July 8, 2008 2:30 PM   Subscribe

Tod Browning's 1932 cinematic masterpiece Freaks tells the story of a close-knit group of circus sideshow workers who are wronged and take revenge. The film's use of real-life freaks so disturbed audiences that some ran screaming from theaters, distributors refused to handle the film, and it was banned in Britain for over 30 years.

Audience feedback at preview screenings and changes demanded by censors meant that 30 minutes of "repulsive elements" in the original cut were removed or replaced. A lengthy text prologue was hastily added and at least three different endings were tried, none completely satisfactory. Even with these changes, all designed to minimize the grotesque and disturbing impact of the film, audiences of the day did not accept it. MGM finally withdrew it at a loss of some $164,000.

Today, critics are more likely to praise the audacious aesthetic and philosophical lengths to which Browning goes to challenge the way we define beauty and abnormality or even parse it as a distorted symbol of the Hollywood studio system Browning worked under.

Freaks was (loosely) based on the short story Spurs by Tod Robbins.

Full movie: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (These Youtube links have noticeably better picture and sound quality than the Google Video version linked above; the Google Video version has the text prologue missing in Youtube version.)

Notable excerpts: Prince Randian lights a cigarette with his lips - dancing in the forest - Schlitzie - wedding banquet - chase scene/trailer

Miscellaneous: Analysis - documents and photos - review1 - review2 - Johnny Eck - Schlitzie - IMDB - posters - Zippy connection - previously
posted by flug (22 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
gabba gabba
posted by dersins at 2:31 PM on July 8, 2008

Gooble gobble! Gooble gobble! One of us!
posted by adipocere at 2:34 PM on July 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

If ever there was a good use for the "oneofus" tag....
posted by tkolar at 2:37 PM on July 8, 2008

The sequel, Freaks and Geeks, though also a money loser, was better received by critics.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:40 PM on July 8, 2008

I actually prefer the short story. But the Hilton twins are adorable in this film, and Johnny Eck remains amazing. You know, he eventually retired to his native Baltimore and painted images on screens, which is, apparenly, some sort of folk are there?
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:41 PM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

WOW, cgi was amazing back then!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:53 PM on July 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm here to mention the Ramones and/or the Clerks cartoon.
posted by roll truck roll at 2:58 PM on July 8, 2008

folk art, rather.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:06 PM on July 8, 2008

So, we are to believe that any audacious piece of filmmaking will ultimately win acclaim as soon as critics are slowly desensitized to objectionable imagery (long after its due)?

Sigh, somewhere Harmony Korine and Takashi Miike are staring at a clock.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 3:11 PM on July 8, 2008

As shitty as Texas may be, Austin has an honest to god Freak Show called 999 Eyes.
Their back up band (That Damned Band) is spectacular if you like accordions and circus music and wash tub basses and saws.
Some of their musicians are also 'freaks".
Spectacular music. Great fun to watch.
Can be a bit disconcerting if you happen to stumble upon a performance late at night in the Enchanted Forest while fostering a momentous drunk. But that is a story best told in person.
Check out their bio page. It reads as if it was written by a special education inclusion specialist.
They claim to be the first real 'freak show' in 40 years.
Jackie the Human Tripod is an amazing songstress.
Damn! I just missed a show.
posted by Seamus at 3:13 PM on July 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow, I was just telling a friend about this movie a few hours ago.

That's freaky.
posted by djeo at 3:26 PM on July 8, 2008

I'm known as a human tripod too, but I don't sing.
posted by sluglicker at 3:29 PM on July 8, 2008

So, is the one that shows up on TCM the edited-down version? I'll admit that the characters seemed so disturbing the first time I saw this, I couldn't follow the story at all. The second time around, I found the movie a little charming.
posted by etaoin at 3:33 PM on July 8, 2008

Le freak. C'est chic.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:57 PM on July 8, 2008

Oh, Hans. I love you, Hans.
posted by ORthey at 4:43 PM on July 8, 2008

I think I can kinda self-link due to extreme relevance:

Last page, second-last panel.

I love Freaks.
posted by Shepherd at 4:46 PM on July 8, 2008

I love it, too. I never did have nightmares about it. Cleopatra and the strongman were the monsters, not any of the titular circus employees, and that was what I came away with, even though I saw it as a ten-year-old.

I remember defending this movie against someone at my college's Women's Center who wanted us to protest a campus showing because it exploited the handicapped. Nobody who saw Johnny Eck grin could think he was that easy to exploit.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:14 PM on July 8, 2008

My friend's mom knew Johnny Eck. I don't see this on the Internet, but I heard he was a stained-glass artist in his later years. (He was the guy without a lower torso, pretty much the hero of the film.)
posted by kozad at 5:28 PM on July 8, 2008

Wow, nice collection of links, flug. Freaks has always struck me as a little clunky at times (never sure if it was the edits forced upon it or Browning's storytelling), but I really do love it and it has a handful of scenes that are among the most memorable I've ever seen.

I'd never read the story it was based on before. It was really a bit more like I expected the film to be before I'd seen it, and I enjoyed it. Reading it did confirm, though, that one of the reasons I like the movie so much is because it feels more generous than that. Hans is not as malevolent as Courbet is in the story, and getting to spend time with all the other members of the show and see their little family together gives the film more sympathy for the freaks, despite the horror of the ending. Plus Johnny Eck is amazing and getting to see a filmed record of the people in the show is really neat. Randian, the human worm, always fascinated me.
posted by Nathaniel W at 6:50 PM on July 8, 2008

It's been a long time but the limbless guy with a knife in his teeth, and the final revenge image, both have really stuck with me.
posted by msalt at 10:21 PM on July 8, 2008

A post about Freaks is incomplete without a mention of Geek Love.
posted by MrMoonPie at 5:37 AM on July 9, 2008

So, is the one that shows up on TCM the edited-down version?

According to this review basically only one print has survived and it is the edited-down version--so reduced by approx. 30 minutes of footage from the original.

According to the same review, all that additional footage has been lost, with the exception of some alternative ending footage that is available as part of the DVD released in 2004 (that part of the DVD is also on YouTube, linked to in the OP).

If you watch the alternative endings and note the type of editing that was done there, you could make a plausible case that the same types of edits throughout could have had a negative cumulative effect on the continuity and overall impact of the film. So the original may have been a noticeably stronger film. But that's just a guess . . .
posted by flug at 12:51 PM on July 9, 2008

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