Call me crazy but family secrets, tell-all tales, and circus freaks do go together . . . at least in this movie and book combination!
Last year, one of our library patrons, Vernon, watched 1930s cult classic circus film Freaks and told me, while he was returning it, that it was one of the strangest movies he’d ever seen. He encouraged me to watch it. I imagine because he wanted someone else to confirm that, yes, it’s an odd movie.
So, I did watch Freaks, and about the same time, our library director Julie told me that she had just read a book (Truevine) that mentioned several of the circus performers featured in Freaks. I was not doing “From Page to Screen” features at the time, but I already was thinking about doing something like it and filed this away as a potential combination to write about it in the future. (Thanks to both Vernon and Julie for the suggestions!)
Usually I write about the book and then the movie, but I am reversing that order for this blog. My blog, my rules!
Thoughts on the Movie:
Freaks, as Vernon observed, is a really strange movie. I watch a lot of strange movies, incidentally, but it is still one of the absolute strangest I have ever seen. Rewatching it to write about it certainly didn’t dull that impression. (I also watched it with a few relatives who had never seen it, and they agreed that it was, to quote them, “different.”)
The reaction to it in the 1930s was similar. In fact, when it was first released in 1932, it so unnerved audiences that nearly 30 minutes of footage had to be cut from it, it was banned in the United Kingdom until the 1960s, and its director, Tod Browning (the man who the year before has directed the still-classic Bela Lugosi version of Dracula), found himself a virtual pariah in film-making circles.
The premise of the movie is one of the oldest of all stories–a love triangle. It’s just the circumstances that make this one different. Set in a traveling circus, the love triangle exists between trapeze artist Cleopatra, strongman Hercules, and little person Hans. Hans is so bowled over by Cleopatra’s affections that he dumps his fiancée, fellow little person Frieda. The rest of the circus is less convinced of Cleopatra’s motives, especially most of his fellow freak show counterparts like Frieda. They don’t believe for a second that Cleopatra is sincere and are convinced that she is making fun of him. Complications ensue.
When I first watched this movie last year, I initially expected it to be more exploitative and condescending toward the titular characters. But Browning himself had worked in a circus as a young man, and he makes the so-called “freaks” the sympathetic ones. The love triangle is the main story, but ample attention is devoted to the sideshow characters, from the excitement over the birth of the bearded lady’s daughter to the impending nuptials of the two Siamese twins. They all have their foibles, their aspirations, their inside jokes just like everyone else, and the depiction of them, for the most part, is affectionate and sympathetic. The ending (which I won’t reveal) certainly complicates this aspect of the film, but it still drives home the film’s central message that the freaks of the world really aren’t in the circus’s freak show.
Freaks is a fascinating movie, but it is not for everyone nor is it flawless. Certain scenes, especially the ending, are unsettling, and as you might expect from an early 30s movie, some of the performers have a more natural screen presence than others and some of the editing between scenes is choppy. Nevertheless, it is a memorable, thought-provoking movie.
Follow the link below to the next page to read my thoughts about the book!