Freaks (1932, Tod Browning)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

The story goes that Irving Thalberg, MGM’s young mastermind producer, commissioned Tod Browning and a couple of writers to create the “ultimate horror film” in the early 1930s, following the massive success of Frankenstein and Browning’s own Dracula for Universal. Reportedly he was shaken and distressed by the script that Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon then turned in, a vicious, confrontational screed against prejudice centered around a travelling circus sideshow, but to his eternal credit he stood by Freaks throughout its production, despite demanding a somewhat lighter tone and relegating it to B-status (as evidenced by the lack of any major stars, though several were at one time associated with the project). While horrific test screenings forever compromised it, the reward is one of the most distinctive, beloved, beautiful and terrifying of all Hollywood films, a masterpiece that flies completely in the face of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s reputation as the studio built for staid, opulent narratives like Grand Hotel (made in the same year!). It doesn’t seem an accident that the film has now outlasted so many, perhaps most, of the entertainments once commonly associated with the grandest, glitziest studio of all.

We will never get to see Freaks as its creators intended. The original ninety-minute film has been lost for decades, its secrets permanently left to the imagination (though complete screenplays do survive); as disappointing as this is, it may add to the sense that the film is profoundly effective as a horror picture because it shows us just enough, and at just the right moments. A more fortuitous element to its continued relevance and ability to shock comes from its entrance into the world during the brief window between the introduction of sound and that of the Hays Code; it’s impossible to fathom its directness, violence and suggestiveness appearing a couple of years later, and the uncompromised nature of the remaining footage — as well as the air of mystery that comes from the knowledge of nearly a third of it being gone, and the urgent pacing it inherits by becoming a 64-minute film — results in a haunting, tormenting, challenging work like nothing else from the studio era.

Freaks‘ agelessness results not just from the atypical intrigue of its subject matter but from its status as almost a purely classical drama of jealousy and revenge, overrun with raw and unusually intimate emotion. Though the top-billed actors are Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams, playing a couple of nice but ordinary circus performers, they’re as incidental to the story as the young lovers are to any given Marx Brothers film. What’s really going on here is the one-sided love affair between a smitten little person, the secretly wealthy Hans (Harry Earles of the Doll Family, later a member of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz) and the mocking beauty Cleopatra, well-wrought by the smirking Olga Baclanova in one of her last film roles, who laughs behind the poor gentleman’s back while reaching for his inheritance along with her actual lover, the strong-man Hercules (Henry Victor). Not surprisingly, the two villains overshadow the two “regular” heroes of the cast, and Baclanova and Victor have a surprisingly robust, easy chemistry that would — in a lesser movie — make them the provocatively engaging primary attraction. But this is not an example of a movie in which we reserve some fascination or affection for the villains; the screenplay is so effective that the pair is made to seem both realistically drawn and convincingly evil, their cheerful bullying all too familiar, carefully justifying bit by bit the ultimate actions taken against them. Hans fails to heed the warnings of his friends and his former fiancée (portrayed by Harry’s sister Daisy, which lends an appropriately detached and somber quality to their scenes together, making it feel as though we’re seeing something we shouldn’t) about Cleopatra but quickly learns of her plans to poison him, and participates as the formerly open-armed band of sideshow “freaks” rally and ruin his new bride in the most horrific, completely appropriate fashion. (They mutilated Hercules in the original print as well, and the act itself survives, but we never see the results; perhaps this is a boon, since it allows us to imagine his current state is too terrible to be shown to us.) The shot of the stunted, destroyed Cleopatra — shown for a crowd of circus attendees to gawk at, a delicious final irony — only lasts a few seconds before the camera and/or editor seems to assume we can’t take anymore. It’s partially true; it truly is a sickening, magnificently disturbing image… but our pleasure in seeing Cleopatra in that state is so rich that we are left somehow wanting more, which in the end may be Freaks‘ greatest gift to us: the discovery of how much of a dark thirst for cathartic revenge lurks inside its viewers.

Despite the concessions he ultimately made to Thalberg and MGM, even before the many infamous cuts were made, there can be no mistaking that Browning is the operative voice behind this film, that he was the correct choice to make it, and that it’s the production he was born to bring to the world — even if his career never truly recovered from the commercial disaster and the blow to his reputation. Browning had come of age in circus environments, working for a time as a clown and a vaudeville performer prior to his coming to work for D.W. Griffith at Biograph. His sublime Lon Chaney vehicle The Unknown illustrated his sympathy for the sideshow outsider and his love of sheer unhinged grotesquerie, both prefiguring Freaks. But whereas The Unknown used the freakshow as a jumping-off point for a blunt foray into nightmare psychosis, hinging on the lust and deception of a phony amputee, Freaks is much more purposeful and focused in its message, however harrowing it remains. Divorced from the studio-bound excess of the usual Thalberg production, Browning demonstrates his knowledge and love of the world he’s depicting in virtually every frame of the movie, apart from a few of the less inspired dialogue sequences — the lonely image of boxcars pulling out of town on a rainy night will call forward chilling memories of Disney’s Pinocchio for many viewers, but that film was still nearly a decade in the future at this point. It’s often mentioned that Browning’s technical expertise was no match for James Whale’s, an inevitable comparison because both made massively popular horror films for Universal in the early 1930s, but none of the tentative messiness of Dracula (with which Browning himself was unsatisfied despite its commercial impact) is in evidence at all in Freaks, and if we were able to see the complete film, presumably even its scattered technical flaws of jump cuts and uneven structure would smooth out. What’s even more clearly in evidence, though, is Browning’s deep affection for the people in his film; he’s not just telling a story, he’s documenting lives and a lifestyle that he probably sensed would never be so brutally and lovingly captured by anyone else.

The argument of whether Freaks was an act of exploitation or humanism has raged for the better part of a century, volleyed back and forth by critics, the public, the studio, and the film’s own performers. (MGM’s publicity department didn’t help by releasing a poster with the dreadfully schlocky, Ed Wood-like tagline “Can a full grown women truly love a midget?”) All of the above initially seemed to come out strongly against the very idea of the picture, let alone the execution. As popular as the sideshows of Barnum & Bailey and their ilk then were, it seems that the cinematic audience and the circus audience failed to overlap significantly, so that it was seen as too distressing and frightening to actually see the disabled and deformed performers on camera. Some critics inevitably charged that the film treated its actors as product to be gazed upon in dehumanizing horror; and the experience of the film’s release, if not its shooting, was so traumatic that some members of Browning’s cast later denounced the film (though others did the opposite and most never spoke of it at all, at least partially because it did not become a particularly celebrated film until many of them had died). A cynical case could probably be made that by climaxing with the deliberate disfiguring of a woman by a horde of “freaks,” Browning and the movie are arguing both that these people are a dangerous, tightly-knit band capable of terrible violence and that any break from the physical norm is itself inherently bad and terrifying. This requires an adamant refusal, however, to take the film’s script on good faith and to trust in Browning’s own compassion.

Some may find it easy to look past the film’s lack of condescension for its characters and their obvious, deeply moving bond, captured so elegantly in an early scene of a group of them playing and celebrating with unguarded enthusiasm by a French lake — when they are confronted by a pair of abusive strangers, their caregiver Madame Tetrallini memorably chides her “children” for letting their fear show — and in the iconic, remarkably unforced wedding banquet scene during which they chant that they are poised to accept Hans’ new wife as one of them, only to have their show of goodwill literally thrown in their faces. This very determination to display the members of the sideshow as real and complicated people is likely what has riled up many viewers and made them uncomfortable, because there is little attempt to sugarcoat their natural behaviors or interactions or to focus strictly on their professional lives. (Perhaps the one sour note is the incomplete depiction of how often the likes of the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, and performers like the “stork woman” Elizabeth Green, were opportunistically used for entertainment and denied their own agency; and, of course, the fact that we only see people like this in movies when they are about “freakshows.”) If Browning had not used actual “freaks,” or if he tried to constrain them into more traditional character roles, the film undoubtedly would be more “comfortable” for many, and not nearly as vital, memorable or moving. If he attempted to spell out his moralistic argument against surface judgment and prejudice in self-righteous dialogue, he might have created a wrongheaded artifact of liberal cinema in the Stanley Kramer vein. Instead, by simply presenting reality — or at least a supernatural drama rooted in traces of reality — he relies on the audience’s compassion to tell the rest of the story. Some were unwilling to stretch themselves that far.

The state of unguided discomfort — of being uncertain how one is “supposed” to react to what is onscreen — is rare in classic Hollywood, for all its virtues, and Browning is bold to leave us so often in that holding pattern, for it forces us to locate our own moral responses to the story and to the “freaks” themselves (with the gradual revelation that the supposedly normal and able-bodied Hercules and Cleopatra are the “freaks” of the title, not the variously decent, sophisticated, innocent and open-minded sideshow performers), and feeds our thirst to see their warm, unstated mutual trust vindicated against the cruel insiders attempting to infiltrate and corrupt them. It permits the film to be as unforgiving and angry as necessary — with the added attraction of its uncharted, “forbidden” quality — while encouraging us to rejoice in its gruesome resolution. The new viewer expects Freaks to be troubling and disturbing because of its subject matter, its age and the now-obscure lives of its inhabitants, but in fact it’s the story itself that makes it linger in the imagination thereafter.

An effect of Browning’s unsentimental, unforced approach to his cast is that Freaks turns out to serve as something of a semi-incidental documentary, capturing the voices, physical presences and performance styles of numerous unusual talents who would (by and large) otherwise never be captured on film to be seen and remembered by generations forever to come. Whether one attempts to argue or not that the inherent act of filming the sideshow’s participants is in a sense an exploitation of them, they were still artists and performers with actual careers, and it’s a tribute to them and a benefit to us that we are now able to see, with relatively little contrivance. (For the most part, Browning appears to just plant his camera and doesn’t require excessive flair from the cast as actors; those with a lot of dialogue to deliver tend to be stilted, and it’s not to the film’s detriment because it’s strong evidence that he didn’t wish to meddle excessively.) A perusal through the available biographical data for all of the performers in the film is quite the roller-coaster ride, full of tragically sad chronicles of abuse and loveless neglect (and in fairness, this is largely true of film actors in general, to a lesser extent), but also the occasional note of surprising triumph: Prince Randian, the Guyanese limbless man who can roll and light a cigarette with his mouth, fathered four children in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and lived to age 63. The long-lived microcephalic Schlitzie appears to have truly loved performing and his visage became a beloved icon. The Doll Family enjoyed nearly a century of success and financial security. Perhaps most fascinating of all is the story of the conjoined Hilton twins, who at the time Freaks was made had just divorced themselves from crooked management and a lifetime of what amounted to indentured servitude. The pair kept performing and wrote a book about their lives, later the source of a musical, and eventually made an exploitation B-picture in the early 1950s, after which they started independently touring. On one such tour they were left stranded in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they picked up jobs as produce clerks at a grocery store and ironically at last found there some measure of dignity and community, at least by the accounts of their friends in the area, and worked there until their death in 1969. But the list goes on, from the classically trained “skeleton man” Peter Robinson to the “half-boy” Johnny Eck to armless Frances O’Connor, all remarkable, their images permanently and deservedly burned into cinematic history.

The assumption that Tod Browning would intend Freaks as a malicious use of these eccentric and differently-abled actors to be shown as figures of grotesque, visceral terror is completely incompatible with the actual content of the film, which is — for better or worse — a celebration of both these performers and the secretive, shielding bond they share. Browning made other superb films, and there were other intoxicating horror films in the 1930s, but nowhere else can you smell the sawdust and feel your shoes sinking in the mud so palpably, in such a world apart from the traditional artifice of MGM’s typical output. The horror is not in the so-called “freaks,” at least not the “freaks” we assume are being referred to; and the horror is not in the atmosphere, which evokes realistic sleaze rather than fear. The horror is not even in the revenge taken, which while clearly the stuff of nightmares is ultimately a turn to celebrate. The absolute horror, so beautifully executed and subtly ingrained in both the narrative and in the lives of its cast, is in the all too believable capacity of human beings to torment and abuse those who they assume cannot fight back, and in the sumptuous irony that this very assumption — at least in this throttling moment — is spectacularly incorrect. The butchering, the years of infamy, don’t matter; if any cruel person in the world sleeps uneasily after seeing Freaks, Browning has won the day.

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