For the Love of Beauty: Tod Browning’s Freaks

...love life of the sideshow
“”The story of the love life of the sideshow””

Few would argue that Freaks (1932) is one of the more uncomfortable films to watch in cinema history. An MGM pre-Code horror film from Tod Browning, Freaks, as released, ran abridged at 64 minutes. Its 90 minute original version — of which no versions exist — was deemed too much to bear for audiences of its day. It was banned in Britain until the 1950s, and is, perhaps, one of the most controversial films of all time. Oddly billed in the promotional poster of its day as “the story of the love life of the side show,” it is more a study of the extremes of human behavior — as well as physical form — but it’s certainly not a traditional love story by any means.

Coming off of the success of 1931’s Dracula (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Dracula_(1931_English-language_film)), producer and director Tod Browning was inspired to make Freaks after reading a magazine story called ‘Spurs in which a circus-performing little person falls in love with a beautiful bareback rider who agrees to marry him upon finding out he has inherited a great deal of money. Browning’s idea was to tell a similar tale using real “freak show” attractions — not actors in Lon Chaney-esque prostethics or makeup. He himself had run away and joined the circus at age 16. He knew the lifestyle and the people of the circus, and, by all accounts, genuinely wanted to showcase the widest possible range of human emotion and physical differences.

Indeed, characters with physical disabilities had appeared in two of Browning’s silent films — 1927’s The Unknown (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/The_Unknown_(1927_film)) (where Lon Chaney is an armless knife thrower) and 1925’s The Unholy Three (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/The_Unholy_Three_(1925_film)) (where one of the titular characters is a little person). It would seem that events of his life, the trajectory of his career, and his interest in telling stories of characters on the fringe of society coalesced in Freaks. His heroes would be the sideshow performers that many find shocking. His villains would be the so called “normal” people.

The prologue to the film provides more than a hint to Browning’s attitude toward his subject matter: “For the love of beauty is a deep-seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization.” Before we’re even introduced to the circus performers, we are challenged to accept the premise that trust and pursuit of the beautiful is part of our nature. So what happens when we are presented with the ugly and the grotesque — not as monsters, but as people? People that are meant to shock and simultaneously entertain us with their deformities? Browning makes it clear: these are people, no matter what their deformities. And as for beauty, it can hide malformations of its own.

Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra) with Harry Earles (Hans)
Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra) with Harry Earles (Hans)

Following its prologue, the movie opens with a barker drawing attention to a sideshow where a woman looks into a box and screams. It seems this horror in the box was once a beautiful trapeze artist named Cleopatra. She had seduced and married a dwarf named Hans after learning of his sizeable inheritance. Conspiring with “strongman” Hercules, Cleopatra plans to murder Hans and inherit his wealth. At their wedding reception, Cleopatra poisons her groom’s wine while the circus freaks now celebrate her as one of their own. “One of us, one of us,” they chant. But the ceremony unnerves the inebriated Cleopatra, and she reveals that she has been having an affair with Hercules. She mocks the assembled freaks, while Hans, humiliated, takes ill.

The newlyweds feign reconciliation while Cleopatra secretly plots to provide more poison to her husband, disguising it as medicine. But Hans has secret plans of his own: he plots with the other freaks to get revenge. In the end, the freaks attack the adulterers during a storm, brandishing knives and guns. In the process, they truly become monsters.

The "freaks" of Freaks
The “freaks” of Freaks

In turning the freaks into bloodthirsty killers, Browning effectively turns the tables for a second time on the audience. These so-called freaks — pinheads, bearded ladies, siamese twins, dwarves with missing limbs and all manner of other men and women with deformities — they are just like you and me. Only they aren’t. Their physical form is unsettling at first. But Browning softens us on them. Normalizes them — until, that is, they turn to violence. It begs the question: is violence inherent in the human condition no matter what the form? If so, what exactly is “normal” then?

Leila Hyams as Venus
Leila Hyams as Venus

Juxtaposed with the seemingly normal but conniving Cleopatra and once innocent — now murderous — freaks,  are a genuinely kind-hearted couple: a seal trainer named Venus and her clown boyfriend, Phroso. They may be the only example of true love in the film. Though outsiders themselves, they are physically “normal” — thus muddying the waters of what the relationship is between true love and normalcy.

Regardless, the climax of the film hinges on the knowledge the couple has: Venus and Phroso know about Hans’ revenge plot, and when Hercules finds out that they do, he wants nothing more than to kill them. His plans are thwarted, however, as Hercules is chased by the freaks during a raging storm, and is never seen from again. Reputedly, he is castrated in Browning’s original cut of the film.

"The Duck Woman" and Director Tod Browning
“The Duck Woman” and Director Tod Browning

As for Cleopatra, she is terribly transformed into a human duck. Little more than a tarred and feathered torso with deformed hands that now resemble webbed feet, she is, as it turns out, the horror behind the opening scene.

Freaks promotional poster
Freaks promotional poster

And so it ends. Beauty is ruin. The freaks are vengeful murderers. The audience can assume Venus and Phroso survive. But they are not the celebrated lovers of the movie poster. Instead, oddly enough, Hercules and Cleopatra are seen, again and again, in the promotional materials —dressed in evening wear, like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire! It was as if MGM’s publicity department couldn’t stomach the reality of the picture and its depiction of what normalcy is — or is not.

Indeed, MGM went so far as to eventually insert a final scene for a more traditional, happier ending. In a mansion, Hans is living a millionaire’s life. Venus and Phroso visit, bringing Frieda, to whom Hans had been engaged before meeting Cleopatra. Hans at first refuses to see Freida, but she eventually assures him that she knows he tried to stop the others from their revenge. The others may have become murderers, but Hans remains an innocent “freak.” In essence, he becomes the hero of the movie, and as he starts to cry, Freida comforts him.

It’s a forced ending, but the only one MGM could possibly tolerate in what would otherwise be a depressing end to a subversive film.

Browning would go on to direct two more horror films: Mark of the Vampire (1935) and The Devil Doll (1936) along with two more pictures: a drama, and a mystery. But his career was effectively over. The projects he truly wanted to make were never seriously considered by any major studio following the box office failure and stigma of Freaks.

In 2012, TCM showed Freaks as part of “A History of Disability in Film Festival.” One of the programmers, Lawrence Carter-Long wrote:

The importance of showing ‘Freaks’ in 2012 is that it takes those conventions of who we’re supposed to identify with and where our sympathies lie and turns everything upside down. Our sympathies aren’t with the buxom blond non-disabled woman. From the beginning, your sympathies are with the freaks themselves. That’s the impact of the film. The audience is rooting for characters who look like what is traditionally the villain in a film. It challenges you to reconsider the outsider.

The lasting impact of Freaks, however, is not just that it challenges us to “reconsider the outsider” as sympathetic. It is to realize that they are just like everyone else — capable of kinship, compassion and love, yes, but also violence, revenge, and hate. No matter what form the body takes, the human condition is forever the same. Capable of extremes of behavior and emotion, humanity is both beautiful and ugly — inside and out.

And it is “for the love [and blind pursuit] of beauty [and perfection]” that many of us suffer.

Paperwork for the Devil

Faust making a pact with the devil, lithograph, 1885
William Gladstone as Faust making a pact with the devil, lithograph, 1885

From Faust to Robert Johnson, fictional and historical figures alike have been mythologized for making pacts with the devil. Beelzebub. Lucifer. Old Scratch. Satan. The Devil is a decidedly Christian being that, while having demonic precursors outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is pretty much a product of the Old and New Testaments. Sure, the Babylonians had many malevolent demons. The Egyptians had their dark gods. Zoroastrianism even had a nasty spirit named Angra Mainyu. But it’s in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, that Satan really takes shape — first as heaven’s prosecutor of sorts. Later, in the Synoptic Gospels,  Satan comes into his own as both the great red dragon of Revelation, and the evil being that tempts Christ in the desert. And it’s his role as tempter of Christ that leads to a depiction of the Devil as one who can fulfill desires — for a price. Much like a genie (or djinn), the Devil can deliver on all things worldly.

Even make contractual agreements.

Theophilus of Adana, a 6th century cleric, may be the first documented story of a someone who makes a pact of this type. The archdeacon of Adana, part of modern day Turkey, Theophilus is said to have, out of humility, turned down a promotion to bishop. But when the bishop elected in his stead deprives Theophilus of his position as archdeacon, the poor priest comes to regret his decision, and seeks out a magician to help him contact Satan. In exchange for his help, Satan demands that Theophilus renounce Christ and the Virgin Mary in a contract sealed with the cleric’s own blood. Theophilus agrees, and is made bishop.

Fearing, however, that he has put his immortal soul in jeopardy, Theophilus repents, fasts, and implores the Virgin Mary to intercede on his behalf with God. Satan eventually relents, and Theophilus wakes to find the contract on his chest. He shows the contract to the legitimate bishop, who then forgives poor bastard and burns the document. Out of sheer relief, Theophilus dies and, presumably, goes to heaven. Oh, and he’s made a saint — which gives hope to everyone who’s considering selling their soul.

The tale is attributed to an eighth century scribe, Paulus Diaconus of Naples. From a modern Latin translation comes the details of the pact itself: “Let him deny the son of Mary and those things which are offensive to me,” says the Devil, “and let him set down in writing that he denieth absolutely, and whatsoever he may desire he shall obtain from me, so long as he denieth.” And so it would seem that we have the first instance of such a pact, and the importance of the written contract.

That element of such a pact — as a written contract — is repeated again and again in the centuries to come. It would eventually finds its way into literature — most notably, first in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (https://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/779/779-h/779-h NULL.htm) (1592). And from the 16th to the 18th century, countless witches would be tried and executed over the accusation of such agreements.

Urbain Grandier's Pact with the Devil
Urbain Grandier’s Pact with the Devil from Dictionnaire infernal ou bibliothèque universelle, 1826

The case of the 17th century French Catholic priest Urbain Grandier is perhaps the most infamous of these trials (and the inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s Devils of Loudun); what unique about Granier, however, is that an actual printed document was presented at his trial in 1634. Said to be penned by all manner of demons and the Devil himself, it is a mishmash of reversed Latin and many occult symbols. In it, Grandier is promised “the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of monarchs, honors, lusts and powers.” He’s only given 20 years before his soul is forfeit, but it would seem the Devil got his due much earlier as Grandier was tortured and subsequently burned at the stake. With phrases like “He will go whoring three days long; the carousal will be dear to him,” the contract is quite detailed in its promises.

But a simpler tale of a deal with the Devil may be actually be found in a fairy tale commonly referred to as “The Smith and the Devil.” In it, a blacksmith trades his soul for supernatural powers, and then uses this power to trap the demon with whom he made the deal. So straightforward a story, it was collected by the Brothers Grimm in their two volume (1812 and 1815) Children’s and Household Tales (though it was removed from most later editions).

Like most folktales, the origins of the story are murky. It was readily believed to be European in origin or possibly Russian. That is, until very recently when folklorist Sara Graça da Silva and anthropologist Jamie Tehrani argued that “The Smith and the Devil” may in fact be one of the oldest known folk tales on the planet, and was told from India to Scandanavia. In their 2016 study “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales (http://rsos NULL.royalsocietypublishing NULL.org/content/3/1/150645#F4),” the authors present evidence that the basic plot of the tale is found across the Indo-European speaking world dating back over 6,000 years, to the Bronze Age.

But a signed contract? With the story of Theophilus not being readily told until the 11th to 13th centuries, it seems that the Devil requiring a physical contract is a relatively recent development, historically speaking.

All in all, I suppose it’s better to get it in writing.