Reviewing this one will be a little difficult. I don’t know if there is a generic and politically correct name for the people we used to call freaks. (Unusual people?) If I knew what it was I’d use it, but to save time I’m going to use the words we used when I was a lad, and assure you that I don’t mean anything nasty by it.
I’m old enough to remember freak shows at the Texas State Fair in Dallas, and the Southeast Texas Fair in Beaumont. I only went to two of the shows. One advertised the man with the biggest feet on the planet. Displayed outside were his custom-made shoes. One was twice the size of the other, and the smaller one was gigantic. You could have put a basketball into the larger one. I have no idea why me and a couple friends ponied up the dime or quarter or whatever it was to see this marvel of nature, but we did. Inside a large man sat in a chair and he was exactly as advertised. His toes were as big around as my wrists, and they pointed off in all directions. No idea what syndrome he was suffering from. The man looked off into the distance, never at us, and seemed bored out of his skull. Well, who wouldn’t be, gawked at for hours every day by pimple-faced jerks like us? I was embarrassed, both for him and for myself, and got out of there quickly. That satisfied my taste for gawking at living freaks for the rest of my life.
We did go to one other. This was of the type known as a “museum show.” The painted canvas outside showed some very unusual individuals. There was a half-woman, half snake, a two-headed man, people with four arms and four legs. All were perfectly normal adults except for the one odd thing. So we paid up again and found they were telling the truth about what could be seen inside … up to a point. All the “freaks” were fetuses and stillborn infants, in jars of formaldehyde, what carnies call “pickled punks.” These, once I got over my queasiness, didn’t bother me at all. They were dead, there was none of the indignity involved with looking at Mr. Bigfoot. It actually was fascinating and educational, though I’m fully aware that it was meant to produce revulsion. Hell, I was going to be a scientist, I needed to be dispassionate when looking at such things. My friend Calvin didn’t feel that way. After a few minutes he had to go outside and puke.
I don’t think the freak show as such exists anymore in America. There are shows where people do freakish things, like pick up heavy weights with rings in their scrotums, but none that I’m aware of that exploit physical deformities. And that is a bittersweet thing, to some. I’m speaking of many of the freaks themselves. The carny world was the one place where these people would not be stared at, at least between shows. Staring was for the rubes, the marks. I mean, what was Mr. Bigfoot going to do? Clump around on the outside world being ogled, or be ogled in the Ten-in-One, and get paid for it, plus be a regular member of a society of equals? In the carny they were accepted, respected, and made an actual living.
Okay, on with the show. Freaks has to be the most unusual movie ever to come out of Hollywood. Sure, there have been many weird independent films, but this one came from MGM. Tod Browning gathered a cast of four “normal” people, and quite a few freaks. There were the Hilton Sisters, Violet and Daisy, as themselves, “Siamese” twins. There were two midgets (defined as small but proportional, with pituitary dwarfism), Harry and Daisy Earles. They were siblings in real life, from a family that included four midgets, billed as “The Doll Family.” There were four “pinhead” women, including Koo Koo the Bird Girl, Pip and Zip, and Schlitzie, who was actually a man. There was Johnny Eck, the half boy, Olga Roderick the bearded lady, Frances O’Connor the armless girl, Peter Robinson the human skeleton, and Prince Randian the caterpillar man. All these were genuine human oddities, and real sideshow performers.
It was very controversial, and had to be radically cut to be shown in most places. I guess people didn’t want to look. I understand that, but if they had seen it they would have seen a story where the bad people were “normal,” and it was the freaks who were the decent folks. A really, really bad woman named Cleopatra strung poor, gullible Hans the midget along just for meanness, charming him away from Frieda, the girl who loved him. Then Cleo realizes that Hans has inherited a fortune, and marries him, intending to poison him and inherit. At the banquet with all the freaks at the same table she gets very drunk, and freaks out, so to speak, when they begin chanting “One of us! One of us!” Which means they accept her, but she can’t deal with it, and insults them all. Which was a very bad miscalculation on her part. They come after her, and the scene where these unusual people are pursuing her through a lighting storm is extremely chilling. And their punishment is poetic … I recommend this film, with all its flaws. Poor Tod Browning’s career never recovered from making it. For some reason people wanted to punish him for daring to make something as unusual as this.