Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Freaks.

criterion logo“We accept you, one of us.  Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble.” This is the chant of Freaks, director Tod Browning’s bizarre morality play of betrayal and retribution in a circus sideshow.  In this Pre-Code masterpiece, an evil trapeze artist seduces and marries a small-statured performer in hopes of murdering him and inheriting his secret fortune.  Her plot raises the ire of the other sideshow members and the “Code of the Freaks” demands a harsh and terrible punishment for this “peacock of the air.”  Browning, a former circus contortionist, shocked audiences and his studio by bringing true circus freaks to the silver screen (including a legless boy, a human torso, Siamese twins, a human skeleton, a pair of armless women, and microcephalics – called “pinheads” in the film), and in doing so Browning created a film that effectively ended his career but became a cult classic decades later.

Disc Features:

  • High definition digital transfer with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Audio commentary by Browning biographer David J. Skal
  • Freaks: Sideshow Spectacle, a documentary on sideshow performers appearing in the film
  • 3 alternate endings
  • Special Message prologue added for the film’s theatrical re-issue
  • Kim Newman on the banning of Freaks in the UK for 31 years
  • Photo gallery of production and publicity stills
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring new essays by scholar David Church and director Rona Mark, the original short story “Spurs” that inspired the film, and a script synopsis from the MGM archives

A few months ago, while listening to a Criterion Close-Up podcast, we noted Mark Hurne and Aaron West’s observation that a recent deal between Criterion and Warner gave the Collection access to various films including some Pre-Code titles.  The news immediately brought to mind Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), MGM’s notoriously controversial sideshow horror-melodrama.  Freaks currently has a decent DVD edition that is released by Warner and offers a solid array of special features, but this cinematic treasure, once reviled and now archived by the National Film Registry as an example of America’s film heritage, would really benefit from the hi-def, Criterion treatment.  And so, just in time for Halloween, MMC! casts its discerning gaze to a film deserving of the wackiest of “Cs” … perhaps even a freaky “C.”

Plot summaries of Freaks abound online and so we’ll keep things short here.  Hans (Harry Earles) is a well-mannered and honourable little person who works in the sideshow of a traveling circus.  He is engaged to another little person performer, Frieda (Daisy Earles, Harry’s sister), but he is besotted with a big-woman trapeze artist called Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova).  Once Cleopatra discovers Hans is a wealthy man with a large inheritance, she connives her lover, circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), to assist her in seducing Hans into marriage and then murdering him.  She succeeds in her marriage plot, but her revulsion to Hans and the various other sideshow freaks causes her lose her composure, drunkenly rebuking them during the wedding banquet as “dirty, slimy freaks!”  Cleopatra and Hercules’ plan to poison Hans is ultimately uncovered and, on a dark and rainy night, the freaks have their revenge, killing the strongman and mutilating Cleopatra into a freak herself, a hideous duck-woman.

The notorious history of Freaks is well-documented.  Tod Browning had previously made his directorial reputation working with Lon Chaney in fearsome examples of what is now called “disability cinema,” with Chaney binding his legs back to play a double-amputee mobster in The Penalty (1920) or becoming as adept with his feet as he is with his hands in order to play an armless knife-thrower in The Unknown (1927).  Browning had found great success at Universal with Dracula (1931) and MGM was only too happy to have the director provide it with a Dracula-like hit of its own, however Browning, himself a former circus performer, wished to set his next project in a circus sideshow cast with actual human oddities.  MGM’s production supervisor Irving Thalberg (who championed Browning’s work while at Universal) had faith that Browning could find the film’s humanity, but his support was a rare commodity within the studio.  Myrna Loy cried and pleaded to not be cast in the film, studio head Louis B. Mayer tried to shut the production down upon seeing Browning’s sideshow discoveries, and stars and staff at MGM forced arrangements for separate dining quarters from the studio cafeteria to keep the film’s “freakier” cast members from upsetting their meals.

It is possible that the usual accounts of Freaks‘s disastrous release may overstate the true event, preferring to make a misunderstood martyr of Browning and his film.  The 1932 preview screening in San Diego is generally reported to have been a disaster, seeing audience members run from the theatre and one woman even threaten legal action over an alleged miscarriage caused by the film.  The catastrophe moved Thalberg to cut a half hour from the film (excising various sequences including the mutilation and castration of Hercules by the freaks and suggestions that a romance between a circus clown (Wallace Ford) and a seal trainer (Leila Hyams) was complicated by her nymphomania and his impotence), and he inserted an epilogue reuniting Hans and Frieda so as to provide a happier ending.  Some accounts, however, indicate that the unedited version of Freaks continued to play at San Diego’s Fox Theatre (the uncut version’s only theatrical release) to long line-ups and house records.  Likewise, while the film was outright banned in Great Britain (for 30 years), failed to find a venue in San Francisco and other American cities, and showed poorly in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago; it played to sold out crowds in Minneapolis-St.Paul, Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston, and Omaha.  The release of Freaks, in fact, was far more of a mixed bag than its legend would suggest, but the film nevertheless lost money, and with the studio already hostile to the project, Browning’s career essentially came to an end along with this highly unusual film.

Returning to Freaks for this post and reading the many articles that discuss Browning’s ambivalent treatment of the freaks in his film, I recalled a line from Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979).  Bebra, an aging little person working in a circus, remarks to Oskar, another little person and the film’s principal character, “Our kind must never sit in the audience.  Our kind must perform and run the show, or the others will run us.”  Bebra suggests that performance, particularly the act of making a spectacle of oneself, is a form of empowerment, one that resists subjugation by controlling the context for objectification.  Perhaps expressed in more practical terms, many of the talking heads in the Freaks: Sideshow Spectacle documentary emphasize the positive role of the circus on the lives of its freaks, providing them with a forum that might otherwise have been denied to them by their physical and mental differences, giving them gainful employment, personal relationships, families, and a sense of self-respect.

Browning seems intent in the first half of Freaks to celebrate the oddity of the sideshow performers while also casting them in a humane light.  Everyday joys and troubles are experienced by the freaks – babies are born and collections are organized, marriages are maintained and in-laws are suffered with, love swoons and fidelity is tested.  At the same time, the talents of the freaks are put on casual display to awe and impress – Prince Randian, the human torso, lights his own cigarette; Frances O’Connor, an armless wonder, sips from a beer held between her toes; Daisy Hilton savours a kiss received by her conjoined sister Violet.  The fairgrounds were forums for the differently abled to be stars, to find peers, and potentially achieve self-sufficiency, and there a sense in these early passages that Browning is expanding the carnivalesque acceptance of the big top through the mechanism of the cinema, using the magic and unreality of the movies to bring further exposure to these marginalized performers.  Browning tantalizes with spectacle just like the carnival barkers that induced onlookers into sideshow tents to view the strange sights contained therein, then seems to hope that the familiar acts and sympathetic views of the freaks would inspire sympathy and understanding.

In the second half of Freaks, when Cleopatra’s plot is revealed, Browning makes his sideshow performers monstrous, having them skulk beneath carnival wagons, brandish switch knives, and wallow through the mud as they stalk Cleopatra.  Film and disability scholars express reservations about this latter portion of the film, suggesting that Browning gives away the humanity developed in the earlier half in favour of expected stereotypes.  It is clear that the humanity suggested in the earlier part, sometimes expressed in his freaks as childlike naiveté (a choice by Browning that is actually more problematic than the violence he depicts later), is replaced with an obvious willingness by the filmmaker to exploit the Otherness of these unusual characters to make them appear fearsome.  Browning understood the complex role of freakshow performers, one that involved constructed, performed, and natural identities.  He seems to have been willing to represent in Freaks all of these facets, understanding that the security of these characters depends on this complicated network of traits.  The gruesome revenge inflicted on Cleopatra necessitates the foregrounding of the freaks’ monstrous qualities, turning against her the physical differences that the trapeze artist previously mocked and dominated, thereby creating a context where her fate is one of poetic justice.  It is in their performance as vengeful monsters that the freaks protect themselves, using the “Code of the Freaks” and their ostracized forms as a means to elevate themselves from bystanders to defenders.  Browning’s resolution through frontier justice is not a betrayal of the freaks’ humanity, but a defence of their complexity through the performed menace that individuals like Cleopatra and Hercules attempt to abject.  In short, the horror of the freaks’ concluding violence is not some unmindful barbarity, but an ironic reversal of the abuse inflicted upon them and returned as punishment to their tormentors.

Freaks had to wait quite a while to eventually find its audience and become recognized as the special film that it is.  The movie was often subject to bans, most notably in the UK where the British Board of Film Classification twice rejected it, eventually allowing its release in 1963 with an X certificate.  Following WWII, MGM sold the rights to Dwain Esper who ponied the film around the exploitation circuits under the title Forbidden Love and sometimes pairing Freaks with footage of nudist camps.  Browning’s film finally began garnering respect in 1962 when Freaks was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, and by the 1970s and ’80s it was a popular midnight movie.  Most importantly, the film became embraced by all manner of marginalized groups that sought social acceptance in those later decades, turning the term “freak” into a self-identifier and a rallying cry.  The Ramones’ trademark catchphrase “Gabba Gabba Hey!” was adapted from the Freaks‘ “gooble-gobble” chant; the punk movement identifying with the outsider status of the film’s sideshow personalities.

Freaks seems to still remain something of a film maudit.  It’s had VHS releases and then a slow-to-arrive DVD that remains in print and has some quite good special features.  Still, there is a sense that the film’s current rights-holder, Warner, feels some of the same uneasiness with the title that has always followed Freaks.  Browning’s film is a near singular work, having achieved both high- and low-brow acclaim, and it deserves a Blu-ray version that properly reveres this extremely usual work of horror/comedy/melodrama.  With a Warner-Criterion deal in place and a selection of Pre-Code title slated for spine numbers, we can only hope that the Collection will get freaky, will get its freak on, will bring Freaks to hi-def, hard media and save us all from more of my wordplay.

Rich Trask Agents of SHIELDWe’d like to see illustrator Rich Trask bring his unique style of caricature to a cover treatment for Freaks.  Trask’s style strongly evokes Jack Kirby filtered through the pens of Eric Powell, Troy Nixey, and Darwyn Cooke (on a more grotesque day).  His old-school aesthetic would connect well with Freaks‘ place within classic Hollywood cinema, and his distorted portraiture would find kinship with the unusual shapes and details of the film’s sideshow performers.  As an example, we provide Trask’s gallery of the re-imagined Agents of SHIELD prepared for The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Redux Edition blog.  Trask could do wonderful things with Johnny Eck, the half boy; Josephine Joseph, the half woman-half man; the human skeleton, Peter Robinson; Koo Koo, the bird girl; Olga Roderick, the bearded woman; the armless Martha Morris; little person Angelo Rossitto, Elizabeth Green, the Stork Woman; and the adorable pinheads played by Elvira Snow, Jenny Lee Snow, and the irrepressible Schlitzie.  Now that’s a cast!

Credits:  We were greatly torn over imagining that the 90-minute original cut of Freaks was rediscovered and could be included, but we chose to be more grounded and still treat the full version and its cut footage as lost.  Our cover summary is a heavily amended merger of the Warner DVD’s back cover synopsis and a Time Out summary.  The audio commentary, the documentary, the alternate endings, and the Special Message are all extra features included on the Warner DVD.  The feature on Freaks‘ multiple failures before the BBFC was inspired by this case study, and we naturally chose horror film scholar, talented author, and all-around snappy dresser Kim Newman for that discussion.  The script synopsis, short story, and stills gallery are all taken from the Olga Baclanova website, which proves a very good resource for those interested in the “Russian tigress” and Freaks.  We chose David Church to contribute an essay as he has dealt with Freaks on various occasions in his work in disability studies, and selected filmmaker Rona Mark for her unparalleled admiration of how Browning’s horror film “taps into people’s fear of difference, fear of other people, and fear of sexual humiliation.”

Those looking for a more in depth discussion of the production and release of Freaks should consult TCM’s articles on the film.  The Cinema of Tod Browning: Essays of the Macabre and the Grotesque, edited by Berndt Herzogenrath, is an interesting resource for those aiming for a more theoretical and psychoanalytical treatment Freaks.  Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, edited by Rosemarie Garland Thomson, offer a broader academic survey of “freaks” and “enfreakment,” containing a wide historical view of the sideshow and including an essay on Browning’s movie by Joan Hawkins’ “‘One of Us’: Tod Browning’s Freaks.”

And so concludes our Halloween post for this year.  Have a spooky time tomorrow night!  See you in November with a new Drafthouse Films proposal!

5 thoughts on “Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)

  1. aaronwest November 1, 2015 / 3:01 pm

    Thanks for the shout out. I would love any pre-code, and this would be at the top of the list!

    • spinenumbered November 1, 2015 / 5:34 pm

      Thanks! Maybe it’s strange but the “News” portion of the podcast is my favourite. If time is limited, it’s the part I always make sure to listen to.

  2. Dan O'Hara July 13, 2016 / 7:36 pm

    One more addition I would love to see:

    An interview with Gilbert Gottfried.

    • spinenumbered July 13, 2016 / 7:41 pm

      A great suggestion!

      You made me look it up. I had no idea Gottfried programmed it on TCM, along with Of Mice and Men, The Swimmer, and The Conversation no less! I get the feeling Gilbert and I could be great movie buddies!

      • Dan O'Hara July 13, 2016 / 7:45 pm

        If Criterion ever releases Of Mice and Men, he needs to interviewed. He’s the biggest Lon Chaney Jr. fan out there.

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