Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova,
Director: Tod Browning
A beautiful but cold hearted trapeze artist gets way more than she bargains for when she and her strongman lover conspire to seduce the leader of the circus freakshow for his money.
This film is really unusual. It was made before the production code, which dictated what could be shown on screen, and truly shocked audiences. And with good reason. The poster seems to insinuate that we will see some kind of kinky love story, a full grown woman and a midget man! This was in a time when it was illegal for races to intermarry, so it was a very salacious poster. It seems to tell us that we will be able to stare at these circus freaks on screen. But then, we got something else.
Led into the lives and the world of the circus freaks, we see how they love and support each other. They don’t judge and celebrate each others quirks. The subplots of the film show us how the circus side show live their daily lives, their friendships, how they celebrate a new birth, it’s really nice. The real freak is the trapeze artist who, though outwardly beautiful and “normal” is willing to not only lie and seduce, but also who isn’t afraid to commit murder. You could at this point say that the film shows that the real freaks are those who mock others and have evil hearts.
But then, something else happens. In scenes so shocking that they were cut and subsequently lost, though the bones remain, the sideshow freaks realise that the beautiful woman hates them and has evil intentions. They turn on her and make her a freak like them. (Since the opening scene shows us a scream and faint inducing circus performer and tells us that it will now tell us how she got this way, this isn’t exactly a spoiler). Her partner, the strong man, was actually castrated in the original story, as well. Because of this terrible ending and audiences response, the film had a happy ending tacked on, showing the leader of the circus freaks reconciled with his old girlfriend.
So what is this film? A dark spectacle that exploits people who are different? A morality tale about judging people based on their character? A documentary about the life of people who are different? A straight up horror story? In it’s cut up form that runs only about an hour, it’s a bit of a mess, but a totally fascinating piece of cinema history that shows how vibrant and diverse movies were in the 30’s before production code came in. It’s easy to look back on films and see how tame they were, but the history of horror and dark tales goes right back to early cinema, and this film seems to presage films that would find an audience in the 1980’s with body horror and weird and wonderful dark practical effects.
See It If: you can find this film in YouTube if you’d like to see it. It’s only about an hour and should appeal to those who love films that changed cinema or if you like horror.