A piercing dignity defines this infamous Tod Browning picture, in which a community of circus sideshow performers exact revenge on the trapeze beauty who exploits one of their own.
The movie is mostly remembered for its nightmarish climax, in which the offended performers crawl and squirm through the muddy rain in pursuit of Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), the trapeze artist. Yet the film is actually defined by what comes before: vignettes of what everyday life is like for decidedly abnormal people. It’s telling that Browning never depicts the performers on the stage — for others’ amusement — but instead showcases their talents in offhanded ways, as when the legless and armless Prince Randian, playing “The Living Torso,” rolls and lights his own cigarette while having a casual conversation.
Indeed, despite its gruesome conclusion, the movie seems to do everything in its power to create community. Even after Cleopatra has wed one of the circuses’ little people (Harry Earles) under suspicious circumstances, the performers throw a lavish and inclusive wedding party. The chant that is so often quoted with an ominous air actually begins as a wedding toast and an invitation to Cleopatra: “One of us.” It isn’t until she responds in revulsion that things take a vengeful turn.
The ensemble is mostly made of actual performers, include conjoined twins Daisy Hilton and Violet Hilton, “Half Boy” Johnny Eck and the aforementioned Prince Randian. Their “acting” skills are both limited and beside the point.