Freaks (1932)

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


Hercules: They’re going to make you one of them, my peacock!

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.

Annex - Baclanova, Olga (Freaks)_01

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.



9 thoughts on “Freaks (1932)

  1. It is absolutely an exploitation film. That doesn’t change the fact that, as you say, it humanizes the freaks. They’re the ones we root for; they’re the ones we side with.

    I think the film is genius, exploitation film or not.

  2. I lean to the other side here. Browning loved his freaks, such as Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi and this movie feels like a love child of his. All the “Freaks” are presented as normal, moral people while the “normal” people are the moral freaks. I think this was his message, to challenge our perception and present these people as at least equals to other people. That is in my definition not exploitation but deep humanity. On the other hand Browning had an eye for the aparte and to make it look truly outlandish and grotesque, so there is that.
    My favorite Browning film.

    • I’m thinking less of Browning’s intentions than that of the audience that would be attracted to this. Also, what does the ending say about the “freaks”? I must say though that I was not too unhappy about Cleopatra’s fate!

  3. Interesting comments. I really never thought of the film as exploitation but rather one that showed “freaks” as humans. They were exploited by circus owners, etc. but I didn’t get the feeling that Browning was doing that……..but both sides of the q

  4. Somehow my comment above was cut off so here is the rest………..
    “.both sides of the question hold water. I’m not sure what audience Browning expected to capture with this film for most people (especially in 1932) would find it extremely disturbing. In fact, it is still disturbing. Is it a masterpiece or a flawed masterpiece?

    • It’s some kind of a masterpiece for sure. I think, though, that it would have attracted the same audience that liked the sideshows themselves.

  5. The audiences often get it »wrong«. They made heroes out of Scarface and Gekko, for example. So I think you are right, many people probably saw this with an »exploitative« eye.

    • In thinking about it more, I also wonder about the way this film asks the audience to speculate about the “freaks'” sex lives. We have two or three planned or actual marriages plus that half man-half woman etc.

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