Photo, left to right: Johnny Eck, as the Half-Boy, and Angelo Rossitto.
It’s the end of October, deep into the witching season, a time of the year when my husband Ed watches horror films. Last night, he put on Freaks, the 1932 MGM horror drama directed by Tod Browning.
Intended to capitalize on the success of the talking monster movies being released by other studios, Freaks takes audiences into the world of circus sideshows peopled by dwarfs, Siamese twins, half-boys, bearded ladies, skeleton men and pinheads.
Freaks is a horror film, not because of its focus on carnival freak shows, but because of the disturbing story it tells about how disabled people are seen and treated. The intolerance and bigotry of the tale’s able-bodied characters is the real shocker. When conniving trapeze artist Cleo (Olga Baclanova) learns that circus midget Hans (Harry Earles) has come into an inheritance, she marries him, planning to kill him and inherit his fortune. Hans’ friends band together, and carry out a brutal revenge that leaves Cleo knowing what it means to be “one of us.”
As the story unfolds, the differences between the disabled and able-bodied members of the circus troupe blur. The disabled characters have formed a strong community, and are leading productive lives. It’s the so-called “normal” people who have the serious problems.
When the film was shot in Los Angeles in 1931, some MGM employees felt uncomfortable in the presence of the actors portraying the “freaks.” The disabled performers were barred from eating at the studio canteen and relegated to a special tent.
Freaks’ cast includes Angelo Rossitto, one of Hollywood’s busiest “small” actors who first appeared in silent movies with Lon Chaney and John Barrymore; Harry Earles, a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz; and Johnny Eck as the troupe’s Half-Boy. Eck was born with a birth defect that left him with underdeveloped legs and he walked on his hands. He performed in vaudeville in the 1920s and 1930s with his twin brother, Robert.
Columnist Louella Parsons gave Freaks her stamp of approval, but many critics considered it an exploitation of performers with physical disabilities. It was banned for three decades soon after its release, until it was revived by the counterculture in the 1960s as a cult classic.
Freaks is now seen as a compassionate film that embraces diversity.