The Almost Accidental Sensitivity of Tod Browning’s Freaks
Note: This is the hundred-and-sixty-eighth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Letterboxd, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1932 film, FREAKS, directed by Tod Browning.
FREAKS is a deeply controversial film. Perhaps more so than any other Pre-Code movie of Hollywood’s early sound years, a time full of gangsters, sexual innuendos, and fallen women that shocked and appalled conservative forces in this country, Tod Browning’s tale of circus sideshow performers to this day invites a high level of moralizing criticism. Proclaimed upon its release in 1932 as the most terrifying horror picture ever made (not even a full year after Universal asserted Browning’s DRACULA  to be the same), negative contemporary reviews and lukewarm box office receipts (not catastrophic ones as has often been reported) have led FREAKS to become one of the defining cult classics. To this day programmed and billed as essential horror, a relatively more recent thread of criticism has found the movie to be a startling depiction of sympathy for and defense of the non-normative and disabled. Still others find it to be an exploitative piece of harmful reductionism. The reality and impact of FREAKS are complicated issues, but I think ultimately it was rendered into a humanist manifesto…almost accidentally.
Browning had a history of films about misfits. His acclaimed run of silent hits with Lon Chaney, The Man of a Thousand Faces who essentially never “got the girl,” nevertheless often rendered the star a sympathetic figure in his villainous roles. The director even specifically channeled his past as a circus performer into a few previous movies, such as THE UNKNOWN (1927) and THE SHOW (1927). But with FREAKS, he attempted to intensify the themes he had explored in those pictures. Assembling the greatest number of established sideshow “freak” performers to be put to screen, then and perhaps now, the movie certainly exaggerated how many such people would be traveling with the small outfit depicted. But in striving to create a spectacle of its titular stars, Browning and MGM, the last studio you might expect to produce such a film, created a cross-section of solidarity for the “code of the freaks.”
The code of the freaks, as Browning’s film posits it, is that offending one means offending the others. While the reality involved the complex relationships and strong personalities of the production’s sideshow icon-studded cast, FREAKS’ united front is an idealistic and ultimately aspirational community. This is where a different kind of reading must be assigned to the film’s ending. Throughout the course of its short runtime (just 62 minutes in surviving form), much of FREAKS concerns melodramatic developments primarily in the lives of little people Hans and Frieda, played by Harry and Daisy Earles. The plotting behind Hans’ back by the beautiful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), first to ridicule Hans then kill him and take the money coming to him, drives the movie’s horrific climax. But along the way, we are really treated to a melodramatic ensemble piece about the way these performers live and work together, along the way surviving indignities from their so-called “normal” colleagues.
When Hans discovers Cleopatra’s plans (she’s been poisoning him), he plots with his found family to strike back at her. In a storm, carts are overturned, and the freaks crawl through the muck to reach her and Hercules. Right after this climactic scene, which is indeed played for horror, we are treated to FREAKS’ most iconic image: that of Cleopatra reduced to the “duck woman.” While this twist is understandably bone-chilling, its implications should not demonize the revenge-takers. Of course, it’s fitting irony; that a woman who so viciously hated, as the circus bills them, “midgets” (little people), “pinheads” (microcephalic people), “bird women” (a blanket term for women of various appearances), “Siamese twins” (conjoined twins), “living torsos” (people born with no limbs), “Half Women-Half Men” (intersexed people), and so on, has become “one of them,” as the freaks chanted to her at her wedding dinner with Hans.
Think about this moment a bit more, however, and its implications may seem retrograde. FREAKS’ ending could be seen to, in one way, assert that Cleoptra’s new “freak-hood” is the worst fate that could be bestowed upon someone, that she is now sub-human (as many of the animal allusions in the billing of the sideshow performers intimate). But more than her new bodily form, the greatest disadvantage inflicted upon Cleopatra is her removal from a hierarchy that benefited her and hardened her heart. If it’s possible, and FREAKS doesn’t exactly seem hopeful on this subject to be honest, Cleopatra can come to be embraced by the code of the freaks.
FREAKS’ ending as left in the film leaves Hercules’ fate ambiguous. After having a knife thrown into his back, he crawls in fear as his bullied colleagues advance on him. But as the script reveals, he was meant to be shown afterwards performing in the circus in a different capacity like Cleopatra; in his case, singing at an out-of-character high pitch an operatic tune associated with the castrato…or castrated. While this mutilation is also a fitting end for a murder accessory, its omission is slightly out of step with the thematic finality of Cleopatra’s altered form. Other excised bits, whether from the production stage or final edit, reveal FREAKS’ apotheosis by a thousand cuts, instead of an undignified death.
You see, while FREAKS makes clear that the “real monsters” are the “normal ones,” it also says “not all normies are bastards.” Clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) and seal-trainer Venus (Leila Hyams) are friends of their sideshow confederates. But in a number of cut scenes (as described by David J. Skal, commentary provider on a FREAKS DVD release), Phroso and Venus throw out harsher barbs, coloring their interactions with people like Johnny Eck (the Half-Boy), Schlitzie (a microcephalic man styled as a woman in on- and offscreen performances), and Edith “the Turtle Girl.” The removal of these scenes were out of Browning’s hands. And yet, MGM’s aversion to a certain degree of controversy, helped along by producer and initial champion Irving Thalberg’s ever-cooling defense of the project, unexpectedly made FREAKS a better movie. Instead of creating stronger lines of division, these cuts blend the communities and envision a world of not just tolerant, but enthusiastic cooperation. This is reinforced by Phroso and Venus’ visitation of Hans and Daisy in the films’ final scene, establishing their at least tacit acceptance of the little man’s actions.
There is an argument to be made that, even in the charitable estimation I’ve illustrated here and others like it, FREAKS is condescending, a kind of patriarchally progressive story that still argues its unique stars must be protected oddities, not ridiculed monsters. But I challenge anyone to consider the circumstances of ableism in 1930s America and the opportunities afforded differently abled persons at the time. I am not arguing that Daisy and Violet Hilton, Johnny Eck, Schlitzie, and the many, many others depicted in the film should have been grateful to be gawked at. But I do find that Browning’s film, through some combination of his sympathies, studio interference, and a modern perspective, finds the good in their situation, in the relationships that can be formed in the crucibles of life’s harshest moments. FREAKS’ thesis lies not in the stormy, violent climax, but in the image of a number of the sideshow performers, joined by their caretaker Madame Tetrallini, frolicking in a shaded glen beside a pond. In this moment, at least, the “freaks” are afforded the time and space to live as they would like.