The Movie Waffler Pre-Code Retrospective - Freaks (1932) | The Movie Waffler

Pre-Code Retrospective - Freaks (1932)

Directed by: Tod Browning
Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Harry Earles, Henry Victor

Trapeze artist Baclanova cons smitten carnival midget Earles into marrying her. Little does he know she is conspiring with strongman Victor to poison him for his inheritance.

In many ways "Freaks" is the ultimate pre-coder. It's impossible to imagine it being made a couple of years later, or even today for that matter. Movies like "Snow White & The Huntsman" and "The Hobbit" opt for digitally shrunken actors, reluctant to cast actual little people in dwarf roles. Sadly, society is just as unwilling to accept those outside the norm today as when Browning brought this tale to the screen.
It's often wrongly described as an exploitation picture but it's really not. Browning makes his freaks sympathetic, it's the "normal" characters who are the villains; from the conspiring duo of Baclanova and Victor to the carnival workers who can't resist taking cruel pot-shots at the freaks. The title characters are shown living life in the same hum-drum manner as everyone else. Browning gives us great slice of life scenes which provide us with a glimpse into how someone lacking limbs lights a cigarette and in what manner conjoined twins conduct romantic relationships.
The movie only really veers into the realms of horror in it's climax. After Baclanova humiliates the freaks at her wedding party they discover her plan to murder Earles and decide to exact gruesome revenge. The original cut was considered so disturbing that a full thirty minutes were cut out for it's original release. Don't expect a "director's cut" any time soon though as MGM's head honcho Irving Thalberg was so repulsed by the film he had the excised footage burnt straight away. 
Not helped by it's troublesome subject matter, "Freaks" was a flop on it's initial release and was immediately banned in many countries. In 1962 the film was re-released and screened at the Cannes Film Festival where it was rediscovered by a new audience. In the era of peace and love, audiences were more willing to root for Browning's deformed characters than they had been in the conservative thirties. A thirty year ban in Britain was finally lifted and the film became an instant cult hit, playing at midnight shows frequented by the beatniks of the era.
The title roles were filled primarily by amateurs which gives the movie a much more natural feel than the stagey acting style popular at the time. The freaks certainly steal the show and give us characters you're not likely to forget in a hurry. There's the human skeleton, the bearded lady, the Siamese twins, a girl with no arms, a boy with no legs, midgets of varying sizes, a chicken-lady, and saddest of all, the Pinheads. 
Considering the events on the horizon in Europe, "Freaks" message of acceptance for those who seem different was an important and poignant one. Unfortunately few were willing to accept it.