“The revulsion with
which we view the abnormal, the malformed and
the mutilated is the result of long conditioning
by our forefathers.”
Tod Browning is most remembered for his classic
version of Dracula with Bela Lugosi,
he was born to make the 1932 cult classic Freaks.
In fact, no other director could have handled this
film with the same sensitivities. Browning knew
the territory well, as he had come to Hollywood
as an actor after working the circus and vaudeville
circuits. He had had first-hand relationships with
the “freaks” who continue to draw morbid curiosity
seekers. He knew they have the same thoughts and
emotional makeup as “normal” people, and he was
familiar with their code of ethics.
If Browning’s films remind
you of D.W. Griffith’s style, this is understandable.
He worked with Griffith as both an actor and assistant
director on Intolerance. Griffith
then arranged for Browning to direct at the Fine
Arts Company, before Browning moved on to work on
some melodramas with Universal Studios. But Browning
made his biggest impact with his MGM horror films,
directing several silent films starring Lon Chaney
before moving to sound films.
Browning combines both melodrama
and horror in Freaks. He begins the
64-minute film with a two-minute essay that explains
the sociology of mutants 68 years before the X-men
film. It’s a sermon that will play against any prejudices
you may feel towards people who are the products
of an abnormal birth or mutilation. Browning notes
that in ancient times such people were considered
“an omen of ill luck or representative of evil.”
He then sets up the premise of the film by saying
that those forced into an unnatural life have a
code of ethics for protection against the "normal"
people. A crime committed against any one of them
will be considered a crime against all of them!
Right away, you should realize
that Browning is completely sympathetic towards
the “freaks” in his film. He just beat you over
the head with the opening sermon, and as dated as
the film now seems to be, it’s noteworthy because
of Browning’s sensitive treatment towards the malformed.
This is 1932, so you realize that there are no CGI
enhancements; Browning’s characters are the real
deal here--Siamese twins, real-life midgets, dwarves,
bearded ladies, hermaphrodites, and pinheads. There’s
even one man without arms and legs, who ambulates
like a snake.
While some people mindlessly
check out this cult classic for the freak show aspects,
Browning’s film really works to get the audience
to view things from the freaks’ perspective. If
you find yourself repulsed by their eventual revenge,
go re-watch the prologue again.
Before the romantic melodrama
begins, we have a carny barker introducing a group
of curious customers to a once beautiful woman who
has now taken a hideous and shocking form. Sure
enough, we get the expected SCREAM!
No camera shot of the woman—you
have to wait for that. Instead, we get the background
story: Flashback to a couple of likable German midgets
named Hans and Frieda (brother and sister Harry
and Daisy Earles, who would both later appear as
munchkins in The Wizard of Oz). They
seem suited for one other, but Hans has designs
on the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga
Anyone rooting for Miss
Beautiful Trapeze Artist to come out on top has
to be a dimwitted. While she pretends to be charming
and sweet to Hans, she is a manipulating louse who
plans, with her boyfriend Hercules (Henry Victor),
to marry Hans, steal his fortune, and kill him off
with poison. It won’t take long to finish off a
little guy like him, right?
So, will Hans come to his
senses and marry Frieda? Or will he fall for Cleopatra’s
trap? The story isn’t that difficult to figure out,
as Browning retains its pure melodramatic structure.
The fun part comes in the latter stages to see how
he pulls it off.
The best scenes involve
the horror, which is the reason to stay with the
film through the rather dry opening and developing
portions. We already expect Cleopatra’s downfall,
and it begins with a memorable wedding banquet scene
in which Cleopatra sneaks a dram of poison to Hans
and openly kisses her real boyfriend in front of
her new miniature hubby.
The freaks all gather around
the table and begin chanting “Gobble, gobble, We
accept her, we accept her, One of us, one of us”
as a happy dwarf passes around a large wine goblet
for a communal toast. Cleopatra rebuffs him scornfully.
She seals her ugly fate by recoiling in disgust,
pouring the contents over the dwarf’s head, mocking
their acceptance ceremony, and ordering them to
leave. This raises suspicions, so Cleopatra will
now be watched closely by the tight-knit group of
freaks, who witness her attempts to poison Hans.
Frequently excerpted when
classic horror films are cited, the final scenes
highlight Freaks. These are the famous
rainstorm scenes with the various freaks crawling
underneath the wagons in the mud with knives to
pursue Hercules and Cleopatra. Browning effectively
sets up the atmosphere but omits the bloody details,
so your imagination can work out the actual horror.
We may not actually see
the attack, but know it’s horrible from seeing what
happens to Cleopatra. I won’t describe that here,
but anyone who watches Freaks will
naturally be curious about what makes the carnival
There’s actually more to
Freaks than the rainy mud-and-gore
scene in which a legion of society’s misunderstood
“misfits” extracts its revenge. There are numerous
scenes that should gain empathy for the freaks,
simple scenes that show things like the “snakeman”
lighting his cigarette, or an armless woman drinking
from a wine glass, or the celebration that accompanies
the birth of a baby girl to the bearded woman.
lasts only 64 minutes, but it has scenes that will
remain with you for a lifetime. That’s a lot more
than most of the blockbusters of the year 2000 will
do. I still don’t care about any of the under-developed
film characters in The Perfect Storm,
but feel like I know Hans and Frieda quite well
from a few minutes of screen time. I’ve got to give
Browning’s morality play credit for that.
Browning’s melodrama is
actually quite advanced for its time. Audiences
of the 1930’s weren’t ready for it; they responded
about as well as people generally respond to geeks
and freaks in real life. Heightened sensibilities
in the 1960s cultivated greater appreciation for
the oddballs of society, however, and the film began
to gain cult status. (After watching Freaks,
a number ventured into the freak shows of John Waters.)
Many of us still have subtle prejudices to overcome,
but if you show Freaks to any special
education class, these students certainly will know
who to root for.