Cast: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles
SUMMARY: At a carnival sideshow, a group of people is taken to a box with an unseen horror inside. The barker leading the tour tells the crowd that once, the thing in the box was a beautiful, successful trapeze artist. In a flashback, this story is explained. The trapeze artist performed in a circus under the name of Cleopatra. There is a large group of “freaks” in the circus, including dwarfs Hans (Harry Earles) and Frieda (Daisy Earles), who are engaged, Siamese twins Daisy and Violet, the Human Torso, Armless Girl, Half Woman-Half Man, Half Boy, and Angeleno; there are also several “Pinheads”. Hans quickly becomes infatuated with Cleopatra, even though he is engaged to Daisy; Cleopatra encourages his affections because it amuses her, and because he loans her money and buys expensive presents. However, she is actually romantically interested in Hercules, the circus’ strongman. Cleopatra continues to string Hans along, much to the dismay of Daisy and the other performers, who can see that Cleo is only toying with Hans. Daisy actually visits Cleo and asks her to stop, but in the process, reveals that Hans has just received a large inheritance. Cleo and Hercules then form a new plan: if Cleo marries Hans, and something were to happen to him, she would receive his fortune. Not long after, Hans and Cleo get married. However, at the feast after their wedding, Cleo openly displays her affection for Hercules, and Hans begins to realize his mistake. The other “freaks” decide to accept Cleo as part of their group, despite the fact that she is “normal”, and they hold an impromptu initiation ceremony. By this point, Cleo is drunk, and cruelly mocks the group and their situations. Unbeknownst to everyone, during the dinner she has been slipping poison into Hans’ drink. The same evening, he collapses from the poison.
After the doctor examines and determines the cause of his illness, some of the other performers, particularly Half Boy, begin keeping an eye on Hans. Cleo appears to be repentant and caring, making sure that Hans takes his prescribed medicine, but Half Boy sees her slipping poison into this, as well. He and the others begin to discuss how to get back at Cleo and Hercules. Hans pretends to accept Cleo’s apologies and promises, but in reality he is aware of the plot. Not long after, the circus moves locations during a storm. During the trip, Hercules attempts to sneak away to see Cleo, but finds several of the “freaks” waiting for him. Cleo is also confronted; both attempt to run, but are eventually caught by the “freaks”, all of whom are wielding deadly weapons. What happens to Hercules is not shown, but Cleo is grotesquely mutilated: her legs have been cut off, her hands have been burned and deformed to look like webbed feet, and she has been permanently tarred and feathered. Furthermore, she is only capable of making a squawking noise, giving her the appearance of a human duck: it is this sight that greets the horrified spectators assembled around the box in the opening scene. Meanwhile, Hans has retired, and is living in a mansion by himself. He refuses to see anyone, even some old friends from the circus. However, these friends (a clown, his girlfriend, and Frieda) refuse to leave, and push their way in. Hans tries to send them away, but Frieda states that she knows that Hans was not responsible for what happened to Cleo: he only wanted to confront her and take the poison away, not harm her. The two others then leave, but Frieda stays with Hans.
MY TAKE: This movie is disturbing for several reasons. First, and most obviously, it focuses a lot of attention on people with severe physical issues, and even calls them “freaks”. I am somewhat happy to say that this made me severely uncomfortable, as did Cleo and Hercules’ attitude towards and treatment of these people. It just seems so exploitive and sad. However, the film actually shows these people as living fairly regular lives, at least in the context of their small community – it doesn’t sensationalize things. This helps create the impression that these people are still human beings, with the same feelings as anybody else. Most of these people were real circus performers, basically playing versions of themselves. Hans and Frieda were played by real-life siblings Harry and Daisy Earles, who were part of the famed “Doll family”. I’m not sure what kind of dwarfism these two have, as they don’t have some of the physical characteristics that are usually associated: instead, they basically do look like large dolls. Both actually had roles in The Wizard of Oz: Daisy was a Munchkin, and Harry was a member of the Lollipop Guild. None of the “freaks” are portrayed using special effects, which again, seems a little exploitive. Some of them, most noticeable Half Boy, Armless Girl and the Human Torso also demonstrate their talents: Half Boy maneuvers himself around on only his hands, and is even able to support himself on just one; Armless Girl uses her feet for tasks that would usually require hands, like eating, and the Human Torso lights his own cigarette using only his mouth (the stunt he was most famous for). While all of this is interesting, I was raised in a time when these handicaps, both physical and mental (in the case of the “Pinheads”) were to be respected and treated with care, rather than gawked at or stashed away in an institution. For that reason, I was never completely able to shake the feeling of discomfort (it is somewhat comforting to know that original audiences also had this feeling – it pretty much sank director Tod Browning’s career).