In 1932, after Todd Browning’s huge success with Dracula (1931), the young director was assigned a new project, one that eventually got banned in more than one country for its vulgar monstrosity, yet when viewed today is a rather heart-rending drama about the real monsters that lurk within; humans.
Opening with a statement about the history of human deformities, and how society has always been odious towards them, the film sets the tone for its highly empathetic and gentle approach to explore the lives of a group of deformed circus performers, or “freaks”, and the men and women who discriminate against them. The story revolves around a beautiful trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), and her lover Hercules (Henry Victor), as they plot an evil scheme to rob the dwarf Hans (Harry Earles) of his fortune. Though the couple’s scorn is obvious to the entire lot of “monsters”, Hans falls for the plot as he essentially falls in love with Cleopatra.
When it was first screened in 1932, a woman claimed to have had a miscarriage due to the film’s monstrous nature. I personally doubt that anyone would blink an eye watching this film today. So what really happened? Have we as an audience become more empathic towards body image deformities, or have we simply become desensitized to most forms of the macabre because of all the splatter films and even everyday news?
Despite the production company bailing on the film, and distancing itself from it as much as possible, and the actors themselves expressing disdain towards it, the film remains one of the most compassionate and realistic depictions of circus freak shows. Through its diverse characters, and various tones of good and evil, the film evolves from simply a fairy tale of what is right and what is wrong, into a fascinating realistic story of human deception, malice, group loyalty, and even romantic love stories.
Todd Browning’s attempt to instill tolerance in his audiences towards the often mistreated circus members, as he himself was once a circus member living among said abnormalities of nature, may have escaped his audience’s comprehension. However, his message certainly shines clearly among contemporary audiences. His 64-minute film delivers a powerful statement that not only affects the deformed actors who display a lot of heart, but also the “normal” viewers of 1932 who deemed this film vile. Viewed from afar, it definitely shows how much society has changed over the years.