Turner Classic Movies, that commercial-free bastion of classic films and thoughtful commentaries, recently showed Tod Browning’s 1932 film “Freaks,” much to my delight—and bewilderment.
”Freaks,” enthusiastically marketed as horror, is a singular and unusual film made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) one year after the release of Universal Studio’s horror film “Dracula” (1931), also directed by Browning and starring an unknown Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi. Universal had been in the business of creating memorable monsters since 1920, often using the transformative talents of Lon Chaney, perhaps most memorably in the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923). The public sympathized with Chaney’s marginalized creatures, just one factor among several that made the horror genre so lucrative for the studio. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had only dabbled in the horror genre starting in the late 1920s, but it was better known for “Broadway Melody of 1929,” several Hollywood revues, and “Anna Christie” (1930). And, like other studios during the pre-code era, MGM also covered stories of Jazz Age excesses, hardships and tragedies shoveled atop the underclass at the hands of corrupt capitalists during the Great Depression, divorce, independent working women who indulged their sexual appetites, and adultery committed by both husbands and wives. Amidst these realistic, socially conscious themes, horror found its place—and not without its social allegories.
But “Freaks” is not a horror film--at least, not for me, and this is the top layer of my bewilderment. It is a love story, a pre-code melodrama, about the romantic trials and tribulations of its primary and secondary characters, most of whom are the disabled people who perform in a circus sideshow. But here’s the twist: The disabled characters are portrayed by non-professional actors with real-life disabilities. Why MGM would agree to fund such an outré phenomenon is the second layer of my bewilderment.
Easier to comprehend is that Browning had the ear of MGM that year, having recently scored a hit with “Dracula” (1931). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Vice President Irving Thalberg had made a string of horror hits in the 1920s while at Universal. Though he was known to be a risk-taker and visionary, even a humanist, this project would be a big gamble. Browning, who had worked the carnival circuit as a barker and Ringling Brothers circus clown during the years before he began his silent film career, might have used his carnival talker skills to persuade Thalberg to great effect. But perhaps Thalberg didn’t need much persuading. That same year, the studio had also made “Grand Hotel" (1932), a multi-star-studded box office hit and Oscar winner for Best Picture. With similar big money-makers funding less profitable projects in the past, Thalberg was already on record as having said: “. . . MGM can afford an occasional experiment.” Controversial subject matter had usually comprised the experiments, but casting choices had always depended upon which bankable stars in the studio stables would sell the most tickets.
Browning’s unprecedented casting choices for “Freaks” did not wholly stem from his appreciation and compassion for the lives of circus people. He had entered into a long and fruitful association with Lon Chaney to make the bulk of his horror films, cashing in on Chaney’s uncanny skill at playing fringe-dwelling tragic figures who were armless or legless, deformed and abused, and who suffered from unrequited love, ultimately dying in a violently mad act of self sacrifice and grief. Chaney’s ability to win the sympathy of the audience despite his repulsive deformities was key to the appeal of an otherwise visually off-putting genre, a far cry from the beauty ideal of the Ziegfeld Follies or the gritty sex appeal of a Paul Muni crime drama. But Chaney was, in real life, a healthy, whole person, a fact known to his audiences. The reason why Browning did not use Chaney in “Freaks” was the result of yet another fact of life, one as inevitable and irreversible as the endings of his movies. Chaney died of lung cancer in 1930.
But Browning’s last MGM film to star Chaney, the 1930 remake of “Unholy Three,” had provided a link to his latest project. The three principals were a ventriloquist (played by Chaney), Hercules the Strongman, and a malevolent 20-inch tall midget called Tweedledee who kicks a baby while at the circus, causing them all to flee from the police. Harry Earles, the actor who portrayed Tweedledee, would go on to play the lead of sorts in “Freaks.” His good fortune in this casting decision might simply have been the result of attrition. Had Chaney lived, he most likely would have had the lead.
Chaney’s demise may well have influenced Browning to adapt Tod Robbins’ screenplay for “Freaks” as he did, without a star in a lead role; it is an ensemble film that follows the romantic relationships of several carnival performers. But it also touches on other relationships that have grown within that insulated environment, not only in a way circus people have traditionally enjoyed and still enjoy today, but also as a consequence of able-bodied performers looking after the more vulnerable disabled ones in a place far away from a mainstream society that would have swiftly locked them away.
And so we come to the extraordinary people who were cast in this feature, whose real lives must have been as compelling as those of the characters they played. Harry and Daisy Earles, who were real-life brother and sister as well as seasoned circus entertainers, take center stage as Hans and Frieda, a midget couple in love—until Hans is distracted by the flirtations of the exotic, able-bodied Cleopatra, a trapeze artist. Conjoined twin Daisy Hilton, who is being romanced by the circus owner, is joined at the hip with her sister Violet, who is married to a clown. Three microcephalics who appear in the film (colloquially called "pinheads") were sisters Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow, and Schlitzy, a male who prefers to wear a dress. Rounding out the featured characters are a legless man, the completely limbless Prince Randian (also known as “The Human Torso”), and The Bird Girl, who suffers from bird-headed dwarfism.
Such descriptions might suggest that the mere appearance of these people on screen would be an exploitative and grotesque pageant of deformities meant to shock and repulse the audience. In fact, Browning not only films the main plot—the evil deeds of the greedy and corrupt Cleopatra who marries Hans for his fortune and then plots to kill him--but also interjects vignettes of the characters’ lives off stage as they hang laundry and gab, commiserate over a drink and a cigarette—here, the Human Torso is filmed rolling his own cigarette, lighting and then smoking it, all the while chatting casually with a friend—and my favorite scene: Madame Tetrallini walking through the woods with her charges, the three pinheads, and their encounter with a stranger who lives near the circus encampment.
This vignette is most resonant and poignant for me for several reasons. Browning wrote and filmed it with great tenderness. The pastoral scene was shot on a bright, sunny day. Birds are singing and a gentle breeze rocks the leaves and branches. Madame Tetrallini, a middle-aged woman who tends to the pinheads, leads them on a walk through the woods and out onto a grassy knoll overlooking a large farm. She gathers the three around her like a mother hen with her chicks. The pinheads are child-like, good-natured creatures that caress Madame’s cheek and hold onto her skirts, hands, and neck. They clearly feel safe with her and love her, and it is clear that she loves them all in return. When they meet a man on the path from a neighboring estate, he is polite and cordial, but Madame seems to sense what he is thinking.
Madame launches into a loving soliloquy about how her three charges are like children, her children, everyone’s children, and we should all look after the children. The pinheads smile up at her and touch her face, hugging her and kissing her cheeks. Visibly moved by Madame’s impassioned speech, the stranger bids a kind farewell to Madame, acknowledging the pinheads as her children and they part company.
This scene is reminiscent of the segment in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol where the Ghost of Christmas Present produces two ragged children from under his robe and shows them to Scrooge, telling him: "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased." This refers to the cycle of poverty in Victorian London, where ignorance grows up to breed more impoverished children, so beware the boy (Ignorance) in particular. Dickens was a supporter of free public education for the needy, an ideal that promised to break the cycle of poverty. Browning, whose circus experience had instilled in him a deep compassion for fringe-dwelling disabled sideshow performers, most certainly presented this gentle vignette not only as his own soapbox for an impassioned plea to the ignorant public not to fear people who are different—but also as a challenge to embrace these misshapen creatures as they would their own children.
On its face, this vignette seemed an incongruous insertion in a film that, a few more minutes into the story, would go on to depict some of the other characters in a Russian Absurdist, grotesque manner. But it was not gratuitous. The night that Cleopatra marries Hans, the deformed performers drink a toast to Cleo and ceremoniously proclaim that she is one of them, dancing a rite of initiation and inviting her to join in. Horrified and disgusted, she screams her true opinion of them as repulsive, inferior creatures. She then starts kissing her lover, the able-bodied Hercules within full view of her new husband, Hans, humiliating him. At this point, character is on the table in full revelation; the disabled performers are kind, compassionate, gentle people who help each other. Cleo and Hercules are the real freaks, grotesque and corrupt. And, as we will soon see, sorely outnumbered.
Cleopatra and Hercules are overheard discussing their plot to poison Hans and make off with his inheritance, and a plan is made among the good folk to thwart them. The climactic scene contains the only horror element I could find. While Cleo and Hercules tend to the ailing Hans in his wagon, the armless, legless, dwarfed compatriots crawl along the ground beneath the wagon holding knives in their teeth, making ready to pounce on the two conspirators as soon as they leave the wagon.
It is here that Browning shifts perspective. Up until this moment, Browning had shot the scenes in documentary style with conventional camera angles. Now that Cleopatra and Hercules know that they are being hunted, they gaze, terrified, at their pursuers before breaking into a run. Clearly influenced by German Expressionist silent film director F. W. Murnau, Browning now switches to low angle camera shots that follow the knife-wielding freaks along the ground, their faces contorted with murderous hatred. Now the freaks look truly terrifying—but that is only because Browning is shooting the scene from the conspiratorial lovers’ point of view.
What happens to them has been largely cut from the final print. Hercules is castrated and killed, and Cleopatra is tarred and feathered before being disfigured and mauled. A raving lunatic, she is put on display in a sideshow as the Human Duck, a quacking feathered torso with duck-like feet. The only portion that made it into the final cut was of Cleopatra’s fate as a sideshow freak—a violent initiation into the club that had invited her to join them on her wedding night.
For me, the horror element of “Freaks” lies only in the revenge fantasy aspect of the final scenes. But “Freaks” is so much more than that. Billed as a horror film, it was about much more than it needed to be about. It failed miserably at the box office simply because audiences in 1932 were repulsed by and offended at the sight of actual sideshow freaks. The social themes were lost on them, they were not entertained, and MGM lost money on the project. Browning’s career suffered irrevocably from this failure. The cast went back to their careers as carnival sideshow attractions.
Happily, the AFI preserved and restored this film, labeling it culturally or aesthetically significant. What was called a horror film then might some day be considered a story about the empowerment of the disabled to overcome prejudice and exploitation.