Saturday, October 06, 2012


Directed by Tod Browning and written by Tod Robbins, Freaks is the story of a trapeze artist who marries a midget in order to gain his inheritance as a group of circus freaks seek revenge on the woman. Based on Robbins’ short story, the film explores the world of the circus sideshow and its performers as they become the focus of the film. Starring Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, and Henry Victor. Freaks is a strange yet compelling film from Tod Browning.

At a circus, the midget Hans (Harry Earles) is in love with the trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) as he hopes to woo with presents and such. Though Hans’ friend Frieda (Daisy Earles) is suspicious of Cleopatra’s intentions for Hans, Cleopatra and Hans’ love affair becomes news to the people in the circus as they wonder what is going on. Also suspicious is a circus performer in Venus (Leila Hyams) who had just broken up with the strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) who is having an affair with Cleopatra as she overhears about Hans’ inheritance.

During a wedding celebration for Hans and Cleopatra where many of Hans’ friends attend the dinner along with Hercules, things go wrong when Hans becomes sick while Cleopatra berates the freaks at the dinner. Upon learning about what really happened to Hans and what Cleopatra and Hercules are planning. Venus along with the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) and the freaks decide to take action for their friend.

The film is essentially the look into the life of circus performers who aren’t considered normal as one of them is played for a fool as his friends along with some other circus performers discover a scheme concocted by a gold-digging trapeze artist. While the first half of the story is about these group of people who work and live their life in the circus, there’s a little bit of prejudice in the way the freaks are treated though most of the performers treat the freaks like normal people with a few exception. The fact that someone like Cleopatra despises freaks and only wants Hans for his money just makes her a despicable person that would drive the film’s second half which becomes a revenge story of sorts by the film’s third act.

Tod Browning’s direction is quite extraordinary for the way he presents the world of circus life where he has his camera fixated on these people through a lot of group shots in the frame. He also creates shots that are lively such as the wedding dinner party scene where it’s definitely a joy to watch until Cleopatra becomes disgusted by their partying ways. The film has a unique opening where it involves a man showing people the world of freaks where he tells the story of a particular freak that leads to the main narrative. While a lot of the shots are straightforward, Browning’s direction does get more engaging in the third act in the way he sets up the suspense of the freaks making their move to stop Cleopatra and Hercules where it’s very unsettling but the payoff is definitely satisfying. Overall, Browning creates a mesmerizing yet thrilling film that explores the world of circus freaks.

Cinematographer Merritt B. Gerstad does wonderful work with the film‘s black-and-white photography from many of the film‘s vibrant shots in the daytime exterior and interior settings to the eerie climax during the rain involving the freaks‘ thirst for justice. Editor Basil Wrangell does excellent work with the editing by creating some offbeat rhythmic cuts to play with the film‘s action and conversations along with some suspenseful cutting styles for the film‘s climax. Art directors Cedric Gibbons and Merrill Pye do superb work with the set pieces such as the circus and wagons the circus people live in.

The film’s ensemble cast is incredible for the array of people that are hired for the film as many of the circus freaks that appear in the film are real circus freaks as they’re just full of life and just fun to watch. Notable performances include Henry Victor as the conniving Hercules while Daisy Earles is wonderful as Hans’ real friend Frieda who is suspicious about Cleopatra’s intentions. Wallace Ford is excellent as the friendly clown Phroso while Leila Hyams is terrific as the kind Venus as they both would help out the freaks in their act to stop Cleopatra. Harry Earles is great as the very charming Hans as he tries to deal with the reaction over his love affair with Cleopatra. Finally, there’s Olga Bacalanova who is brilliant as the scheming gold-digger Cleopatra as she displays a sense of charm in the way she tries to woo Hans while being very evil in her schemes with Hercules.

Freaks is a marvelous film from Tod Browning that explores the world of circus freaks. The film is definitely one of the most fascinating films of the pre-Hays code era for taking on a subject that seemed to be controversial at the time yet has a story that is very engaging. It is also a film that allows the audience to find humanity in a group of freaks while rooting for them in their endeavors. In the end, Freaks is a unique yet offbeat film from Tod Browning.

© thevoid99 2012


Chip Lary said...

Small world. I'm going to be reviewing this is a few days. I didn't read your post because I don't want to subconsciously plagiarize it. I'll read it after I've done my post.

Alex Withrow said...

One of us! One of us!!

Ha, great review here. Love Freaks. Classic shit.

thevoid99 said...

@Chip-OK then, I look forward to reading that review.

@Alex-We are freaks! I love that part and that ending.

Chip Lary said...

I think you liked the acting a little more than I did, but I felt the mostly non-professional cast did as good a job as could be expected. I agree that some scenes are unsettling. Good review.

thevoid99 said...

@Chip-I just read your review and I can see why you had issues with the acting. I like non-actors who play parts. It feels more real to me. Plus, I love payoff in the ending.

Chip Lary said...

A movie with non-professional actors that I liked quite a bit is the Chinese film Not One Less. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it.

thevoid99 said...

@Chip-I have seen Not One Less, in fact, I wrote a review of the film back in April.

Chip Lary said...

Which I see I already commented on. I didn't remember.