Directed by Tod Browning
Writers uncredited; suggested by a story by Clarence Aaron ‘Tod’ Robbins
Repeat viewing/Amazon Instant Video
#73 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
IMDb users say 8.0/10; I say 8.0/10
My second viewing and I am still sorting out my feelings about this film. Is it exploitation or art? Probably both.
Sideshow “freaks” and circus performers have an uneasy co-existence off stage. Some of the performers, including clown Phroso (such a young Wallace Ford) and strongman’s ex-assistance Venus (Leila Hyams) befriend the sideshow attractions. The owner’s wife takes them on excursions and tries to protect them from prying eyes. Beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) catches the eye of “little person” Hans. She thinks his infatuation is hilarous but loves his presents. The relationship develops, breaking the heart of Han’s equally diminutive fiance Frieda.
When Frieda confronts Olga and accuses her of wanting Hans only for his money, she lets slip that Hans has recently inherited a fortune. This is all Olga and her secret lover the strongman need to hear. Olga marries Hans and plans how to make his death look like an accident. Olga’s horror at being invited to join the community of freaks only strengthens her resolve. When the sideshow attractions learn of this, they come to the aid of their friend and exact a cruel revenge.
The plot is almost secondary to the slice of life of a sideshow. We get many snippets of the “acts” of the attractions, handless performers lighting cigarettes, eating, etc. The wedding banquet scene and the revenge sequence are powerful film making by any standard. On the one hand, the presentation of the deformed performers is unashamed and human. On the other hand, the whole thing is fundamentally exploitative and disturbing.