Freaks

One of the more unusual Hollywood studio films from the 1930s is Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). It’s often dismissed as an exploitation film or a cheap attempt at sensationalism. In fact, it’s neither. Browning, best known for having directed Dracula the year before, had run away to join the circus when he was 16 years old. He worked as a talker (popularly, though incorrectly, known as a circus “barker”). He also worked as “The Living Corpse” and performed as a clown with Ringling Brothers.

Browning chose real-life circus freaks for many of the roles in the film, not so much to exploit or sensationalize their presence, but to portray them as he had experienced them — as ordinary people with mostly ordinary lives. By contrast, the other characters in the film are portrayed as greedy, arrogant, and intolerant. They’re the real freaks. From this point of view, Freaks is the opposite of an exploitation film. Andrew Sarris has argued it’s “one of the most compassionate films ever made.”

As entertainment, Freaks has its ups and downs. The circus freaks aren’t always convincing. They’re amateur actors, after all. Unfortunately, some of the professional actors aren’t much better. Former silent star Olga Baclanova has a heavy Russian accent that tends to get in the way.

On the plus side is Browning’s skill in weaving suspense and horror elements into the narrative. He does this without undercutting his central thesis that the freaks are better adjusted and more tightly bonded in friendship than the outsiders. As a former circus talker, Browning knows audiences want to stare at the freaks, even as they want to turn away in disgust. He uses these contradictory emotions to build to an exciting finish. A scene where the freaks sincerely accept an outsider as “one of us” evokes similar mixed emotions, both for the character in the film and vicariously for the audience.

This film isn’t for everyone. If you can move beyond the sub-par acting and shock-horror overlay, you’ll find a serious exploration of what it means to be a kind and generous person, no matter which cards life has dealt for you.

Freaks
(1932; directed by Tod Browning; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, June 21 at 11:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies