Freaks: All Equals in Strangeness

This article contains spoilers.

I recently answered a few questions about Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) on Radio 4’s Today programme on the occasion of the film’s re-release in cinemas. Set in a circus, Freaks tells of the love of midget Hans for beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra, and the revenge of the other deformed performers when they find out that she has only married him for his money. The brief radio spot centred on whether the film’s representation of disability was offensive. As it was not possible to go into much detail in such a short time, this article is a follow-up, expanding on the issue in greater depth.

It is interesting that 73 years after its release and numerous positive reviews, it is still the question of the film’s exploitative character that was the focus of the Radio 4 spot. The fact that some of the initial American reviews and audience reactions were very negative, and that the BBFC refused to grant it a certificate in 1932, effectively suppressing it for 31 years, seem to have been enough to lastingly colour the perception of the film. Also detrimental was the exhibition of the film on the grindhouse circuit after the war by exploitation king Dwain Esper, under the title Forbidden Love. It was only after the film screened at Cannes in 1962 that the BBFC allowed a limited release with an X certificate in the UK the following year.

And yet, the early responses to the film were more complex and mixed than this may suggest, and it was even a box-office success in a number of cities in its full-length version, before it was cut by producer Irving Thalberg from 90 to 64 minutes, with a happy resolution tacked on at the end. More importantly, the reasons for which the film was vilified by some critics at the time would be deemed utterly unacceptable now, and demonstrate exactly the kind of intolerant, insensitive attitude towards difference and disability that director Tod Browning intended to fight. The Variety review started with praise but found fault with the story: ‘Freaks is sumptuously produced, admirably directed, and no cost was spared. But Metro failed to realize that even with a different sort of offering the story still is important. Here it is not sufficiently strong to get and hold the interest, partly because interest cannot easily be gained for a too fantastic romance.’ In a passage that has now been cut from the text published on the Variety website, it went on to state: ‘It is impossible for the normal man or woman to sympathize with the aspiring midget.’

This sort of ambivalence was found in many of the contemporary reviews. Richard Watts, Jr., wrote in the New York Herald Tribune: ‘It is my impression that Freaks is, in its quite repulsive fashion, a dramatic and powerful motion picture. It is obviously an unhealthy and generally disagreeable work, not only in its story and characterization, but also in its gay directorial touches. Mr. Browning can make even freaks more unpleasant than they would be ordinarily. Yet, in some strange way, the picture is not only exciting, but even occasionally touching… Mr. Browning has always been an expert in pathological morbidity, but after seeing Freaks, his other pictures seem but whimsical nursery tales.’

Also symptomatic of the time’s attitude to disability, The Film Daily found the reality of the performers’ deformities an obstacle to the enjoyment of the film: ‘It is a most unusual production, made at the time when the horror cycle appeared to be in full sway, and as a picture of this type it was produced with expert hands. But the nature of its theme makes its chances problematical. First, the fact that the ugly human monstrosities in this picture are that way in reality, whereas in other films the audience knew it was all make-believe seems to induce a different and not pleasant reaction.’

Contributing to the problem was the critics’ view of cinema as entertainment rather than art, as one of the articles on Freaks published in the trade journal Harrison’s Reports suggests: ‘Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital.’ And the Louisville Times: ‘I cannot believe such a show will entertain any but the morbidly curious, or those poor souls with jaded appetites who are even looking for a new thrill.’ (This view of cinema has been one of the grounds for the BBFC’s decision to cut or ban films in the UK, including A Serbian Film a few years ago.)

Tod Browning was most certainly a film artist who created a powerful and singular world of dark, disturbing poetry and bizarre beauty, exploring the marginal, misshapen, misfit corners of humanity. Yet he was also an entertainer. At the age of 16 he ran away from his well-to-do family to join a circus. For a number of years he did various jobs there, including performing in an act called ‘The Living Hypnotic Corpse’, before acting in slapstick short films in Hollywood. His directorial work includes comedies and exotic dramas, as well as the first horror film produced by a major Hollywood studio, Universal’s 1931 Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, which was a big box-office success. This enabled him to make Freaks for MGM the following year, but the financial failure of the film derailed his career. However, he managed to make Mark of the Vampire in 1935, and, more importantly, the masterpiece of fantastique cinema The Devil Doll in 1936.

Tod Browning’s background goes some way towards explaining the richness and complexity of Freaks, and the tenderness he felt for his characters. His work at the circus gave him a deep understanding of, and affinity with, the deformed members of his cast (the circus was the setting for a number of his films). His insistence on casting real ‘freaks’ gives the film a gritty documentary aspect that deepens and adds substance to the strange and nightmarish atmosphere. His respect for his cast is also demonstrated by the fact that he insisted that his performers had other talents and were not simply cast for their deformities. Early scenes show the sort of prejudice and taunting that the characters constantly come up against. Later sequences portray the characters in their daily lives: the armless Frances O’Connor eating dinner with her feet; the birth of the Bearded Lady’s baby; Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton with Daisy’s fiancé. Some of these scenes, such as the courtship of the sisters, are full of humour and lightness, which adds another level to the representation of the characters. Others, such as when Prince Randian, a man without arms or legs billed as ‘The Living Torso’, lights a cigarette, will have audiences stare in disbelief and wonder at the skill and ingenuity involved in performing a seemingly impossible act. Some will argue that featuring such scenes is no better than the exploitative freakshows that treated people with deformities as mere attractions. Indeed, one of the problems Freaks has had to face in its reception is that, as a film about freakshow acts, it has been confused with the freakshow itself. There is no denying that these scenes have a spectacular quality, but it is a spectacle presented to elicit not uncharitable curiosity or horror, but admiration for the inventive manner in which the characters deal with the difficulties of daily life.

These scenes are also important for another reason: they contribute to the fact that the disabled characters never appear as passive, weak, dependent people, but as fully functioning, mobile, autonomous human beings, including those with the most challenging deformities. In keeping with this, they are given a full range of emotions, from love and desire to violence and vengefulness. It is very clear that the film’s sympathy lies with the ‘freaks’, and that physical deformity is not equated with wickedness, rather the opposite: the villains of the story are the characters associated with physical perfection – the tall, blonde Cleopatra and her strongman lover Hercules. But Tod Browning does not offer a facile, simplistic vision of the disabled characters as poor helpless victims of their villainy, and he gives them the power to act on their emotions, including the darkest ones. The extraordinary final scene, in which the ‘freaks’ wreak their revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules during a dark stormy night, menacingly crawling under the trailers towards their victims, is made all the more creepy and nightmarish by the deformities of the characters. This has been seen as exploitative by some as a scene that re-establishes the association of physical deformity and villainy. But this simply ignores that the scene is part of a whole, and that Freaks shows the many facets of its characters. By presenting a morally complex, physically active portrayal of fully rounded characters, Tod Browning treats his disabled characters exactly as any able-bodied character. This refusal to paint a worthy, sanitized view of disabled people as all-good unfortunates to be pitied may well be one of the reasons for the discomfort the film has caused in some viewers and critics.

Another thing worth noting is that most films that deal with disability will only have one disabled character, an anomaly among the norm, an exception among the majority. Freaks remains deeply unusual in that the majority of its cast is disabled or suffering from a deforming illness. The circus is their world and there it is the able-bodied characters who are the exception. The film gives visibility, legitimacy and screen presence to a large number of people who would have been ignored by the film industry. Tod Browning introduced the reality of disability and deformity in the midst of a Hollywood obsessed with physical perfection (MGM was Greta Garbo’s studio). The protests of MGM personnel during the shooting are revealing of contemporary social attitudes to disability and the sort of reaction the cast would have had to face on a daily basis. The studio executives refused to take their lunch with the performers because they could not stand the sight of them, which meant that most of the Freaks cast had to eat outside in a tent especially set up for them. This shocking aspect of the production highlights how subversive the making of such a film was in the context of the time.

Throughout his work Tod Browning was interested in the blurry line between what is considered normal and what is seen as abnormal, and one of the implications of Freaks is that that line is easily crossed. It is something that he explored in The Unknown (1929), a film that provides an essential point of comparison with Freaks. In this silent film also set in a circus, Lon Chaney plays Alonzo, a knife-thrower who pretends to have lost his arms in order to woo the pretty ringmaster’s daughter Nanon (Joan Fontaine), who has an uncontrollable phobic fear of hands. There is a stunning scene, remindful of the scene in Freaks when Frances O’Connor eats and drinks with her feet, in which Lon Chaney lights a cigarette with his feet, his arms lying motionless by him, having become so used to pretending to be a cripple that he forgets to use his arms in private. The Unknown is the fascinating tale of how a man, seemingly ‘normal’, falls for a girl with an ‘abnormal’ sexuality, acts ‘abnormal’ to seduce her and then really becomes ‘abnormal’ in his desperation to secure her, only to find out that she has become ‘normal’ and now wants a ‘normal’ partner – again, a strongman.

Watch a clip from Tod Browning’s Unknown:

Emphasizing the idea that the line between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ may not be as clear-cut as it may seem, it is suggested in Freaks that the ‘tall people’ may not be as fully endowed as they should be, and therefore are ‘abnormal’ too in a fashion. In a spirited quip to Venus, Phroso the clown reveals that he is impotent (‘You should’ve caught me before my operation.’). And in a scene that was edited out, the sexually frustrated Venus wants to look for ‘a couple of sailors’ and ‘have some fun’ (which became ‘falling in love – getting married – having kids’), which would place her very much outside the moral conventions of her time and therefore make her a social outcast.

Both The Unknown and Freaks are as much about sexual abnormality as they are about physical and social abnormality, and it is perhaps its sexual undertones that made Freaks so unsettling to early viewers, despite the fact that many of these scenes were cut out. The characters of Lon Chaney in The Unknown, Venus and Phroso in Freaks, are about sexual excess or lack, and the impossibility of making individual desires coincide. Throughout his films, Tod Browning shows much sympathy for misguided, mishandled, mismatched, miscalibrated desires and the terrible, tragic acts they lead people to commit. Hans’s desire for Cleopatra is poignant because, despite his childlike appearance, he is a man, as he constantly reminds everyone, and she does not treat him like one, as exemplified most dramatically in the humiliating wedding scene where she carries him on her shoulders in a grotesque cavalcade around the deserted banquet table. For this, she will pay dearly, and will be made ‘one of them’ after being horribly mutilated by Hans’s friends (the violence has been cut out in the film as it stands). Her punishment for scorning his manhood is to be stripped of her beauty. As for Hercules, in the original version he was castrated by the deformed characters, making the sexual element of the film very explicit. The seemingly ‘diminished’ characters are able to take away the potency of the traditional virile strongman. Sexual and social power are aligned here and the ending depicts a subversive act of revenge by the powerless ‘abnormal’ against normative potency.

And yet, amid the darkness, there is also a humorous and lighter side to the strangeness of human desire: in a scene where Siamese twin Violet is kissed by her suitor, sister Daisy is seen to visibly enjoy the pleasure of the kiss. It is a lovely scene that celebrates the wondrousness of human life and an openness to all the shapes and forms that it may take. And so the answer to the question ‘Is the film offensive?’: no, certainly not, because it paints an exceptionally complex, nuanced, multi-layered portrayal of human beings on the margins of mainstream society that refuses to kow-tow to conventions and offer any facile reassurances.

Picture credit: Freaks (1932).

First published in Electric Sheep Magazine in June 2015.

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