Todd Browning's semi-documentary appalled worldwide audiences upon release, causing it to be banned across the globe before finding its niche as a cult classic nearly a half century later. Irving Thalberg, a visionary at MGM who is best known for the political annihilation of socialist George Sinclair in the 50's, bit the bullet on this loser though never realizing the impact it would make on the movie industry over the years.
Leila Hyams is a pretty young carny worker who is recovering from a bad relationship with sideshow strongman Henry Victor. She finds her soulmate in circus clown Wallace Ford, who shares her affinity for the freak show performers who are doomed to a lifelong career on the carny circuit by an uncaring, callous society. The bearded lady, Mongoloid sisters, a hermaphrodite, armless and legless men and women are just some of the unfortunates who co-star in Dione's Traveling Circus. Harry Earles, a midget, is infatuated by Olga Baclanova, a beautiful trapeze queen. Olga is being courted by Henry, who conspires with her to bilk Harry out of a large inheritance. Olga and Harry are married, and the freaks see through Olga's ploy but are powerless to intervene. Eventually a plot to poison Harry is uncovered, and they end up killing Henry before transforming Olga into a monstrous chicken lady by means of some obscure ritual.
Problem with this was that Browning was seen as being as exploitive as the Traveling Circus in studding his cast with these pitiful sideshow stars. People were able to deal with Universal's makeup jobs on Lugosi, Chaney and Karloff in filling our theatres with their spectacular nightmares, but the sight of these real-life deformities was too much to take. Only people failed to realize that, in banning this flick, they were being just as cold-hearted as the society depicted in the film. These people had a story that deserved to be told, and some of the finest movies were based on the tribulations of the handicapped. We recall "The Miracle Worker", "Elephant Man", "Rain Man", "Awakenings", "Mask", and other such movies, and realize the impact these movies have made on our culture. Only this was Todd Browning and "Freaks", so we toss this to the wayside as an exploitative genre flick that should never have been made.
I disagree. This isn't something that I'd play at a kiddie birthday party, but the genuine spirit of camaraderie displayed among this afflicted society teaches us a lesson worth remembering. People are people, and God deals with the person inside just as we should. Calling these people "Freaks" didn't do much for Browning, but it's a chronicle of a way of life that is worth some time for reflection.
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