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Freaks (1932) - Tod Browning
Related: American cinema - Dwain Esper - Freak - Tod Browning - American cinema - American exploitation - early exploitation film - 1932
Freaks (1932) - Tod Browning [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
The freaks catch Cleo in the act of poisoning Hans, and turn her into one of them.
Image sourced here.
Freaks is a 1932 horror film from the Pre-Code era about sideshow performers directed by Tod Browning.
The movie was adapted by Al Boasberg, Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, and Edgar Allan Woolf from the short story Spurs by Tod Robbins. Browning, famed at the time for directing Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931), took the exceptional step of casting real people with deformities as the eponymous sideshow "freaks", rather than using costumes and makeup. Director Browning had been a member of a travelling circus in his early years, and much of the film was drawn from his personal experiences. He intended to portray the classic moral of how beauty on the outside does not necessarily equate to beauty on the inside. In the film, the physically deformed "freaks" are inherently trusting and honorable people, while the real monsters are two of the "normal" members of the circus who conspire to murder Hans in order to obtain his large inheritance.
Reaction to this film was so intense that Browning had trouble finding work afterwards, and this in effect brought his career to an early close. The movie was banned in the United Kingdom for thirty years.
The film has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. ---http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freaks [Nov 2005]
Review by Marshall Fine, Amazon.com
Tod Browning, who directed Bela Lugosi in the original Dracula, stepped into even eerier territory with this 1932 story of betrayal and retribution in the circus. Evil trapeze artist Olga Baclanova seduces and marries a midget in the circus sideshow, hoping to inherit his wealth. But in doing so, she has crossed the wrong folks: the tightly knit group of nature's aberrations, who stick together like family--and who set out to avenge their little pal. Browning brought in some of the most famous sideshow attractions of the era, include Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton and Johnny Eck the Legless Boy, as well as Zip and Pip, microcephalics whose appearance in this film inspired cartoonist Bill Griffith to create his comic strip, "Zippy the Pinhead." So disturbing that it was banned for 30 years in Great Britain. --Marshall Fine, Amazon.com
Review by Noel O'Shea
Over at MGM director Tod Browning made his long-cherished project about freaks working in a circus, which gave rise to many cries of outrage when it was released. Thankfully, Freaks is rightly regarded as a masterpiece, and not the exploitative piece of sensationalist trash it was accused of. Showing a great affection for its characters, Browning's film has very few scenes that can be described as all-out horror, and there are many sequences depicting the circus entertainers socialising together (it is clear that the level of camaraderie amongst them is very high) and the director clearly admires them (best exemplified by the scene where one of the characters, who has no arms or legs, manages to light a cigar). These low-key scenes are the best in the film, and the actual revenge story built around them is slightly disappointing. Olga Baclanova, the 'normal' trapeze artist, who marries midget Harry Earles for his money, has no idea just how strong the bond is between the circus folk, and her fate at their hands is truly horrific. The scene where the freaks drag themselves through the mud and rain with knives at the ready, to get at Baclanova, is one that is not easily forgotten. What critics often forget when discussing Freaks is the ironic humour involved, particularly surrounding the sex lives of the freaks (maybe this aspect of Browning's classic is what caused it to be banned in the UK for decades). Years ahead of its time, the film is one of the best films from that great decade of the Thirties, and it is certainly Browning's best work (Dracula looks _very_ stale beside it). --Noel O'Shea
Review by Jack Stevenson
[S]OMETIME 1956 ... A phone rings in a cramped, grubby little office and an ill-shaven flim-flam artist named Dwain Esper picks up the reciever and answers in a monosylyllabic and deeply suspecious manner that gives no hint that this is any kind of a "business". An old window fan clangs away, blowing hot air from the city street 2 stories below over a mess of papers and film stills.
After a couple minutes of terse conversation, a smile spreads across his gaunt face ... this broad on the other end of the phone seems to have money and she wants to buy this piece of crap called "Freaks" that he hasn't shown in years! The broad does indeed have money: she is Mrs. Willy Werby of San Francisco, partial heiress to the Folgers coffee fortune. She runs the Camera Obscura Film Society in San Francisco and, at the urging of local Satanist, Anton LeVay, wants to include "Freaks" in a retrospective of classic horror cinema. This phone call represents the culmination of a long and frustrating search for the slippery Esper, who is also sought by a legion of lawyers, lawmen and bilked theater owners.
Back in 1948, Esper bought rights to the MGM pic which was directed by Tod Bowning in 1932. Despite uneven domestic box-office, the film was widely censored, cut and in a number of foreign countries banned outright: it flopped financially. Moreover the picture had been an embarressment to Studio brass from the outset. It had been buried at sea - almost literally, since rumour circulated that the negative had been dumped into San Francisco Bay.
Renegade roadshowman, celebrated shyster and charter member of the notorious "Forty Thieves", Esper had taken his customary approach with his post-war rerelease. He jazzed up the publicity paper with lots of lurid hype and flogged his prints around on the roadshow circut. In cities he played the seedy "mainstreet" theaters, and in the countryside he would play any small town house that would take him, often "four-walling" or even playing tent shows just outside the reach of hostile law-enforcement officals. As drive-in theaters began to prolifereate at the end of the Forties, he was there, invariably packing his "magic bullett" - a short "square-up" reel of actual nudity to satiate angry customers who sat through "Freaks" without encountering any of the depravity his posters so lavishly promised. He even hired a troop of real freaks to accompany the film, dressing up shows like circus acts with big canvas banners and the freaks performing live on sawdust spread out in the lobbies.
But all that seems like ancient history to Esper today as he sits in this shit-hole office trying to fiddle up new schemes to save his sorry ass. His hey-day had been the 30s and 40s... time was passing him by.
This phone conversation will soon result in a meeting between Esper and Werby - and the resuscitation of the "dead horse" called "Freaks", as she buys the rights (but must find her own print since he has no idea where there is one).
SAME YEAR ... FIVE MONTHS LATER ... in the New Yorker Theater at Broadway and W. 88th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhatten, a toiling, unknown fashion photographer named Diane Arbus sinks into her seat as she gazes transfixed up at the screen. She's come every night so far this week to see this weird little depression-era monster movie called "Freaks" over and over again. The movie has a very profound effect on her and will soon exert an influence on her work, on her vision of the world.
New Yorker manager, Dan Talbot, has booked the film for a week's run from the infamous indie distributor, Raymond Rohauer, who aquired the rights from Willy Werby. This run at The New Yorker, along with exposure at the Cannes Film Festival the following year, propels the film into fullblown revival status.--Jack Stevenson via http://hjem.get2net.dk/jack_stevenson/cult.htm [Nov 2005]
In all the annals of Hollywood motion picture making, no movie bears a stranger legacy that the 1932 "monster" movie, FREAKS. Like Madame Tetrallini's creaking circus wagons in the film itself, FREAKS rolled through the decades over bumpy, rocky ground, trundling on through the twilight and into the darkness ... to emerge into the new morning light of another day, appearing like some alien artifact to be discovered all over again, dragging along the horrified and fascinated in it's wake. --Jack Stevenson via http://hjem.get2net.dk/jack_stevenson/freaks.htm [Nov 2005]
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