It was early in the Golden Age of cinema when screenwriter Willis Goldbeck crossed the MGM backlot to the home of Hollywood tycoon Irving Thalberg. Goldbeck was welcomed with a copy of the short story ‘Spurs’ and instructions to make the adaption ‘horrible’. After a quick turn over, Golbeck was once again summoned to the heart of MGM, but was unnerved upon entering to see the titan burying his head in his hands. Slowly, Thalberg composed himself, looked over the writer, and sighed ‘well… it’s horrible’.
This horrible adaption is regularly voted one of the most dangerous films ever made and was renamed to the brutally inflammatory title Freaks. Set at the heart of a circus, the story follows a plethora of oddities and performers, but focuses on Hans (Harry Earles), a midget in love with ‘the most beautiful tall person’ Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Beginning as cruel flirtation, the plot takes a sinister twist after word of fortune escapes.
At the helm of the jet black ship of unfortunates is none other than master of misery Tod Browning in his crowning achievement. MGM’s directorial decision grew from the desire to repeat Universal’s run of spectacular horror extravagances, so Browning was snatched hot off Dracula and asked for the same again. Only more. But no one was prepared for the culmination of a life time of unsettling imaginings.
Freaks is shot in a reserved and simple manner akin to Browning’s oeuvre prior to the sumptuous Dracula because the world of Freaks is inherently our own. Against a backdrop of realism is a cast of authentic disabled actors, a reality many audiences found unsettling to face. Sideshows from Johnny Eck to Pin Heads, Human Skeletons to Bearded Ladies are present, but the quality of Freaks often without praise is the warmth and maturity Browning attempts to impart.
A beautiful dancer in a circus act captured the heart of sixteen year old Tod Browning, and sparked his decision to leave his well-situated family and begin a career as clown, jockey and director of a variety theatre long before meeting D.W. Griffith and entering an entirely different kind of circus. In his early years, Browning undoubtedly mixed with the sideshow attractions, as horrors for gawking ticket holders, and humans after the fare closed. It is this humanity Browning infuses in to his ‘horror’.
Take an early instance of sighting the ‘Freaks’ from afar as they ramble in a caucus. A disgusted on looker and a policeman confront the gathering to drive them away, but Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione), their carer, defends them stating they are ‘only children’ enjoying a brief refuge from staring eyes. Further on, Browning attempts to reinstate that the ‘freak’ on the picture is prejudice as Hans plainly states ‘they don’t realise that I’m a man with the same feelings they have’.
The overwhelming bigotry of the ‘normal’ characters starring in Freaks was mirrored atrociously in the upheaval in the short and rocky run of the film and ashamedly during production. One of many instance involved a concession Thalberg was forced to make in order to keep production running. Many stdio executives complained about having to look at the unsettling performers during lunch breaks and so a special tent was commissioned to keep the freaks out of sight.
This awful behaviour was magnified upon release after a disastrous test screening threw Thalberg into cancelling every premier. However, the San Diego Fox Theatre could not be stopped and unleashed Freaks uncut to three thousand spectators whilst Thalberg butchered the print.
The brief uncut picture was a huge box office success with crowds lining up around the block, attracted like flies to the tantalising advertisements stating ‘Your last opportunity to see Freaks in its uncensored form!’ But the social critique of Freaks was left on the cutting room floor, whilst sequences of Hercules screaming as freaks squirm through mud to claim vengeance remained.
Freaks passed into legend in its own time, generating horror stories of spectators dropping dead from heart attacks and a pregnant woman experiencing a miscarriage. Browning received hate mail stating he suffered from every kind of perversion, the actors disowned the film, and Freaks was subsequently banned. To this day, it is still technically illegal to watch Freaks in the USA.
Freaks remains a fascination decades later because it has guts. Browning tackled a difficult topic head on, utilising real subjects and attempted to make us truly consider humanity in all its forms. Despite being released in 1932, it refreshes the perception of our modern culture, holding a mirror to us and asking ‘Have we really changed?’
Sideshows did not shut down, they moved. News stories of third world communities ostracising deformed children who bear ‘the mark of the Devil’ are backwards to us. But every night, ‘documentaries’ provide fodder to feed our hunger for esoteric voyeurism. Tastelessly titled shows from ‘Half Ton Mum’ to ‘The Boy Who Wants His Leg Cut Off’ are hardly different from Human Skeletons, Conjoined Twins, Pin Heads and the Pillow Men. But worse than this, the advent of body conscious media has situated an unreachable idol above us and led to a widespread body dysmorphia few can reconcile.
Freaks is a brave piece which becomes increasingly relevant and shocking. A dangerous film to challenge perception and reinstate our faults, not theirs.
‘One of us! One of us! We accept you, one of us! Gooble Gobble! One of us!’
A side note from Johnny Eck, the half man who forged a close friendship with Browning, is quoted as saying ‘If I want to see freaks, I can just look out the window’.