The main plot features Hans (Harry Earles), a midget smitten with normal-height trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Once she realizes that Hans has inherited a fortune, she has him break his engagement with loyal fellow midget Frieda (Daisy Earles). Hans is soon married to Cleopatra, despite her open relationship with oafish Hercules (Henry Victor). Cleopatra and Hercules conspire to murder Hans to gain control of his money. But they forget "the code of the freaks" that protects Hans, and demands justice.
A dispensible subplot involves good guy clown Wallace Ford and his comely good girl Leila Hyams. Of greater interest is the relationship of Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton with grumpy and stuttering Roscoe Ates.
Freaks preserves on film several fascinating "freak show" performers, notably Johnny Eck, the good-natured half-man without legs or a waist; the "Living Torso" Rardion, born without arms or legs; "Human Skeleton" Peter Robinson; "Bird Girl" Elizabeth Green; "armless girl" Frances O'Connor; and "pinheads" Zip and Pip.
How others will see it. Freaks was not well received by the studio, by critics, or the general public. The exception was San Diego's Fox Theatre, not coincidentally the only place where the uncut film was ever shown. The movie was shelved for many years, and long banned in the U.K., but it gradually gained a cult following.
By the 1960s, the reputation of both Freaks and its talented director, Tod Browning, were restored. In 1994, it was added to the prestigious National Film Registry.
At imdb.com, the film has 36K user votes, a solid number for a 1932 movie, and a high user rating of 7.9 out of 10. Women grade it slightly higher than do men, apparently motivated by the sense of justice in the fate of villains Cleopatra and Hercules.
How I felt about it. Freaks is a fascinating movie, and it isn't just because of the presence of Johnny Eck, a man who exists only from the waist up. The dialogue is remarkably direct, which should be a flaw but, in this case, is not.
The most obvious criticism of the film is that the two topped billed actors, Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams, should have been omitted entirely. Browning apparently believed that audiences demanded a conventional love story between a nice guy and a nice girl. How dull for us, who are more interested in the movie's two love quadrangles.
It is true that the Hans / Frieda / Cleopatra / Hercules story commands most of the screentime, but all the scenes with Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton are enjoyable, particularly those with ever-griping stuh-stuh-stuh-stammerer Roscoe Ates.
If we ignore Ford and Hyams, who don't belong here anyway, we are left with a morality tale. "Big people" Hercules and Cleopatra are crass, murderous criminals, much worse than "little people" Hans and Frieda. But the so-called freaks are not victims, and never will be, because they form an alliance that proves more powerful and ruthless than the "big people" villains.
The audience finds Hans' predicament compelling, and thrills to see Cleopatra and Hercules get what's coming to them. This is just how Tod Browning wanted it, but it isn't what MGM had in mind. The story goes that Tod Browning, after his great commercial and critical success with Universal Studio's Dracula (1931), was hired by MGM and given free rein for his next project, the present film.
Young MGM studio head Irving Thalberg wanted to break into the profitable horror genre, and supported the production of Freaks. Nonetheless, it was the wrong studio for Browning. MGM, who regarded themselves the first class of Hollywood, was aghast at Freaks, which they considered lurid and disreputable. To make matters worse, contemporary critics generally panned the film.
It was pulled from theaters and a third of its running time was mercilessly cut. Two scenes were newly filmed; the opening framing scenes with the carnival barker, and the happy ending where real-life siblings Hans and Frieda are romantically reunited.
We have lost a third of Freaks, but what is left is a flawed masterpiece, a movie as memorable (and much more fascinating) than Browning's best-known work, Dracula.