I am far too young to remember the circus sideshows of olden times. They were appendices to the main circus where the audience could gawk at human oddities they would never see in their normal life. I did see an American sideshow ensemble perform at the Roskilde festival back in the nineties and I found myself gawking at these performers who had done weird things to their bodies.
Yet, in our small world where anything you can imagine is available at your fingertips on the internet or in the television we are so used to see deformities and strange sights that only the most extreme really catches our attention and usually we see these people with pity and compassion and not as entertainment. The sideshow has outlived itself.
The sideshows lives, breathes and functions better than ever. There are tons of shows on television trying to show us the weirdest oddities in the world and thrive on it. I saw a show some time ago about the smallest woman in the world and I was deeply fascinated. What are gossip magazines but modern sideshows?
Freaks is a film taking place in the sideshow environment. With the largest ensemble of deformed people ever assembled for a film you would think this is a movie about sideshows or at least be a sideshow in itself for the movie audience. Well, I suppose it is, at least the latter. It certainly still carries its original impact on the viewer as we stare at all these impossible people. There are a man without legs, a woman without arms, Siamese twins, a half-man-half-woman, a bearded women, pinheads and lots of dwarfs and frankly I am fascinated by all these oddities. Especially the living torso (a man with neither legs nor arms) engaged me. That is just mind-blowing.
But here is the really weird thing: I was not feeling sorry for any of these people. In fact I did not even consider them particularly unfortunate.
The reason is that our viewpoint is being distorted. In this film the deformed “freaks” are the normal people. They are true humans. Compassionate, social being that lives a perfectly normal life. They have worries and sorrows but also joys and moments of pure happiness and never because of their handicap. The Siamese twins are engaged to two different men and are really happy. Their men are having issues with them that may be slightly different from normal relationship, but still perfectly natural (One man complains about his sister in law because she want to stay up late to read. A problem because she is attached to his girlfriend). The human torso and a dwarf are discussing their act while the torso lights a cigarette. Perfectly normal, except that he lights the cigarette with his mouth (I love that guy).
Even the two “normal” people, Phroso (Wallace Ford), the clown and Venus (Leila Hyams) are hinted at that they carried or carry some sort of deformity themselves.
The real freaks are the normal, un-handicapped people. Their freakishness is in their minds as intolerance, prejudice and immorality. They are the hateful people that we should feel sorry for and who have real issues.
Personally I love this film. In many ways this is the most sympathetic film I have since portraying handicapped people, doing it exactly by not portraying them as handicapped but the heroes I want to root for.
The story is fairly simply. Hans (Harry Earles), the (rich) dwarf is madly in love with the “normal” trapeze artist Cleopatra or Cleo (Olga Baclanova), a vicious woman who only wants to exploit Hans for his money and so plays along. In fact she is together with the strong man of the circus, Hercules (Henry Victor), an equally vicious “normal” character. Together they have only scorn for their deformed circus colleagues and set up a scam to get Hans’ money. Cleo marries Hans and then kills him with poison and gets his money. Except that they have not counted on the brotherhood of the “freaks”. They are not letting Hans go down and so save him from poisoning and take a terrible revenge on the villains. Cleo is somehow turned into a human chicken to frighten people. She becomes exactly what she despised the most.
The most memorable scene of the film is the wedding. This is where we see how tightly knit a group the ”freaks” are, how they accept each other for better and worse and offer to accept Cleo into their group. The initiation ritual where everybody drinks of the same oversized cup and chant “we accept her – one of us” is strong stuff. And by refusing the cup Cleo reveals her true nature and as she shouts her curses I actually feel sorry for her because she does not see the honor which is bestowed upon her. Poor ignorant woman.
We also get the poignant romance between Hans and Frieda (Daisy Earles, Harry Earles’ real life sister). They were engaged, but Hans shuts her out when Cleo accepts his favors. Frieda is mourning this. Not for her own sake, but for Hans because he is entering a world where he is not seen as a person but a freak to be ridiculed.
It is true that the acting skills of the handicapped cast are not up to standard, but I entirely ignore that. To me this film is a gem and a humanistic master piece. It is food for thought that just a year later Hitler came into power on a program to eradicate exactly this kind of people.