Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Bosco Ates
Director: Tod Browning
Written by: Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon
Released: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1932)
This movie has been something of an urban legend when I was growing up. It was the talk of the schoolyard on more than one occasion, groups of boys and girls huddled together as one boy insisted that the monsters and freaks depicted in the film were the genuine article. But when pressed for details, things turned vague, and one had to wonder if the movie really existed. And when it was confirmed in later years that it was true, that it did exist, it was just like an urban legend in that everyone had heard of it, but hardly anyone at all had actually seen it.
I guess there are two factors that contributed to this film's entry into horror's mythos. Firstly, the sideshow characters depicted in the film are legitimate sideshow performers, from the conjoined twins, to the half-man, to the so-called pinheads. Secondly, the movie so shocked audiences of the 1930s that it was subsequently banned. If that kind of response isn't bound to make a movie the stuff of legend, nothing will.
As it stands, the movie is hardly what I would describe as shocking--not by today's standards, that's for certain. But there is an air about it, with its fabled history, that gives the movie something of a timeless quality. It's not just a moralistic tale about judging people by their appearance and the cruelty that comes from such prejudice, but the time capsule effect of seeing an era that has long since past, yet has carried on in other forms to this very day.
In a circus full of carnival performers, a midget falls in love with the most beautiful woman in the circus, who in turn uses her suitor as a pawn and source of distasteful amusement. Along with her strongman accomplice and lover, she plots to bilk the little man of every cent he's worth, which turns out to be a substantial amount. But there is a code among the "freaks." Hurt one and you hurt them all. Offend one and you offend them all.
As a child, the movie was described to me in such a way that I was under the impression that the freaks were the villains of the film. Quite the opposite, I would learn in later years. But I wonder, for a movie in its time that was banned from theaters, if audiences may have seen the relatively shocking appearance of the characters and considered them the villains regardless of the subject matter.
There are scattered moments in the movie when it seemed like Tod Browning, who himself was once a contortionist, wanted his players to be shown as much for their appearances and antics, as much as actors in a film. To see a man with no arms or legs manage to strike his own match and light his own cigarette was a particular highlight, as far as those moments go. But I was glad to see that such moments didn't detract from the actual story told.
The acting is dated and a bit clunky among the less-refined actors in the cast, but there is definitely a charm about it to be appreciated by audiences. I think there are more than a few people reluctant to watch this movie because of that mystique the movie's history carries, but I think it deserves to be seen as simply a sixty-minute tale of betrayal and revenge.