(Originally posted on Feb. 25, 2014)
Long time the standard by which all “Golden Age” Hollywood horror films are compared for a sense of shock and gratuitous exploitation (it was released months before the decades long inception of the Production Code), Tod Browning’s 1932 “Freaks” is actually not a film which, despite the negative fuel of its reputation, deliberately seeks to create an entirely horrific image of the circus freaks who are the source of the more startling images distributed and published in magazines and film books throughout the intervening decades in which the film’s reputation, if anything, has grown. Despite the increased availability of access to the film (for years it was almost impossible to see), the prevailing grotesque impression left by these images has skewered a balanced consideration of the film based more on the individual’s own repulsion of the “abnormal” far more than the somewhat injudiciously manufactured implications of its actual content. Divorced of the context of the Robbins’ original story and the decisions made in the adaption process, it is likely the film will be judged solely on the instinctive revulsion by which first-time viewers may enter into the film with preconceived notions that place a malignant aura about the real-life freaks of the film, rather than regarding the film through a more logical prism, as a series of misguided shifts of empathy which inevitably create many unintended transmutations from text to screen.
The source of the film, Tod Robbins’ 1923 short story Spurs tells the story of the heinous revenge of a very small man- both in physical size and psychological timber -the diminutive Jacques who rides the back of his loyal wolfhound St. Eustice, for the amusement of the patrons frequenting the traveling Rollo’s circus. Jacques is bewitched by the bareback rider Jeanne Marie and entices the beauty into betrothal by revealing he has recently become heir to a sizable fortune. Her plans to wait for what she assumes will be a premature death meets with her own impatience, and on during her wedding banquet she abuses Jacques with derisive vocal offenses which inflame Jacques to the point of pathological vengeance. The story skips forwards a year where a knock on the door of Simon Lafleur’s door introduces a haggard woman, who as it turns out is none other than the same Jeanne Marie, who in the intervening year has undergone a shocking transformation, both physical and psychological; suffering an unrelenting and torturous revenge at the hands of Jacques, whose unappeased wrath over her wedding day insult has caused him to devise a punishment by forcing his bride to literally become a person of her word.
It is an uncomplicated, nasty little story that has all of the elements for an interesting film translation, though what resulted at the hands of director Tod Browning and the executive class of MGM under the leadership of Irving Thalberg was an entirely different story than the one penned by Robbins (the opening credits openly announce the film is “suggested” by the story) and it is these differences where the controversy lies, though, as previously stated, the intention by Browning was not to use the real-life freaks in an exploitative manner, and if the film had followed the original story with greater fidelity as far as the characterization of the circus freaks are concerned, it would have remained a potent tale of revenge, while avoiding the existent elements of the collectively monstrous, and limiting any evil inclinations squarely between Jeanne Marie and Jacques.
The greatest and most significant alteration (the script is rife with dramatic changes from the original text, though this is the game changer) is an insistence on an unbroken fidelity between all of the circus freaks (and by implication, all abnormally formed individuals): the so-called Code of the Freaks; a philosophic bent mentioned casually, at first, and later becoming an almost feral and menacing alarum of “ONE OF US!”, a call for mindless solidarity which eschews the rules and laws of “normal” society and enjoins a vengeance-based protectorate agenda exclusive to themselves. It is made clear in Robbins‘ story from the very first, there is as equal a division between Jacques and his fellow freaks- he is despised as an egoist and regarded as selfishly disagreeable – as there is between the midget and characters based in the normal world. The story truly embraces, despite the physical abnormalities, the sameness of the freaks with those who are normal by a resistance to pandering and condescension and instead affording them the luxury of asserting their own individuality. Jacques is an unlikeable, boorish and sadistic character not through any physical affliction, but simply because that is his character. This is a generosity afforded by the author which presumes that if a normal person can be a jerk, so might the same opportunity afford itself to a midget. Equally, the other freaks are given equal opportunity to evoke their own personal pleasures and shortcomings (conceit, pride, jealousy) to complimentary effect which has the effect of minimizing the regarding of the characters solely through their physical appearances while advancing a comforting banal normalcy to their humanity.
This is a truly democratic perspective toward the characters which Browning undermines with his forced attempts at eliciting sympathy for the freaks (while constructing an entirely unconvincing explanation for their collective revenge), by first emphasizing their timidity in social environs while simultaneously exploiting a core of coarseness through many, though- importantly -not most of the film’s principle characters. (With the exception of Cleopatra and Hercules, there seems to be no inclinations expressed to bring harm to any of the freaks, and any negativity seems to assert itself in the form of workplace taunting- though often at the provocation of Hercules.) Those who treat the freaks with kindness are summarily forgotten at the end of the film (How the maternal and protective Madame Tetrallini [Rose Dione]– whose character also seems fated with suspicious narrative abbreviation -reacts during the climactic assault is never addressed.) and the developing relationships between all but Hans, Hercules and Cleopatra are also incomprehensibly severed from any completion of their narrative threads. Browning cannot possibly intend a last minute resuscitation of audience empathy toward the duplicitous lovers, who in the entire film have demonstrated not a note of humanity (and are served up with individual examples of performance gracelessness by Olga Baclanova and Henry Victor that border on the felonious) yet with the collective revenge of the freaks (none of whom thinks to tell of Cleopatra’s scheme to either a friendly ear within the circus community nor the authorities) become the titular figures of injustice, at whom the entire freak community feels compelled to put aside its asserted humanity and descend into barbarous violence. It is important to recall- though the film completely fails to address this point -that Cleopatra and Hercules’ plot to kill Hans is greed driven and has no bearing on Hans’ being a midget; a fact not considered by the film, but become another issue of inconsistency in the adaptation process. When the freaks scream their mantra of “One of us!” in celebratory delight during the wedding feast Hans and Cleopatra, we are witness to the extension of the Code to now include the “normal” trapeze artist as she has agreed to legal union with the midget provocateur, but we are not apprised as to whether this dispensation has been granted for the first time, or if this is standard operating procedure, with Roscoe also being considered “one of us” (as perhaps in the film’s pendulous view of abnormality, his stutter may alone qualify him a citizen’s spot in the land of freakdom), nor if the sympathetic treatment given the sideshow attractions by Madame Tertallini, Venus and Phroso is only a partial protection against the unbridled frenzy of the freaks unleashed; a tacked-on final sequence in which Venus and Phroso reunite Frieda with the stinking rich but now guilt ridden Hans swings the film again in an opposite direction of sympathy as Hans is now supposed to be considered the grief stricken cuckold, the film entirely dismissing the fact that he is the one who initiated the night of revenge in the first place. Nor does this bizarre finale explain why Frieda would still be romantically loyal to someone who so ill used her (And does not Hans’ initial betrayal of Frieda for Cleopatra not count as a breach of the Code of the Freaks, or does one have to be “normal” to enjoy violent retaliation?) nor why the previously sensible Phroso and Venus would be complicit in this morally gamey “happy” ending? (As if the fact that Frieda and Hans are portrayed by real-life siblings Daisy and Harry Earle weren’t uncomfortable enough- though this circumstance could explain the peculiar reticence sometimes present during scenes of Frieda’s romantic longing for Hans) Finally, if the carnival barker bookending the drama acknowledges the freaks’ complicity in the fates of Hercules and Cleopatra, what was the response of lawful authority?
To fairly judge the film, even in the forced state of alteration from Tod Browning’s original intentions, before the studio caved to the whims of panicked and ignorant test marketing traditions, the film initially sought to turn the freaks into the victims of the piece, yet, ironically, due to the calculated but morally inconsistent shifts in empathy taken in the adaptive process, this is the antithesis what occurs. Browning, whose supposed mastery and ease with macabre elements in his silent features is belied by his tepid handling of his most famous production, 1930’s “Dracula” (which is one of the American cinema’s most unjustly praised “classics”, outside of the presence of Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye, and an effective and atmospheric opening reel which suggests a greater fidelity to the source novel than the turgid stage adaptation which was used as the basis for the rest of the film’s limp drawing room non-action), though in “Freaks”, once the initial clutter and confused introduction of characters has been established (this may be a result of one third of the film being removed, and may also explain the existing staggering gaps in exposition) Browning appears to settle into a purposeful, surprisingly nuanced (considering the flamboyant material and backdrop) evocation of society within the circus personnel- most of whom, in outside “normal” society would themselves probably be considered “freakish”; the first two-thirds of the film unfolding in a complex but unhurried manner in which several thematically interwoven parallel story lines progress, all concerning the development of budding romance amid the often lurid atmosphere of the traveling circus, though the casual pace at which the narrative unfolds betrays later serious truncations of character and incident. However, at this stage, Browning is carefully building his narratives as differing angles of the same mirror: the first with a pair who are normal- both physically and psychologically -the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) whose wisdom and emotional support of the lovely Venus (Leila Hyams) satisfyingly blossoms into an initially shyly tentative and later open show of love (a rare moment of genuine humanity expressed in the giddy moment of their spontaneous first kiss); a second pair who blend the worlds of the physically normal and that of the freaks, in the witty and bizarre romantic triangle that asserts itself with circus performer Roscoe (Roscoe Ates) and his paramour, the charming Daisy (Daisy Hilton), one-half of a pair of conjoined pair of Siamese twins, with other half represented by Violet (Violet Hilton) with whom Roscoe is engaged in a continuous amusing, familial bickering; and then there is the central triangular relationship of the film: between Hans, Cleopatra and Hercules.
The film version of this last entanglement presents a greater subterfuge on the part of the two “normal” characters, by advancing their willingness to remove Hans from his wealth through merely “anticipating” the brevity of the midget’s life, to immediate act of murderous intent by attempting to poison Hans at his own wedding celebration. This action which results in the malignant unification of the freaks as a violent band (which is contrary to their portrayal in the story, where they not only universally despised Jacques/Hans, but also reduced the wedding party to a chaotic melee due to the drunken expressions of their own individual egoisms) is an unqualified reversal of how the sideshow freaks have been portrayed. Up to this point, until the set piece wedding celebration and climactic revengeful comeuppance, they are mainly inserted as exotically decorous but benign props in a rather tawdry, reconceived narrative of backstage carnival melodrama, which fails to engage in any meaningfully dramatic way, especially when it is apparent the film is just waiting to unleash its malformed cast in the infamous finale.
The visual style of the film changes in these final minutes, with the horrific nature of the freaks now assured through a skillful manipulation of a full director’s bag of tricks: dramatic shifts in framing perspectives, lighting and editing. The nocturnal thunderstorm in which the freak’s attack takes place is in direct contrast with the quietude in which the rest of the film unfolds; a curious circumstance given the almost chaotic atmosphere almost guaranteed by the operation of a traveling circus. (The film is also underwhelmingly populated- where are the spectators? -as if the intrusion of “outsiders” might break the spell of the fantastique were the outside world given too great a presence.) During the stormy assault, the film takes a heavily gothic route consistent with the horror style developed at Universal just prior to and concurrent with the production of “Freaks”; certainly a commercial influence (along with Browning’s participation) that initiated Thalberg’s attraction to getting his own piece of the horror market masterminded by Universal’s Carl Laemmle Jr.
But by having his objects of sympathy reverting to a collective homicidal presence, Browning completely undermines the entirety of his film’s content up to that point, and its pointed pleas for empathetic acceptance of his sideshow denizens, especially an early scene in which Madame Tetrallini and her charges finding sympathy with a landowner on whose property they are frolicking, made significant by her reference to her wards as “children”. Certainly the audience is given fair warning as to the Code of the Freaks in a rather perfunctory opening scene which act as the first half of a wraparound structure imposed on the film after its initial screenings. It is here where a sideshow guide initially advises “their code is a law unto themselves… offend one and you offend them all.” This is a message entirely at odds with Robbins’ source material in which the freaks are depicted as socially independent of one another’s concerns as much as would be a group of “normal” people. By placing all of the antagonistic eggs in one basket, Browning backs his story up against an intractable narrative wall in which there is no action possible except as a collective response.
However, to reach the point where thematically contrary violent retaliation becomes necessary, it is also essential for Hans- who at the start of the film is shown to be attuned to insult which he reacts to with practiced intolerance -to become oblivious to everything taking place around him; a convenient shift in character that is both unbelievable (again, why the earlier examples of anger, if he later absorbs greater insults?) and patently convenient to allow the extended poisoning of the midget by Cleopatra. For Hans to ignore every warning sign as to the devious intentions in Cleopatra marrying him, not only destroys the character’s credibility, but actually makes him an even greater heel, by his rebuffing of his original fiancée, the equally diminutive Frieda who is treated indifferently by Hans and thus becomes an unsympathetic character who uses Cleopatra for his own personal ascension (as he sees it) to the world of the “normal”. The impractical tug and pull between Robbins’ clean narrative and the film’s entirely confused moral view opens a simple piece of storytelling into an abyss of labyrinthine contradictions and unexplainable loose threads.
All things considered, if there were any sincere intention to make “Freaks” a film sympathetic to his featured sideshow attractions, then Browning displays an uncanny misunderstanding of thematic constancy. Regardless of the forced exclusions, alternations and revisions done to the film after its now legendary disastrous pre-release public viewings, revisions that reduced the film by a full third of its intended running time, it is clear from the resulting film that Browning’s intentions of sympathetic treatment toward the freaks was in direct contravention to the need for a more visually sensational climax than the creeping dread of progressive and unceasing enforced agonies as featured in the original story. Ironically, for the sake of immediate visceral jolts, the makers of “Freaks” sacrificed a far more horrifying and classically structured tale than the muddled, confused and inconsistent quilt of a film left after initial false “artistic” courage was abnegated by later “commercial” cowardice. In “Freaks”, it is not the midgets who are small as much as the film maker’s vision.
To read the original Tod Robbins story Spurs on which “Freaks is based, simply click the following link to: http://www.olgabaclanova.com/spurs.htm
Your review is outstanding. Accurate, detailed, and getting into the heart of everything that is wrong about this film. But that said, I have a confession. When I first bought a DVD player, this was one of the films I sought out. I had to buy an expensive Region 1 US Import, as it was not available in Britain at the time. Of course, I soon discovered that it would not play here, so I couldn’t watch it.
I later purchased a converted DVD player, one that would play any region, and ‘Freaks’ was the first film I watched on that. I find it fascinating, and make no excuse or justification other than that.
It could never be made now of course, so remains as a curiosity of cinema history.
Best wishes, Pete.
Aren’t you nice. (Who ARE you?) You know, there has been much written about how the film was altered and the final product was not Browning’s intentions, but the complete shift in the visual aesthetics during the climactic attack only proves that whatever sympathetic tendencies he wished to have toward the freaks was bound to be undone by the rewriting process from the original story. This is peculiar and goes to show Hollywood’s need for unnecessary tinkering, as the plot trajectory in the short story was much more horrifying and made the Jacques/Hans character monstrous enough to satisfy the appetites of any would-be audience. This film reminds me of another film which similarly used real human oddities as a source of horror, Michael Winner’s “The Sentinel”, which, I believe, went a long way in having such exploitation actually banned.