This week's theme for Metal Mummy's Movie Meme is Black and White films. For me, this week is easy. The film I have chosen is one of the greatest movies ever made. Terrifying, moving and inspirational in equal measure, this 1932 film by Todd Browning is my choice for this week. I give you "Freaks".
Set in the travelling circus, the film centres around the sideshow performers. Browning made the brave decision to use real people in the role of the "freak show" performers rather than using make-up and props. They are shown as honorable and trustworthy people with a strong sense of community. The "monsters" of this film are the two "normal" circus performers who conspire to murder one of the cast to steal his large inheritance.
Cleo the beautiful trapeze artist seduces and marries the midget Hans for his money. The other side show performers hold an initiation ceremony to accept her into their community. She is drunk and lets slip that she is having an affair with Hercules the strong man and mocks them all, making it clear that she never loved Hans and only wanted his money. Although humiliated, he sticks by his wife believing she will grow to love him.
It is only when another performer overhears Cleo and Hercules discussing the murder plot to poison Hans, that the performers group together to wreak their bloody revenge on the two antagonists. In one of the most shocking scenes, the performers crawl through the mud in a torrential storm, carrying knives to hunt down their victims. They mutilate them. The very end is a bit daft...they somehow turn the beautiful but evil Cleo into some kind of half human, half duck creature! I'm sure in 1932 that was quite a shock ending, but her squawking actually is quite funny!
Making this film hurt Brownings career. Outraged critics cut more than 30 minutes from his final cut including the castration of Hercules in the revenge scene, emasculating the bullying tyrant. For years this film was considered massively controversial. Audiences would vomit. It was banned in the UK for 30 years. However, in the 70s and 80s it became a cult film. In 1994 the film was finally recognized for preservation as being "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant" and was ranked 15th in Bravo's list of the Scariest Movie Moments ever. It finally found its rightful place in cinema history.
It was never exploitative and the lives of the sideshow performers were portrayed with a tender sensitivity. It is these incidental slice of life segments of the film that really make it for me. I discovered the actor Johnny Eck through this film. Born without legs and with a truncated torso he was dubbed as the "half boy". His real life story is completely inspirational and he is most definitely one of my heroes! His strength, athleticism and acrobatic ability shows how any obstacle can be overcome. He'd say to able bodied people "What can you do that I can't, except tread water?" His upbeat attitude was infectious and inspiring.
I'd really recommend checking out this film if you ever have the opportunity. It is shocking, but it is also life-affirming and heart warming. The actors are amazing and inspirational...it is a film unlike anything I've ever seen before or since. It's a real piece of celluloid history.