“We accept you, one of us! Gobble, gobble!”
Response to Peary’s Review:
The group of unusual performers Browning collected for his cast includes limbless men and women (Prince Randian, Martha Morris, Frances O’Connor, and Johnny Eck), “pinheads” (Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow), a bearded lady (Olga Roderick), a hermaphrodite (Josephine Joseph), conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton), a “human skeleton” (Peter Robinson), midgets (Harry and Daisy Earles), and more. These characters are all genuinely disabled — not just made up to look that way — and thus it’s literally impossible not to stare at them. Yet as Peary notes, “viewers will feel not only fear, curiosity, and pity but also warmth, respect, and amazement” when watching Randian light his own cigarette, or O’Connor blithely eating dinner with her feet — and we “soon feel comfortable in their presence.”
Although the lead female role (Cleopatra) in Freaks was originally slated for Myrna Loy (who refused in protest of the script), Russian stage actress Olga Baclanova was an inspired second choice to play the film’s vampy villainess. Her smarmy come-ons to Earles — as well as her blatant mockery of anyone smaller or weaker than herself — help turn Cleopatra into a completely unsympathetic character, someone it’s easy to hate. Actually, I suspect that part of the film’s appeal is its utter lack of big-name stars — rather than showcasing personalities, it thus relies solely on the power of its narrative, characters, and atmosphere to evoke a unique cultural world.
While some may be offended by Browning’s blatant use of physically abnormal persons for cinematic interest, he treats them respectfully: this is their world — the only one to which they undeniably belong — and their deformities unite them together rather than setting them shamefully apart. What a vicarious treat to see these true underdogs of the world proving that collective will can trump bullying behavior any day.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)