the 1930’s had a part in the filming of Freaks. The cast included Harry Earles and Daisy Earles, sibling midgets who played lovers. Daisy and Violet Hilton, the famous conjoined twins, were also featured in a romantic sub plot and Schlitze, Zip and Pip – the adorable pinheads – charmed their way through many scenes. Johnny Eck ‘The Half-Boy’ and Frances O’Conner the ‘Living Venus De Milo’ both showcased their limbless prowess as did another armless wonder, Martha Morris, and the completely limbless Prince Randian. The cast was rounded out by dwarf Angelo
Rossitto, the ‘Living Skeleton ‘Peter Robinson, bearded Olga Roderick, the bizarre bird women Koo Koo and Elizabeth Green and Josephine-Joseph the ‘Half-woman, Half-man’. Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the unique casting was the fact that these sideshow marvels were not hired as mere background. Each and every one of them were given screen time to showcase their unique skills and characteristics.
Though it received critical backlash and was a box-office failure upon initial release, Freaks was subject to public and critical reappraisal in the 1960s, as a long forgotton Hollywood classic, particularly in Europe, and was screened at the 1962 Venice Film Festival. In retrospect, numerous film critics have suggested that the film presents a starkly sympathetic portrait of its sideshow characters rather than an exploitative one, with Andrew Sarris declaring Freaks one of the “most compassionate” films ever made. Nonetheless, critics have continued to take note of the film’s horror elements; in 2009, Joe Morgenstern proclaimed that Freaks contains some of the most terrifying scenes in film history. Film scholars have interpreted the film as a metaphor for class conflict, reflecting the Great Depression, and it has been studied for its portrayal of people with disabilities, with theorists arguing that it presents an anti-eugenics message. The film has been highly influential and is now considered a cult classic. In 1994, it was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry which seeks to preserves films that are classified “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Jon Chase, University Photographer, Harvard Public Affairs and Communications