Tod Browning’s 1932 film FREAKS is perhaps one of the most notorious and controversial films ever made. Released and then disowned by MGM Studios, it’s known for having been banned in parts of the United States as well as in the UK for many years, and for all-but-destroying the career of its director, Tod Browning. About a third of the film was reportedly censored following initial screenings, and the deleted footage now appears to be lost. Fans and critics still debate the film’s merits, too. Though it was chosen for inclusion in the National Film Registry in 1994 and is considered by many to be a classic, Freaks still makes people uncomfortable. Is it art or exploitation? I would argue that it’s a bit of both, but also that art wins out in the end.
On the exploitation side of things, it could certainly be argued that the film invites audiences to gawk at, and eventually fear, the so-called “freaks” of the title, many of them real-life vaudevillians and sideshow performers like conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, and “Half Boy” Johnny Eck. For instance, Browning includes a lingering sequence of a man who was sometimes billed as the “Living Torso,” Prince Randian, who had no arms or legs, lighting his own cigarette, a flourish that imitates the act that Randian used to perform as one of PT Barnum’s attractions. Later Browning offers us the chilling image of Randian moving across the ground on his belly with a knife clenched between his teeth. These moments invite us to gaze at Randian in either fascination or terror, and could be said to support or contribute to our society’s still-present biases toward people who look unusual or live unconventionally.
Yet Browning and his uncredited screenwriters offer frequent reminders of the sideshow performers’ humanity. Though Olga Roderick, a real-life “bearded lady,” eventually said she regretted appearing in the film, the scene where her character has just given birth and her colleagues gather to congratulate her underscores the kindness and community shared by the supposed “freaks.” There is also a well-known scene where maternal circus caretaker Madame Tetrallini reminds some onlookers (and the audience) that many of the performers are “children” who want to play and to feel the sun on their faces, and while her comments perhaps worryingly infantilize the performers who are not children, the scene is still first and foremost a call for compassion and understanding. Perhaps most obviously, the story’s central romance between two little people, Hans and Frieda (played by real-life brother and sister Harry and Daisy Earles), is presented with sincerity and particular sympathy for Frieda, who Hans jilts in favor of a cruel and manipulative circus aerialist named Cleopatra.
Indeed, the nastiest characters in the film are the tall and conventionally attractive Cleopatra and her brutish boyfriend Hercules, the circus strongman. Both look more like typical MGM movie stars than most of the rest of the cast (and indeed, it’s been said that Browning originally wanted Myrna Loy as Cleopatra), but here they are one-dimensional villains with whom few audience members would choose to identify. FREAKS seeks to unseat its audience’s expectations and challenge their biases in ways that are most daring for a major studio film released in an era where Hollywood was more or less synonymous with a very specific vision of attractiveness and glamour.
One gets an even stronger sense of Browning’s likely motivations and intentions with Freaks when reading the source material for the film, author Tod Robbins’ strange and brutal short story “Spurs.” While FREAKS pits a community of likable and unfairly persecuted sideshow performers against two mean and ultimately murderous outsiders, “Spurs” presents all of its characters as monstrous and selfish. In both stories, a tall and conventionally attractive woman marries a man with dwarfism strictly for his money. But while the wedding scene in “Spurs” descends into a surreal fight between various circus performers over who is the most popular among audiences (“Every freak’s hands, feet, and teeth were turned against the others,” Robbins writes.), the infamous wedding feast in FREAKS crystallizes the sense of community amongst the sideshow performers and the cruelty and prejudice of Cleopatra. Chanting, “We accept her! One of us!” the so-called “freaks” offer Cleopatra a sip from a communal “loving cup,” which she swats away after a chilling shout of, “You dirty, slimy freaks! Freaks! Freaks!” Where Robbins’ story goes for broad comedy, Browning’s more sensitive adaptation finds something pointed and tragic instead.
While FREAKS is not beyond reproach when it comes to issues of exploitation, one can’t help but imagine that many of the audience members who were horrified or offended by the picture during its initial release reacted so violently to it because of their own prejudices or preconceptions rather than the content of its storyline. Disheartening behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the film’s cast members being banned from the MGM commissary due to complaints from other actors become even more haunting when one considers that Browning’s film was released just before Hitler rose to power in Germany. As film historian David J. Skal soberingly notes on a DVD commentary track for FREAKS, the film’s stars Harry and Daisy Earles would have been likely targets for the Nazis had they remained in Germany, the country of their birth. Browning’s film powerfully grapples with the cruelty that human beings are capable of inflicting when they fail to recognize someone else’s humanity. That, rather than sensational exploitation, is why it continues to endure.