Director: Tod Browning
Writer: Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon
Based on: Tod Robbins‘ short story Spurs
Cast: Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor
Seen on: 22.6.2016
Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is the new star of the circus. The beautiful artist is sure to have all the eyes on her and she certainly has Hans’ (Harry Earles) attention who starts wooing her despite being married to Frieda (Daisy Earles). Cleopatra laughs away his advances – he is a dwarf how could he possibly imagine that she could love him? She much rather spends her time with Hercules (Henry Victor). But when Cleopatra hears that Hans has a substantial inheritance, she plans to marry him to rob him of it. But the other disabled circus performers and a couple of able-bodied allies are set to protect their own.
Freak is definitely an important film in cinema history and is an interesting watch. Much has been made of its portrayal of the eponymous “freaks” and their disabilities. I’m a little torn on that count, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy watching the film.
Freaks is one of the first films ever to not only feature disabled actors, but to have them play a central role as well. Undoubtedly Browning meant well when he shot the film and there are many scenes where he lingers over his cast as they perform everyday task, showing that they’re capable of more than you’d think possible, if only given the chance. It’s also nice to see their tight-knit sense of community. When Cleopatra and Hercules make fun of them all, I felt their pain deep in my bones. And Hans and Frieda’s relationship really was very sweet and heartbreaking. All this works to the advantage of the film’s portrayal of disability, making sure that the film never becomes an exhibition of the weirdness of the disabled, but rather of their humanity.
But then there is also very much trouble brewing in the film and especially how it ends. Having established the humanity of everyone but Cleopatra and Hercules, the film turns them into monsters who cold-bloodedly kill Hercules for trying to hurt one of their own. So far, so good – it is a horror film after all and both Hercules and Cleopatra deserve to be punished. But the biggest problem, for me, lies with how Cleopatra is treated: she is not simply killed, she is disfigured and transformed into a bird woman, turned into a “freak” herself. Since she is the worse villain, she deserves the worse punishment – and with that punishment, the movie very much reinforces the notion that disability is even worse than death, a strangely (self-)loathing conclusion for a film that works so hard to show how human and capable everybody is.
Apart from these thoughts on representation in the film, the film is charming enough. It’s not very long (only slightly longer than an hour) and the time passes quickly, especially because I was very much emotionally invested. The circus set looks really nice and the story it tells may not be very new, but it is told effectively.
All of this makes Freaks a fascinating film to watch, even if doesn’t necessarily live up to today’s standards anymore, at least not in all regards. [But thinking of how American Horror Story: Freaks treated its disabled cast, not even today’s movies and shows necessarily live up to today’s standards – and Freaks was at least better than that.] I certainly didn’t mind watching it and would watch it again.
Summarizing: Definitely worth seeing.