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Freaks, Directed by Tod Browning

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, February 20, 1932 (US)

Screenplay: Tod Robbins, based upon his short story “Spurs”

Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, and Rosco Ates

Oddities loom in memory. This cinematic anomaly stands out not only because it is unusually short at slightly over sixty minutes running time, but also because most of its players are disfigured. We meet Hans and Frieda, two midgets, following a brief prologue that unfolds a macabre purpose at the story’s end. There’s Daisy and Violet, the Siamese Twins, who share a fused hip and each other’s sensory stimulation. Half Boy is a man without a lower body; he walks by propping his truncated self on stilted arms. Armless Girl is his opposite; she has two legs but her cylindrical ribcage is missing upper appendages. The Living Torso is a composite of the two immediately aforementioned handicaps; he has neither legs nor arms. Bundled, the Torso slithers and squirms about, crudely described as looking like an enlarged maggot with a human head.

The Human Skeleton births a baby with the Bearded Lady. He is misshapen skin and bones, and thick facial hair grows from her meaty chin. The physical outcome of their offspring, kept off-screen, is anyone’s guess. Schlitze cavorts amongst the group. She, who in reality is a he with a developmental disorder that mangles a shrunken cranium adorned at its peak with a single tuft of hair tied in a bow, has two sisters, Zip and Pip, the Pinheads. The three “girls” share similar craggy skulls.

None of the characters featured is a special effect. Each curiosity is real, although cast in a fictional story. They are circus sideshow performers in life and imagination. Presenting their bizarre world with relative normality, however, derails when a monster is exposed in their ranks. Her name is Cleopatra.

An alluring trapeze artist, Cleopatra possesses fetching good looks that distract from a hideously malformed soul worthy of its own attraction next to the Sword Swallower or the Bird Girl. A carnival barker out front might bait passersby with: “Beauty hides the beast! Come see the evil Cleopatra plot to murder a vulnerable act traveling in her troupe out of sheer greed. Get your tickets, and step right up!”

Chorus of Freaks (in unison): We accept her! We accept her! One of us! Gooble-gobble! One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!

Detractors argue such a deviant, and teetering on exploitative, film should never have been made. Britain banned showings for over thirty years. Shunning outcasts, though, is craven. Eccentrics own a place outside sinister tents, where differences entice the morbidly inquisitive. All are worthy of respect no matter how controversial, unusual, or imperfect.

History preserves the heinous manner in which the studio releasing the picture turned its back on their unconventional creation. Demands were made for re-cuts to try and fix what was viewed as an abomination. The butchery to correct deformities may well have started a disturbing trend in an industry obsessed with glamour. Plastic surgeons now routinely alter the features of Hollywood.

Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova): You … dirty … slimy … freaks! Freaks! Freaks! Get out of here!

Fortunately, beasts are too brazen to disappear ignored. Impressions linger, making it possible for newer, more accepting audiences to re-discover a creature’s strange decorum, warts and all.

Step right up. Bear witness to the unnatural, the strange ... the outlandishly twisted. One peep and only the ordinary will make you look twice. Now, on with the show.