This is a 1932 film I had been wanting to see for quite some time, and when I chanced upon it on YouTube I had to watch it there and then.
I was expecting this to be a blatant exploitation film, just a film version of a circus freak sideshow, which it was for some part. But mostly it did not portray the various actual circus performers in a disrespectful way, and by the end of the film they were basically revengeful heroes.
The main character was Hans, a German dwarf who falls in love with a trapeze artist in the travelling circus they are part of. The trapeze artist, Cleopatra, learns that Hans has inherited a large amount of money, so she and Hercules (the strongman of course) conspire to get into that money. Hans has a dwarf lady friend (played by his actual sister), and she loved him, so things get messy quickly.
Other actors included a man who had no arms or legs, the bearded lady, Stork Woman, conjoined twins, and Schlitzie (also called ‘Pinhead’). Each of them was given a little time in the film so we could observe their various traits. There were also side stories, some of which were quite silly, including the love quadrangle between the conjoined twins, one of the twins’ husband, and another chap who proposed to the other twin. And the story of the bearded lady having a baby.
I wasn’t expecting much going into this, but by the end I was quite impressed and was hoping Cleopatra would get what is coming to her, which she did in a very bizarre fashion.
From Wikipedia: Following disastrous test screenings in January 1932 (one woman threatened to sue MGM, claiming the film had caused her to suffer a miscarriage), the studio cut the picture down from its original 90-minute running time to just over an hour. Much of the sequence of the freaks attacking Cleopatra as she lies under a tree was removed, as well as a gruesome sequence showing Hercules being castrated, a number of comedy sequences, and most of the film’s original epilogue.
The final cut is 59 minutes long.
It was a financial disaster when it came out, and was banned all over the place due to it’s “outrageous and repulsive” content. The director made only three more films after this, the film had ruined him. The actress playing Cleopatra hoped this film would boost her waning career, but she too was finished after this.
It was banned in the U.K. until 1963, and upon release was given an X-rating. It became a cult film in the 1960’s.
Researching the various actors in the film I was surprised to see that many lived to a ripe old age despite their physical or mental deficiencies. Schlitzie died aged 70 after a long life of mostly performing, something he loved doing (he had a mental age of 3). The actor playing Hans died aged 83, and Koo-Koo lived into her 80’s.
It is a very good thing people are not being treated like this anymore, either on film or in circus acts, but I found this to be an almost sympathetic look at how these people lived. They were not portrayed as monsters, but instead as quite happy and positive people who enjoyed a good time.
Well worth a watch as this is a significant film in many ways.
Film count 2019: 19