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.

Queen of All Scream Queens: Barbara Steele

Black Sunday (1960)
Black Sunday (1960)

With wide, dark and haunting eyes, Barbara Steele is known to horror fans worldwide as the “Queen of all Scream Queens.” Having starred in Mario Bava’s highly praised 1960 Italian film, Black Sunday (a.k.a. Mask of Satan), Steele cemented her place in horror movie history by playing the dual role of Princess Asa Vajda — a witch / vampire hybrid — and Katia Vajda, her victim. Despite being dubbed in England and America, the movie made Steele an international star, and the film became an almost instant cult classic. In the decades that followed, she would be sought out by the likes of Roger Corman, David Cronenberg, Jonathan Demme — even Ryan Gossling — for her often odd, mercurial presence.

Barbara Steele
Barbara Steele

Born on December 29, 1937 in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England, Steele studied paiting at both the Chelsea Art School and the Sorbonne; but her first love was acting. Reportedly the last person to be signed as a contract player for the Rank organization, Steele began her film career in the late 1950s, mostly in bit parts in forgettable films. She eventually signed to 20th Century Fox, and spent time in Hollywood. Yet little work came here way. Flaming Star (1960), a western vehicle for Elvis Presley, was her big chance at Hollywood fame; but, reportedly due to her thick British accent, she was replaced by Barbara Eden. Steele claimed she quit the production. Whatever the cause, she left Hollywood in 1960 for Italy. Her first role there was in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

It was Black Sunday that brought her to the attention of Roger Corman, whose Richard Matheson penned mishmash of Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) was her very next film. As Vincent Price’s wife Elizabeth, she is a spectral presence — seen mostly in flashback — for much of the movie. But a memorable ending, with Steele’s piercing eyes peering from behind the small slit of an Iron Maiden, was enough to further build her reputation in genre pictures. Once again, her mere presence in even a small scene demanded attention, though Corman — believing her working-class English accent too big a distraction — had her voice later, ironically (as it was an American production), dubbed.

Moving on to the truly terrible Italian film The Horrible Doctor Hitchcock (1962) and a small but critically noted part in Fellini’s (1963), Steele was underused. Many Italian films followed, including more forgettable horror films (The Ghost, and Long Hair of Death), then an odd turn as a suspicious wife in a short vignette that was part of 1964’s I Maniaci. Her presence, once again, sets her apart from other actresses in the film — perhaps the very reason why her image was placed squarely on the movie’s somewhat salacious poster where men stare at her (a feminist field day for those who study the male gaze).

Again, as before, Italian horror films followed, including the more notable Castle of Blood (1964), and Nightmare Castle (1965).  In 1966, she would make her last “Italian Gothic” film: An Angel for Satan —though the Italian-British production of The She Beast could also, technically, have that distinction. Shot in only 21 days, She Beast saw Steele paid just $1,000 for a single day’s work.

Work followed in the 1970s in the form of exploitation (in Jonathan Demme’s 1974 directorial debut: Caged Heat) and b-grade horror — including David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) and Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978). She would close out the seventies with a starring role as a psychotic killer in one of the first “slasher” flics ever made: 1979’s The Silent Scream.

She would retire from the screen for the entirety of the 1980s, and the 90s, with the exception of a role in Dan Curtis’ early nineties remake of Dark Shadows for television. It wasn’t until the 21st century that her career would be revived in two of her most well-reviewed roles: 2012’s The Butterfly Room, an American-Italian thriller, and 2014’s bizarre fantasy noir Lost River, as a MIss-Havesham-esque grandmother in Ryan Gossling’s directorial debut.

The Ghost (1963)
The Ghost (1963)

Italian director Ricardo Freda —who inexplicably used the English sounding pseudonym of “Robert Hampton” to direct Steele in 1963’s The Ghost — wrote glowingy of the actress in an article for Mid-Miniut Fantastique published that same year; he remarked that “her eyes are metaphysical, unreal, impossible… [and] there are times in certain conditions of light and color, when her face assumes a cast that doesn’t appear to be quite human, which would be impossible for any other actress.”

That Barbara Steele stare
That Barbara Steele stare

Indeed, it is her visage — her eyes, her expression, and a glance that could be both inviting and dismissive— that has defined her career. Early on, she was never much given the opportunity to speak. But those eyes. Those eyes told stories.

Though she would never become a household name outside of genre films, her fans are obsessive. Black Sunday posters like the one at the beginning of this article still sell well to this day. And up until just a few years ago, she attended conventions, drawing large crowds of autograph hounds. If she had begun and stopped with Black Sunday alone,  her place in horror movie history would have been secured. But her vast body of work over several decades has earned her the right to be called not only a scream queen, but their Queen.

For it is her ability to express without words the terror of both monster and victim that sets her apart from so many other actresses. As Freda put it, she can assume an expression “that doesn’t appear to be quite human.”

Is it any wonder then that so many directors of horror films over the last fifty years have sought her out. Horror is unsettling when it challenges our preconceptions of what it is to be a monster. What it is to be the victim.

Indeed, what it is to be human.