Few films in the history of cinema have caused more controversy than Tod Browning’s 1932 cult-classic Freaks. Using circus performers as the majority of the cast, Browning intended to show these interesting characters as real human beings with complex emotions and real life experiences. The so-called “normal” people are portrayed as nasty, murderous louts. Browning’s vision was cut down into a tawdry horrorshow which sat on a shelf for 30 years, also how long Freaks was officially banned in the UK.
In 1932 a Jesuit priest and a newspaper editor wrote the Motion Picture Production Code (a precursor to the MPAA of today), which imposed religious ethics on all future film productions in the US. Prohibition on content shaped the idea that film can be so moving it can change who you are inside. After decades of repression, Freaks has preserved and made an impact on American pop culture like no other film of its era.
Todd Browning ran away from his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky to join the circus at 16-years-old. He worked as a clown and traveled with vaudeville acts until he gained commercial success as an actor during the silent era, starring alongside Lon Chaney in several films. After a series of ups and downs in his personal life, he achieved one of his most critically acclaimed works, directing Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931). Drawing from his youth as a circus performer, he turned the short story “Spurs” by Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins about a love triangle with a midget, an aerialist and a strong man into the screenplay for Freaks.
Browning saw the malformed sideshow actors as the rock stars of his youth. Before television, people had to actually go out into the community to be entertained. Rather than marveling over the “normal” aspects of the freaks, they were celebrated, lifted up and sought out for their fascinating differences. They performed magic tricks, musical acts and provided thrills for an entertainment-starved public. Abuse by ablists was unfortunately common. Micro-cephalic “pinheads” and people with other defects often had mental handicaps which made them vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous, money-hungry carnival folks.
The remaining 64 minutes of Freaks is difficult for your average 21st century viewer. In such a short run time, with so many gaping editing holes, it vies for an attention that’s just not there. The plot centers around a wealthy dwarf who falls for a large Russian trapeze artist. She cheats on the little guy with a “strongman” who’s special skill appeared to be wearing his pants up around his nipples. It’s droll melodrama that lacks the rhythm of modern-day cinema. Comedic pillow shots appear thrown in like sideshow acts. Only a few remaining scenes stand out as so visually disturbing that they have been ingrained in our cinematic culture.
In one scene, two walrus-mustachioed landowners happen upon the freaks dancing out in a field to the tune of the human skeleton’s harmonica. One of these fine gentlemen admonishes Madame Tetrallini, the benevolent matriarch of this circus clan, just for taking care of the freaks!
“These are not children, these are monsters!” says the absolute dick of a landowner. The freaks cower from his walking stick and gather around their mother figure for comfort. She holds them in her protective arms and insists on their right to enjoy the sunshine like all other children. The pinhead Schlitzie wraps “her” arms around Madame’s neck like a frightened child. The landowner’s friend talks him out of beating a group of differently abled people for no reason other than existing. Madame reassures the freaks that “God loves ALL his children”.
The clear villain in this scene is the landowner. It’s not wrong to look because they’re different, it’s wrong to NOT look because they’re different. We are all curious creatures and anything interesting is worth observing. Above all, this scene shows that they are people with thoughts and feelings like our own and they have the same fundamental right every living, breathing human being deserves… to be. This was a revolutionary idea to present to the cinematic audience of 1932.
In another scene, the blonde bombshell trapeze artist, Cleopatra marries the dwarf Hans. At the wedding feast, the freaks start chanting “Gooble, gobble! One of us! We accept her!”
They pour champagne in a giant goblet and start taking communal sips from it. Horror dawns on drunken Cleopatra’s face as the goblet nears her. She realizes that is in fact, one of them. In a rage, she throws the champagne in their faces and shrieks “FREAKS!”. The freaks stare at her, heartbroken by her outburst and the rejection of their acceptance.
Cleopatra starts poisoning Hans so that she can get his money and rid herself of the reminder of her own freakishness. The freaks discover her plan and chase her through the rain, which has been called one of the most horrifying scenes in all of cinema. Menacing, knife-wielding freaks crawl through the mud in pursuit of the traitor Cleopatra. I couldn’t help grumbling “Get her.” In the lost cut of the ending, her lover Hercules sings falsetto, castrated by the freaks.
Freaks had one of the worst critical receptions of any film released in history. Re-edits, censorship, disastrous test screenings and the ruin of several prominent Hollywood careers resulted from its release. One woman threatened to sue MGM because she claimed to have had a miscarriage during a screening. Another anti-fan wrote a letter to the director saying that “You must have the mental equipment of a freak yourself to devise such a picture”. You read that in the voice of a old-timey radio announcer, didn’t ya?
The United Kingdom banned the film country-wide for three decades. Tod Browning’s career never recovered and he slipped into obscurity until his death in 1962, the same year that theaters started re-screening Freaks as a midnight monster show, stirring a resurgence in popularity with the counterculture generation.
Freaks almost pales in comparison to the controversy surrounding the film. Todd Browning had a revolutionary idea, to portray circus performers as humans and “normal” folks as freaks. The public was not ready to accept personhood in what they assumed were second-class citizens. In 1932, women could barely vote and Jim Crow laws subjugated plenty of able-bodied folks based on the color of their skin. Perhaps learning of the horrific eugenics experiments carried out by the Nazis in WWII helped change the humanity status of disabled folks in the public eye. The artist in me wants to believe a film helped us accept freaks as one of us.