Saturday, December 1, 2007
Movie review: Freaks
I finally finished watching the movie Freaks after owning it for almost a month. I bought the film because of my love for Daisy and Violet Hilton, the original Hilton sisters.
The sisters were Siamese twins, and are contenders for being the most famous performers of their time. It's too bad no one remembers them. They had it all: they could sing, dance, act- the only thing holding them back was the tiny bit of flesh and cartilage holding them together.
Freaks was one of many undertakings that were supposed to revitalize their careers, which were suffering from America's sudden aversion from the freakshows that dotted the landscape only a few years before. In 1932, the viewing public wasn't ready for Freaks, which treated freakshow attractions like the real people they were. They especially weren't ready for the romantic scene where Violet gives her fiance a kiss and Daisy sets her book down and enjoys the tingles.
Freaks suffers from the same problems most movies from the 30s share. The editing is choppy and the acting overdone. However, the movie is filled with show-stealers.
The most notable scene stealer for me is Daisy Earles. A member of "The Doll Family," she was paired with her brother Harry as Frieda and Hans, an engaged couple. While by today's standards it is a little ooky to watch a brother and sister play lovers on the screen, I believe it gave Daisy a source of emotion for her scenes. Her nemesis in the film, the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra, steals Hans away from Frieda, because he has money to burn.
It soon becomes clear Frieda loves Hans while Cleopatra does not. Cleo keeps a lover on the side and makes fun of the other freaks whenever possible. Frieda's heart is torn asunder as she watches her true love fall head over heels for Cleo. The worst (or best) scene in the movie is during Cleo and Hans' wedding feast, where Frieda is one of the guests. She watches the festivities and Cleo's drunken, obnoxious behavior with tears brimming in her eyes; she knows Cleo's going to make a fool of Hans.
Watching Daisy on the screen, I was struck by how beautiful she was. She was also one of the better actors in the film. As the lovelorn Frieda, she was both elegant and regal. Inside of the film, she transitioned between a performer ready to go onstage to a woman in love to simply a woman trying to find her way through the minefields of a rocky romance with ease.
More scene stealers were the trio of pinheads, twins Zip and Pip and the unrelated Schlitze. They come off as gentle and childlike in the film; they kid around with the circus clown Phrosa, who treats everyone in the circus like an equal member of the troupe. They even come off as flirtatious as Phrosa promises to buy them new hats and tells them they're wearing beautiful dresses; he manages Schlitze's jealousy with ease and becomes a happy-go-lucky hero as most of the other "big normals" come off as callous at best and murderous and conniving at their worst.
The Missing Link provides small tidbits on the Freaks cast, where it is reported that Schlitze was really a man, even though he's referred to as "she" in the movie and was given the name Maggie in some of his shows. Unfortunately, he was institutionalized after his owner and manager (yes, owner) died and almost died himself, of loneliness. There is also an even better account of the life of Schlitze at the horrifyingly bright site There's Something about Schlitze.
Johnny Eck played Half Boy. A handsome man, Johnny didn't have a large part in Freaks. However, there is something special about him in the scenes he is in. He's perfect with his timing. When the other freaks discover the plot Cleo has hatched against their friend Hans, they retaliate. Even though Half Boy cowers in fear from men in the beginning of the movie, he helps the other exact their revenge against Cleopatra and her lover, Hercules.
Even more startling to the eyes was Prince Randian, who was billed as the Human Worm. Randian also has few scenes, and more than any of the other characters, seems to have been placed in the movie solely for his physical appearance.
For me, the saddest thing about the movie Freaks isn't in the movie at all. It's what happened to the actors after the film ended shooting. Tod Browning brought together a wonderful group of immensely talented performers, and many of them died in obscurity or worse, simply because they were different than normal society. Reading about their lives in the modern world is reading about horror after horror, from Schlitze's institutionalization to Johnny Eck's shunning of society after burglars broke into his house and sat on him to keep him from defending his property. In The Missing Link, Johnny is quoted as saying "If I want to see freaks, all I have to do is look out the window."
While some of the freaks (and, I use the term loosely and with a sense of irony) were mentally disabled in some ways, many of them were intellectuals and philosophers. Prince Randian was a Hindu who supported his wife and children. Johnny Eck excelled at school, and Angelo Rossitto (another little person cast in the show) was going to study law before he got into show business.
While the world's obsession with exploiting freaks benefited some, like Daisy and Violet who received a top-notch education because of their money making abilities, it held many others back.
At times, I wish I could have lived in the freakshow heyday and been some sort of advocate or at least a friend to these long-forgotten performers. Watching movies like Freaks makes me pine for those days. However, watching the film also gives me a grim sense of righteousness as the normals finally get their due.
The ending is bitter for Cleo and Hercules (who is killed) and sweet for Frieda and Hans. While Cleo lives out the rest of her days as a chicken woman in the freakshow, Frieda meets Hans at his new palatial estate, where everything is forgiven and the couple can live happily ever after. Unfortunately, too many side stories that were central parts of the movie were left with loose ends, the final minutes are unsatisfying to those who want to know what happened to the many other romances of the film.