Sunday, March 28, 2010

Freaks (1932): Sex and the single freak

It irks me that Freaks, Tod Browning's notorious 1932 movie starring real-life, honest-to-Barnum sideshow grotesques, is still often classified as a horror movie. Worse, it sometimes gets lumped under the Monster Movie category as a late-night Halloween programmer. Okay, sure, Freaks is one of the most bizarre and unforgettable films to come out of a major Hollywood studio. You can rightly note that its blunt imagery and dime-novel revenge narrative (heaven knows it isn't what you'd call artful) include elements of the horrific, but that's a different thing altogether.

While Freaks is now honored in the U.S. National Film Registry archive, its volatile reception and subsequent near-burial kept it underground for decades. In the U.S., civic groups attacked it as an example of Hollywood's depravity. England banned it altogether for thirty years. MGM's Louis B. Mayer removed his famous logo from all prints and the studio did its best to disown the film. It was savaged by shocked critics and, reportedly, audience members ran from the preview theaters screaming. It comes as no surprise that it deep-sixed Browning's career.

Nonetheless, I'm fully on board with critic Andrew Sarris' assessment that Freaks is "one of the most compassionate films ever made." Is it a love story? A drama about a family coming together to protect its own? A social commentary? It doesn't aim for or strike any of those targets precisely, but it is not a horror movie or a creature feature.

So, what was it, really, about Freaks that sent moviegoers so bugfuck in 1932?

Browning, who helped ignite the Universal horror-film craze by directing 1931's Dracula, had been hired by Irving Thalberg at glamour-house MGM to make a film even more horrifying. He succeeded, though not in ways that would be appreciated for more than a generation.

Does its impact come just from, as horror author Stephen King and others have said, Browning going too far in casting his B-movie melodrama with authentic oddities such as Johnny Eck (whose body cuts off at the ribcage), Prince Randian (born armless and legless, he ambulates by wriggling like a caterpillar), and an entire family of pinheads?

Or is there something more shrewd in Freaks that tendrils into our brain's lizard-level?

The part of Freaks that gets under our skin isn't the plot, which fits on a Post-It Note. In a traveling circus, the statuesque trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), conspires with her lover, the thuggish strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), to marry lovelorn midget Hans (Harry Earles). Their goal: to murder Hans slowly with poison and steal his family fortune. Hans' fellow freaks, bonded in their "offend one of us, offend all of us" credo, take ghastly revenge on the would-be killers.

Browning aligns us with two kindly "normal" performers, lovely Venus (Leila Hyams) and the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford), who treat the the freaks humanely as friends, colleagues, and kindred spirits. There's also Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione), who defends her "children" against a local who cries "monsters!" when he finds them playing in the woods.

When Tod Browning was 16, he lived the vintage paperback dream of running away from home to join a circus. He traveled with carnivals and sideshows, and even had a sideshow act himself in which he was "buried alive" as "The Living Corpse." For a while he was a clown with Ringling Brothers. So by the time he landed in Hollywood (acting in shorts for D.W. Griffith, whom he'd met in New York) he knew first-hand about circuses and the folk who inhabit them. He had known them professionally and, one presumes, personally.

The film's most well-known scene arrives when the outcasts offer to accept Hans' new bride with a wedding celebration and a passed-around goblet of wine. Their ritualistic chant — "Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, one of us, one of us" — is both moving and deeply creepy. When the sacramental goblet reaches her, Cleopatra can't contain her revulsion. "Dirty, slimy freaks!" she screams, then humiliates tiny Hans in front of his peers with the strongman. Her fate is sealed.

And thus follows the second most familiar, and the most controversial, scene. It's a climax that plays on our primordial fears of the Other, especially an Other that's armed and crawling, slithering, sloshing through rain and mud beneath circus wagons on a storm-wracked night. As for its denouement, let's just say that Cleopatra gets the literal "one of us" treatment from her less comely co-workers.

So disturbing was that original sequence that much of it is now lost, having been cut soon after the movie's unhappy initial screenings. Also lost is the intended fate of the villainous Hercules — castration was a revenge so harrowing to Browning's studio bosses that they refused to sanction it. It didn't take long before the studio pared down Freaks from 90 minutes to its current 64.

That climax and macabre aftermath are enough to make Freaks a visceral experience. But our sensitivities are already discomfited before those moments. In his unadorned, plain-speaking directing, Browning implanted in our craniums more than just startling images of misshapen bodies.

Thalberg, who championed Freaks as important, may have put his finger on more than a lurid ad campaign when he re-released it with poster taglines such as Do Siamese Twins Make Love? and What Sex is the Half-Man-Half-Woman? According to, one of Freaks' informal titles was Forbidden Love. Browning, in showing the freaks as sympathetic people rather than inhuman monstrosities, dared to show the naked truth that they enjoy the same things we do: respect, affection, companionship, humor — and sex.  

There's the proverbial elephant man in the living room no one talks about. The Human Skeleton is at the Bearded Lady's side when she delivers their baby girl. (Peter Robinson, a.k.a. the Human Skeleton, had already been married for ten years to Baby Bunny Smith, a sideshow entertainer whose 467 pounds more than compensated for Robinson's 58.) Our prurient imaginations stumble at the geek-love realities of "Half Boy" Johnny Eck, whose face is movie-star handsome, or sausage-like Prince Randian, who rolls and lights a cigarette with only his mouth, and who in real life was a husband and father. Daisy and Violet Hilton, pretty Siamese Twins conjoined at the hip, are each courted separately; Violet is engaged to be married, and already-married Daisy smiles blissfully as she feels the kiss Violet receives from the fiancé. Consider the wedding-night implications of that for a moment.

Face it, the movie says to us without underlining the obvious or stabbing it with exclamation points, these freaks are loving each other, having good times, enjoying their friends and families ... dude, they're even fucking with their dicks and vaginas

No judgment, no snark, no pointing at it and giggling "ew, gross," no moralizing message that there's anything "deviant" going on here. Indeed, the only sexual unseemliness — casual bedhopping for the fun of it — involves the outwardly non-freakish Cleopatra and Hercules.

Courtesy Greenbriar Picture Shows
I have no idea whether Browning was knowingly, forthrightly bold and forward-looking, or had any notions of waving a humanist banner like a matador flapping his red cloak at a whole herd of easily startled bulls. But what MGM, the censors, and the public found repulsive looks pretty clear to me: It wasn't merely Browning's documentary-like real abnormal faces and bodies. It's the way he makes us look unblinking at these malformed individuals to see the common humanity we share with them, and they with us. They aren't monsters, Browning reveals with a subtlety that's hypodermic — they're us. Conversely, we are them, in all our fundamental qualities. When the sweet-natured pinhead Schlitzie or meatloafy Randian are on the screen, Freaks holds up, in a benign rather than entirely exploitative embrace of Hamlet's exhortation to the Players, a mirror to nature; that is, to us in the audience.

Whether we like it or not, Freaks drills into our hindbrain and jolts our atavistic response to the not-normal, then forces us to confront our prejudices and feel something — revulsion, compassion, or surprise at the realization that those aren't mutually exclusive responses. Watching Freaks is a two-way communication. It's disturbing not just because of what's in it, but also because of what we bring to it.

(Imagine if Avatar's supposedly non-human Na'vi had been designed to be this physically alien — which biologically really isn't alien at all — rather than as automatically sympathetic by deploying the strategically manipulative tropes of Disney/cartoon visual signifiers of human beauty. Would Avatar's love story have found the receptive audience that it did? Unlikely, at least not without a whole lot more work from other parts of Cameron's blockbuster.)

(I wonder too if Freaks presents an example of the "Uncanny Valley" effect at work, but that moves us into a level of rarefied pondering that's best left for a more academic-feeling morning.)

After an art-house and "midnight movie" revival in the 1960s, Freaks appeared on VHS with poor picture and sound quality. Nowadays you can find this pop-cult touchstone restored on a first-rate DVD edition from Warner.

The vivid, clean print shows only minor wear. Its definition and black-and-white contrast are terrific. (The exception, restored from a dupey source, is the rarely-seen "happy ending" epilogue with Hans visited by his steadfast midget love, Frieda, with Venus and Phroso in Hans' mansion.) The sole audio option, Dolby 1.0 mono, is quite good for this vintage.

The disc's extras offer everything you've always wanted to know about Freaks but were too weirded out to ask. Detailing the production history in authoritative detail is a commentary track by David Skal, author of Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning.

Skal returns, with sideshow historians and performers, in Freaks: Sideshow Cinema. This thorough, hour-long documentary includes generous segments on each of Freaks' titular personalities (such as the Prince Randian clip a few paragraphs up), discussing their offscreen lives, experiences during production, and feelings about the film.

Also here is the sermonic "Special Message" prologue added for Thalberg's re-release. Three "alternate endings" are just recut versions of the epilogue, though they come with Skal's welcome narration.

Music: Melody Gardot, "My One and Only Thrill"
Near at hand: Coffee in a Seurat mug, a bit too heavy on the vanilla flavoring.
(Parts of this post originally appeared at