“A circus’ beautiful trapeze artist agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers, but his deformed friends discover she is only marrying him for his inheritance.” — IMDb
Director Tod Browning might be more well-known for Dracula, which was released in 1931, but he was also behind this gem of a movie — based on the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins — that highlights the need for strong community in the face of oppression and emphasizes how the real “freaks” in our world may not be who you would guess at first glance.
It didn’t entirely receive the greatest reviews upon its release. One, written in Harrison’s Reports, stated: “Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital.” (I think there are people who would say that about most horror movies these days.) Beyond simple dislike, many expressed revulsion and disgust… it was a commercial failure and wound up banned in the UK for 30 years. Browning’s career never fully recovered.
Synopsis: sideshow midget Hans (Harry Earles) may be engaged to Frieda (Daisy Earles, the real-life sister of Harry), but he is smitten with Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). When she agrees to marry him, he is over the moon. But he soon comes to find out that she has conspired with Hercules (Henry Victor) to poison him and inherit his wealth, which is when the freaks get their revenge…
** SPOILERS! **
I really ended up enjoying this movie more than I expected. The snippets of the carnival workers’ every day lives — from siblings telling jokes to each other to the Bearded Woman giving birth to her baby — is a great touch, doing wonders to make us empathize with them and their unique existence and highlighting the community they have created.
I’d like to think we, as a society, are more accepting of those we deem different now in 2017 than we may have been in the early 30s (though I know we haven’t improved a whole lot…), but some of the initial negative reactions in response to this movie was due to the “freaks” themselves and their physical deformities. Many real life circus workers were cast and I think the gut reaction to them and their appearance goes a long way in making us analyze why we associate capacity for evil with outward physical traits. The real evil in this movie lies in those circus performers who appear “normal” to the outside world.
The dinner scene — possibly the most well-known of the entire film — manages to be uncomfortable throughout its entirety, even before the explosive ending. Cleopatra is infuriated by the mere idea of being accepted as “one of us” with the freaks, despite them being perfectly kind and gracious to her. The idea of being known as part of their group — associated in any way beyond the circus itself — is repulsive.
The entire chase scene is terrifying, honestly. It looks gorgeous in black and white, and the heavy rain only adds to the chaos. Rumbling thunder, flashes of lightning, and various freaks crawling (or rolling) their way towards Hercules to exact their revenge… honestly gave me chills. So good.
Ultimately a great film, well worth the watch (and it’s only about an hour long!).
Rating: 7.5/10 | Director: Tod Browning | Writer: Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins (short story), Willis Goldbeck (screenplay) | Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad | Starring: Olga Baclanova, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams