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, 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 (where Lon Chaney is an armless knife thrower) and 1925’s The Unholy Three (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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Although most prints end with the revelation of what happened to Cleopatra, MGM apparently 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. The epilogue itself exists in two different versions, one with dialogue, one without. All three endings are included on the Warner DVD.
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.