When he was sixteen years old, Tod Browning ran away with the circus. Technically speaking it was a travelling show called the Manhattan Fair & Carnival Company which he joined after becoming enthralled with one of its dancers. He held several jobs in various carnivals, circuses, and sideshows including barker, escape artist, clown, and stable boy before a two-year stint as “The Hypnotic Living Corpse.” This act featured a dramatic burial of the supposedly dead Browning in a coffin equipped with a hidden ventilation system and a secret compartment where he kept a stash of malted-milk balls to sustain him until he was miraculously “resurrected” the following day. On special occasions, such as the Easter weekend, the stunt lasted forty-eight hours to capitalize on the religious parallel.
These early years offered more than a little useful experience for Browning’s career as a filmmaker. His world was filled with actors, showmen, and hucksters. Being buried alive has a certain relationship to his most famous directorial work, Dracula (1931), but the circus itself and the sideshow in particular remained deeply personal to him and would play an important role in many of his greatest films. Four of his most enduring works, outside Dracula, are the key examples: the silent and sound versions of The Unholy Three (1925 and 1930), The Unknown (1927), and one of the most notorious and controversial films of all time, Freaks (1932).
When it was released in February of 1932 (with its Los Angeles premiere a year to the day after Dracula’s gala opening in New York), there were reports of audience members screaming and fainting. Legend has it that one woman sued MGM for the miscarriage of her baby while viewing the film. Some of these anecdotes may well be publicity, others myth, but there are several factors we know to be true. Religious and decency groups pointed to Freaks as a case in point for their censorship agenda and, according to film historian David J. Skal, called it an “extremely cruel and exploitative film.” It received a number of bad critical notices and was banned in several countries. But in showbusiness all these things are forgivable. The biggest sin of Freaks was that it lost money for the studio. This along with social and political headaches the film was causing prompted MGM to pull the film from distribution soon after its New York premiere on February 20th.
The controversy seems to have been related to two opposing reasons. On the one hand, some were horrified to see such physical anomalies on film. Others felt that it depicted human beings purely for the purposes of exploitation. The former of these controversies has receded in general, but the latter endures even to this day in various forms and from various people. Even its provocative title, Freaks, is controversial. It is simultaneously exploitative and ironic. It is like the carnival barker bidding us to “come see” while the film itself urges us to alter our perceptions of what is and isn’t acceptable, normal, ugly, and beautiful. It is remarkable that this film, which for several reasons could have been lost after its release, not only still exists, but is still in discussion as an important film to horror, cult cinema, representation on screen, and the discussion surrounding exploitation in entertainment.
In watching the film now, many may be surprised to find how little of the film actually qualifies as horror. The first half of Freaks is a peek behind the curtain of circus life. It is a document of mundane activities and interactions made interesting by the world in which they take place and the people involved in them. They eat, drink, smoke, fall in love, marry, have children, and live ordinary domestic lives. The difference is that they have adapted to the physical limitations they were born with and have lived with their entire lives. The armless woman Frances O’Connor for example, is shown having a meal with friends. She uses a fork and drinks from her glass with her feet but there is nothing else unusual about the scene and it is depicted simply as a behavior rather than an “act” or “performance.” These scenes in particular are very compassionate toward the so-called “freaks” as they live out their everyday lives.
The film is a gathering of the largest collection of world class sideshow acts of the period. Along with eating with her feet as shown in the film, Frances O’Connor was also skilled at crochet and was a sharpshooter. The film features several actors with microcephaly, at the time called “pinheads,” the most famous being Schlitzie, who was born a man but presented as a woman in her pioneering act. Prince Randian, known as “The Living Torso” had a very long and successful sideshow career. In the film he is seen performing a small piece of his act in which he lights a cigarette using only his lips. Cut from the film is the fact that he also rolled that cigarette himself despite having no arms or legs. The most famous performers when they appeared in the film were Daisy and Violet Hilton, the conjoined twins who had been performers on the Vaudeville circuit as dancers and musicians.
The back half of Freaks forwards the plot, which is a fairly simple one. Hans (Harry Earles), a little person, falls in love with the trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Though she is in love with the strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), Cleo pretends to fall in love with Hans after she learns that he has come into an inheritance. She marries him and beginning at their wedding feast, slowly poisons him. The sideshow performers learn of her plot and exact their revenge by fulfilling their promise to make her “one of us.” The two most famous sequences of Freaks happen in this latter half of the film: the wedding banquet and the storm scene.
These two scenes are among the best that Browning ever filmed, particularly during the sound era. The banquet scene begins with a celebration of camaraderie among the freaks as they enjoy performances from one another. During the feast, Cleo is seen pouring poison into Hans’s wine, becoming increasingly drunk, and carrying on with Hercules rather than her new husband who sits distraught by her side. Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto), one of the little people of the company, climbs up on the table with a giant chalice of wine in a ceremony to accept Cleo into their fold. “Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, we accept her, we accept her, one of us, one of us” they chant as they each drink from the chalice. Cleo is horrified when Angeleno comes to her and screams “you dirty, slimy…FREAKS!” and throws the remaining contents of the chalice into his face before storming off.
In this scene, the deeper theme of the film is revealed. Those who society has labeled as “normal” and “beautiful” are the true monsters of this story, while those labeled as “freaks” and “monstrosities” are people of goodness, kindness, and compassion. It is a theme that echoes through the ages from Frankenstein to King Kong to Creature from the Black Lagoon and on to today, even being explicitly stated in some of the narration to Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, The Shape of Water in 2017.
The climactic scene in which the freaks exact their revenge on Cleo and Hercules is dynamic and disturbing even now. All we have learned of the performers up to this point come into play and though we only see the results of their work, what is left to the imagination is far greater than what possibly could have been depicted. In the final moments, we see Cleo transformed into a disfigured “bird woman” who can only squawk and shuffle with her arms, which have been turned into ducklike feet. The original version ended here, though it is edited slightly from a longer version which also included a revelation that Hercules had been emasculated. Most versions of the film now include an epilogue which absolves Hans of any wrongdoing in the revenge plot and reunites him with Frieda (Daisy Earles), his intended bride from the beginning of the film.
Even before Freaks made it to its limited public viewings, thirty minutes were removed from its runtime and are believed to be lost. After being pulled from distribution, one legend has it that the camera negative was thrown into San Francisco Bay. Whatever the case, the film went underground for thirty years before being rediscovered and shown in a special screening at the Venice Film Festival in September of 1962. From there, it found new life on the art house circuit. Because the movie embraces and celebrates being different, the growing counterculture of the era latched onto Freaks and it became a cult favorite among the hippie community at midnight screenings.
Despite its general canonization as an important film, Freaks remains controversial to this day. Though some see it as compassionate depiction, others see it as pure exploitation. Johnny Eck, the legless man who walks on his hands in the film, often defended Freaks as a great opportunity, an experience that opened doors for him and other performers involved. Olga Roderick, the film’s bearded lady, was outspoken about her distaste for the film, stating that it portrayed sideshow performers disrespectfully. She regretted appearing in the film. By the time of its rediscovery, film journalists were calling the Freaks “compassionate” and “sensitive” as David J. Skal reports in his indispensable book on the history of horror The Monster Show. Skal also discusses the reaction of Montague Addison, “a tattooed dwarf” and sideshow performer who in 1971 said, “while pretending sympathy and understanding for a defenseless minority group, Freaks actually exploits and degrades us in a manner that is hokey as well as offensive.”
To this day, Freaks continues to be debated. As with most films, much of what we get out of it is what we bring to it through personal experiences, beliefs, and attitudes. Whether the film is empathy or exploitation is left up to us, the viewers, to decide. That any film continues to have the power to provoke after ninety years is something of a miracle. It also shows that as much as the world changes, there are still core issues we continue to struggle with. All that said, and not to sound hokey or sentimental, maybe the ultimate lesson is simple: be kind. Treat your fellow humans as you would like to be treated. To sit at the table together and say “gooble gobble, one of us, we accept you” simply for being part of the community of humanity.
At its core, maybe that is the one thing we should all take with us from Freaks.
In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.