Like the carnival denizens it features, this movie — the creative pinnacle of director Tod Browning’s career — was reviled and disowned by the system that spawned it.
Browning was an American original, growing up in the circus to become a sideshow huckster. That experience served him well as he made the jump into the wild filmmaking world of the early silent era. He eventually teamed up with makeup master Lon Chaney to make a series of gruesome and perverse classics, such as “The Unholy Three” (1925), “The Unknown” (1927) and “London After Midnight” (1927).
In 1931 he was assigned to direct Bela Lugosi in “Dracula,” which became a runaway success, firmly establishing the horror genre in the United States and single-handedly saving Universal from bankruptcy at the height of the Depression. With that success under his belt, Browning was given his choice of projects, so he chose something close to his heart — a story about the circus side show freaks he spent much of his childhood around. Although it was driven with a promotional campaign that emphasized the stars’ deformities (alternate titles included “The Monster Show” and “Nature’s Mistakes”), the film is actually a humane exploration of their plight in a world that hates and exploits them just because of the way they were born, and starred real-life sideshow performers.
Harry Earles is the midget Hans, who acts as the informal leader of a close-knit group of freaks and sideshow performers in a traveling circus. When a beautiful trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova) discovers that Hans has an inheritance that has made him absurdly rich, she and her strongman boyfriend (Henry Victor) plot to steal Hans away from his midget fiancée (who is strangely enough played by Daisy Earles, Harry’s sister) to get the money. This, of course, draws the ire of the freaks, setting up the classic final scenes.
Despite being somewhat stagey and running short (mostly due to cuts enforced by the studio and the Hays Office), the film maintains a menacing, macabre undertone that can still shock today.
Universal executives kept the project at arm’s length and, after their initial release obligations, quickly buried it. It existed as a nearly-forgotten cult film (and was completely banned in the United Kingdom) until its long-overdue revival in the ’60s, after Browning’s death. Now considered a classic, it effectively ended Browning’s career (although his growing alcoholism playing a big hand in that, too.)
“One of us! One of us! We accept you! One of us!”
Although for most of the freaks this was their only movie appearance, Johnny Eck (“The Half-Boy”) also appeared in two Tarzan movies and an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
“The Unknown” (1927), “Chained for Life” (1958) and the photographs of Diane Arbus.
Take a Look:
Some backstage shenanigans: