I was asked recently to do an introduction for a screening of Tod Browning’s controversial classic Freaks (1932) which was a welcome opportunity to revisit this fascinating and problematic film. Hollywood in the early 1930s was a strange and exciting place and the short period between the advent of sound and the introduction of the Hays code (adopted by the industry in 1930 but actually enforced from 1934 onwards) gave rise to a number of edgy movies that pushed the envelope of what was considered acceptable. This atmosphere of experimentation and risk taking had perhaps its most lasting effect on the horror movie, one of the great driving genres of early sound cinema. Films like Frankenstein (1930), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(1931), Island of Lost Souls (1932) and Freaks (1932) all contains scenes of visceral and visual horror which certainly raised eyebrows but it was their perceived lapses in morality that caused the most anxiety. James Whale’s Frankenstein, with its focus on corpses and monsters epitomises many of the elements we remember from 1930s Hollywood horror but its central narrative of man-made creation came uncomfortably close to blasphemy by those appalled by this new trend in cinema. Similarly, Rouben Mamoulian’s Oscar winning (Frederick March for Best Actor in a Leading Role) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was more controversial for its dubious morality (the sexual subtext in the Jekyll/Hyde dualism has never been more forthright) than its violence or visual horror.
The origin of Freaks is something of Hollywood legend and is said to have emerged out of MGM head Irving Thalberg’s desire to ‘out-horror’ Frankenstein and thereby challenge the dominance of Universal as the pre-eminent maker of horror movies. In fact he turned to the director of one of Universal’s biggest horror hits, Dracula (1931) in order to achieve his ghoulish objective. With a long and successful career in silent movies behind him, Browning had also proven himself in talkies by directing Bela Lugosi in a definitive landmark portrayal of the vampire count. In particular, his partnership with Lon – ‘the man of a thousand faces’ – Chaney, had made Browning a powerful presence in Hollywood during the 1920s. Together the unconventional director and chameleon-like Chaney had produced some of the oddest mainstream films ever made in Hollywood. Films such as The Blackbird (1926), The Unknown (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928) had showcased Chaney’s great dexterity and skill both as an actor and physical performer.
It is perhaps no surprise then that a director with a history of fascination with deformity and physical difference (Chaney famously learned to use his feet to replace the arms his character had amputated in The Unknown) would be the very person to respond to Thalberg’s challenge with the idea of Freaks. For all his success in the 1920s, Browning was one of life’s great outsiders and had not always been a movie director. At the age of 16 Browning had pretty much left home to join the circus and spent many years performing in carnival sideshows and in vaudeville as an actor, dancer and magician. This background made Browning the idea person to develop Freaks since he had worked alongside many sideshow acts like those portrayed in the film. He also inherited a rich vein of showmanship from his early years as well as a keen eye for spectacle and exploitation. Browning’s history of carnival performance along with famous images of him with the cast of Freaks tend to lead us to assume that the film was shot with as great a sense of camaraderie as that portrayed on screen when in reality many of the cast found the experience an unhappy one.
The film is set ‘backstage’ at a European carnival and features many actual performers from the sideshows that toured around America in the early twentieth century. The story focuses on the relationship between the sideshow ‘midget’ Hans (played by Harry Earles who first pitched the idea for Freaks to Tod Browning by bringing him the short story Spurs by Tod Robbins which later formed the basis of the screenplay) and the beautiful and ‘normal’ sized trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Along with her strong man lover Hercules (Henry Victor), Cleopatra seeks to woo, marry and then poison Hans in order to inherit his sizable fortune. Cleopatra’s disgusted rejection of the ‘freaks’ invitation to join their tight knit ‘family’ ultimately exposes her dubious motives . After the plan to kill Hans is discovered, the ‘freaks’ chase down Cleopatra and Hercules, exacting a horrific and terrifying revenge. Much of the film seems to have very little to do with the genre of horror and is constructed as a provocative morality play where the sense of community and fraternity within the family of ‘freaks’ is contrasted with the morally repugnant values of the physically ‘perfect’ conspirators. It is only in the climatic revenge scene towards the end of the film that the story descends into horror as the ‘freaks’ slither through the rain and mud to carry out their righteous revenge. It is hard not to feel uncomfortable at the explicit way that physical difference is linked to monstrousness and horror in a way that can be seen to undermine the largely sympathetic portrayal of difference in the rest of the film. Seen today the film certainly appears sympathetic towards the sideshow performers; many of the audience that watched the film after my introduction felt that the revenge sequence did not seem exploitative in the context of the rest of the film and due to the fact that their retribution was just and morally unambiguous.
Unfortunately neither the studio heads at MGM or the test audiences for the film felt sympathetic towards the film, the mixture of prurience and horror causing both to respond to the film with a different kind of horror than Thalberg had been looking for. The studio responded by making a series of swingeing cuts and forcing Browning to shoot a number of alternative ‘happy endings’. The film originally ran for over 90 minutes but today the version we are left with only runs for just over an hour. We might expect that the cuts made comprise the more horrific elements of the film but although some of the revenge sequence and its aftermath was removed most of the excised material consisted of scenes of the various performers carrying out ordinary daily activities. Only a few of these remain in the film – we see ‘The Armless Girl’ (Frances O’Connor) using cutlery and drinking beer using her feet instead of hands and ‘The Living Torso’ (Prince Randian) light his cigarette despite his lack of any limbs at all (this scene is truncated from the original where Randian first rolls his cigarette before lighting it). It seems that the discomfort at viewing ‘freakish’ bodies for the purposes of entertainment (which was fast making the carnival sideshow a thing of the past) was just as acute as the link between deformity and horror. In the UK where the film was banned for over 30 years, it was a combination of both these factors that led the BBFC to withhold certification on several occasions. Even when the film was granted a limited release in 1963 the board only did so on the condition that the film be promoted “without undue exploitation and sensationalism” and that the distributers took care not “to attract people who would wish to come and see Freaks for unworthy reasons.” Subsequently Browning’s film has gained a more sympathetic critical reputation being recognised by serious art-house circles as a significant part of film history and also being embraced by several generations of outsider subcultures. The redeployment of the term ‘freak’ by hippy counterculture gave the film a new moral and perhaps political subtext. Proto-punks The Ramones discovered a similar parallel between their outsider fanbase and the world of the carnival sideshow performers depicted in Browning’s movie.
Today, this once controversial film is preserved in the United States National Film Registry where it is deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Much of the film seems quaint and creaky when viewed by a contemporary audience but the compassionate way the sideshow performers are portrayed seems bold, particularly for the time. The climatic revenge scene witnessed at the story’s end still has the power to horrify and disturb making the audience question their motives for watching such material. There is no doubt that the line between sympathy and exploitation is somewhat porous within the film but whatever the individual response to the film, it certainly seems remarkable that such a subject matter and range of characters could have ever emerged out of a major Hollywood studio – I doubt we’ll see its like again.