After the success of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, Tod Browning’s next movie Freaks became an infamous and controversial cult classic. The story of Freaks is based on the short fiction Spurs by Tod Robbins (The short story can be read over here). In brief, Browning’s Freaks tells the story about exploitation and revenge. The circus artist Hans (Harry Earles) with dwarfism has a crush on the average sized trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Cleopatra, however, is only interested in Hans because of his large inheritance. Throughout the movie Cleopatra exploits Hans’ interest in her while having an affair with Hercules (Henry Victor), the average sized strongman. At Cleopatra’s and Hans’ wedding party, infamous on its own, drunk Cleopatra reveals her true motivations and her true feelings about the freaks. What follows is revenge and the mutilation of Cleopatra by the freaks.
The infamous wedding banquet
One of the aspects that makes Freaks so interesting, and is the cause of the ongoing controversy, is the cast. In contrast to many movies, whether back then or even today, Browning cast real life ‘freaks’. In other words, actual sideshow performer with disabilities, such as Johnny Eck, Prince Randian or Harry Earles, were cast. In 1932, the audience was, apparently, shocked by these real-life freaks causing a loss of $164,000. Freaks was so controversial, it was banned in several countries (You can read a review of Freaks from 1932 over here). In the UK alone, Freaks was banned for 30 years. Nowadays, the movie is considered to be a “masterpiece of baroque cinema” and “acknowledged as an important piece of film-making”. The controversy remains though.
While the mere appearance of freaks used to be the controversy, the portrayal of these freaks and the overall message of the film is nowadays the focus. Except for a few, barely any ‘freaks’ had a dialogue. Sometimes the speaking roles were limited only to just a few worlds (‘one of us’). Therefore, many freaks remained freak show attractions, with no other function than to shock. None, maybe except for Hans, are three dimensional characters. The big debate is whether the movie portrays these freaks in a positive or negative light. There are, of course, scenes giving an insight into the lives of these freaks off stage. One example is the scene were Prince Randian, the human torso, lights a cigarette. Depending on the point of view, one could see this scene as any other ordinary scene portraying a man lighting himself a cigarette, or as a scene where a sideshow performer is on display to shock audiences (as soon as Prince Randian begins to light the cigarette, the camera zooms in).
In her article “Teaching Tod Browning’s FREAKS”, Amanda Ann Klein gives an insight on how a young, contemporary audience perceives Freaks:
“…My students, however, were not horrified by [the movie]. They did not think Browning was exploiting his disabled actors by making them appear monstrous or threatening. Rather, many of them saw this scene as a celebration of diversity and a warm welcome to Cleopatra (who would reject that welcome moments later). The only monstrous characters in this scene, according to my students, are Hercules and Cleopatra…”.
I highly recommend Amanda Ann Klein’s article to understand why Freaks is still problematic.
Nevertheless, Freaks remains one of my all-time favourite films. Yes, the portrayal of these sideshow performers is problematic at times, but the movie gives a unique insight into a world almost gone. Sideshows, especially those with freaks, are dying out. The ‘golden age’ of sideshows is long gone and with it the life stories of their performers vanishes into oblivion. Even today, there are only very few films with a majority of disabled actors. The big blockbuster keep telling us that perfection seems to be the key to success. While the movie itself is no longer banned, the appearance of disability on the silver screen is still limited. The fact that Freaks remains this cinematic oddity only proves how little times have actually changed.