Freaks, by Robert Horton
Someone should put the scene in a movie: F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Hollywood in 1931 for one of his unhappy flings as a screenwriter, lunching at the MGM commissary. No doubt badly hungover, his spirit breaking at the squandering of his talent, Fitzgerald glances at his fellow diners—a group of sideshow freaks—and promptly bolts outside to get sick.
Interestingly (and this says something about him as a writer), Fitzgerald subsequently alluded to the episode in his story “Crazy Sunday,” but in warm, melancholy terms. The story’s depressed hero sits in the commissary and finds “gloomy consolation in staring at the group at the next table, the sad, lovely Siamese twins, the mean dwarfs, the proud giant from the circus picture.” Fitzgerald’s reactions—violent horror and heart-wrenching sympathy—exactly describe the responses over the years to Freaks, which was in production at MGM in 1931, and whose carnival co-stars were the cause of the writer’s nausea. (Incidentally, Fitzgerald’s lunch-table queasiness was not unique, and the sideshow performers were persuaded to dine in a separate, outdoor eating area.)
Does Freaks make you think, or does it make you sick? Is the film an exercise in understanding, or exploitation? For a young fashion photographer named Diane Arbus, Freaks was an enthralling signpost into new possibilities. Film critic Andrew Sarris wrote that it “may be one of the most compassionate movies ever made.” They were responding thirty years after the film’s release, when the resurfaced Freaks became a cult item for the 1960s, an unexpected badge of counterculture knowingness. For a decade and a half before that, the film had been a staple of the sleazy exploitation circuit, variously titled Nature’s Mistakes, Forbidden Love, and the unequivocal The Monster Show.
The movie’s strange history includes its genesis. What on earth was classy, prestigious Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer doing producing a horror picture with a cast of real-life freaks? The studio’s resident genius, Irving Thalberg, knew a trend when he saw one, and director Tod Browning had just made a bundle over at Universal with Dracula. Now Browning wanted to adapt a bizarre short story by Tod Robbins, called “Spurs,” which had to do with the sadistic marriage of a dwarf and a circus rider. Actor Harry Earles, a little person who had starred in Browning’s The Unholy Three, was keen to play the homuncular suitor.
Browning and his screenwriters changed the story considerably. The picture still turns on the wedding between the dwarf Hans and–as Hans says–“the most beautiful big woman I have ever seen,” the heartless trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Hans spurns his fiancee Frieda (played by Harry Earles’ real life sister Daisy, also a dwarf) to make the marriage; but Cleopatra is interested only in Hans’ money, and plays around with the strong man Hercules (Henry Victor) on the side. It all takes place in the circus, so Browning cuts the central story together with many greasepaint sidelights, especially the daily habits of the freakshow performers.
It must have been one of the stranger casting calls in Hollywood history. Browning corralled a group of the top sideshow performers in the country (who did not get on especially well together), and allowed them to do their specialties in the film. For the most spectacularly mis-formed of the actors, Prince Randian, this consisted of rolling and lighting a cigarette—the miracle of which becomes clear if you understand that Randian was born with no arms or legs, a “basket case” who used his mouth to roll a smoke.
The performers include Violet and Daisy Hilton, the Siamese twins who later appeared in the exploitation cheapie Chained For Life (and whose career[s] inspired the Broadway musical Side Show), a scattering of pinheads, a bearded lady (Olga Roderick), a “living skeleton” (65-lb. Pete Robinson), and other assorted misfits. Perhaps the most memorable of the group was Johnny Eck, who was born with a body that ended just below his ribs, but who was otherwise bright, handsome, and normally proportioned. Eck ambulated by hopping around on well-articulated (if well-calloused) hands.
Tod Browning’s attitude toward these performers has been much debated. Browning had run away and joined the circus (and eventually vaudeville) as a young man, and claimed an appreciation of the sideshow people; one of his own gags was a fake live burial, billed as The Hypnotic Living Corpse. The movie’s gaze bears out this claim of sympathy. In an early scene, Browning presents the pinheads, the living torso, the half-boy, and others cavorting in a sunny, outdoor setting (most of the remainder of the film takes place in studio-shot carnival sets). It’s like a macabre picnic on the grass, an eye-popping hybrid of Manet and Francis Bacon. Yet here, as in later scenes, Browning simply trains the camera on these people and lets them do their thing. The distance and lighting are neutral, as though to discourage any extreme reaction.
A couple of scenes, however, depart from Browning’s matter-of-fact acceptance of his exotic group. The indisputable centerpiece of the film is the wedding feast, following Cleopatra’s nuptials with the unsuspecting Hans. The freaks are gathered around the table, chanting “Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us, one of us,” and the drunken Cleopatra slowly registers the invitation they are extending to her. Now, no question about it, we are supposed to come away from Freaks contemplating the irony that beautiful people might be inwardly ugly and that ugly people might be inwardly beautiful, but this is where the proceedings tip over into horror. Cleopatra may be the villain of the piece (Olga Baclanova’s tortured, heavily-accented vocal stylings even call to mind Bela Lugosi), but the audience can be forgiven if we join her in a moment of revulsion—especially when the sideshow folk pass around a “loving cup,” each sipping from the communal goblet (the Gooble Goblet?), which is then offered to her. This is the moment she reveals her disgust (surely one of the all-time line readings: “Dirty—slimy—FREAKS!”), chases the revelers away, and hefts her tiny groom onto her shoulders, to gallop around the sawdust as a weird prelude to the wedding night (also a cruel echo of Frieda’s act, riding around on a toy pony—the closest we come, by the way, to seeing the freaks actually perform for the public).
Browning plunks all his cards on that wedding table. It’s perfectly okay to accept the conventional reading of the movie (David Thomson has described Freaks as “an indictment of the cult of attractiveness”). But there’s also Browning’s unsettling excitement in sheer sensation, his hot interest in perversion and monstrosity—check out his silent pictures with Lon Chaney, riddled with amputations and cripplings and incestuous feelings. You can’t come away from the wedding feast without a mix of impressions; all variety of fear and loathing seem to be bubbling out of Browning’s brain. One of those impressions is the sneaking suspicion that the cinema has never quite gone this far before.
The story quickly kicks into its final act: the revenge of the misshapen, after they learn of Cleopatra’s plan to poison Hans. In these scenes, the freaks scuttle under circus wagons and wiggle in dark corners. In the midst of a thunderstorm, they chase Cleopatra and pounce on Hercules (apparently an early cut of the film was explicit about Hercules being unmanned by the attackers). Dark shadows, forced compositions, much creeping through mud—the scene delivers the required suspense, and this time you’re with the freaks all the way, one of them, one of them.
The movie isn’t over yet, however. The carnival barker returns from the film’s opening, directing a crowd of gawkers to look into a pit. Browning finally shares with us the vision within, a beastly thing out of a sick nightmare. Okay, now Freaks has gone too far. This is beyond a scare, and beyond the jovial “master of the macabre” labels that indulgent critics invented to describe Browning’s questionable silent pictures. Either movies go to hell after this, or they pull back to a safe distance.
Of course, movies pulled back, behind an official morals code and more cheerful entertainment. (Someone else was going too far in Europe at the same time: Luis Bunuel’s surrealist trangressions Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’or helped kill his career for years.) MGM was as grossed-out by Freaks as audiences would be, and they cut the original Browning version to 65 minutes. The picture lost money anyway.
Later audiences would come to appreciate the film, especially after that Sixties rediscovery. Pieces of Freaks have seeped into the efforts of David Lynch and Werner Herzog, and the Ramones gave a punk-rock nod to the film’s latterday coolness by chanting the song of the freaks in the memorable “Pinhead”: “Gabba gabba hey” isn’t a precisely correct quote from the movie, but close enough. One of the powerful lessons of Freaks is that to look head-on at human oddity is to normalize it, an effect re-stated in Lynch’s The Elephant Man and Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask. Both pictures unblinkingly presented their disfigured heroes at stage center, and the longer you stared at them the more human they became. Tod Browning, who became a Malibu recluse for the last twenty years of his life, died within a few weeks of the rediscovery of Freaks at the 1962 Venice Film Festival. A peculiar figure by any standard, Browning may have been the biggest freak of all, trapped by his own deformity—psychological, spiritual, whatever.
To measure the lasting spell of Freaks, try watching it on a big screen (when double-billed with Lynch’s Eraserhead or Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small, it makes a mind-altering experience). The blend of melodrama, MGM gloss, medical grotesquerie, and early-sound ambiance is uncanny. Even its technical flaws add to the effect: the tinny soundtrack, the sometimes creaky line readings (Harry and Daisy Earles are just right for the film, but their delivery is arduous), the dream-like lapses in continuity: just before one tense sequence fades to black, there’s a frightening, shivery shot of Randian lurking under a wagon, which logically must be from the climax but is inserted at this earlier moment. It’s absolutely eerie, and it absolutely works. Take from Freaks what you will, but no movie has ever crept like this one.
(This was written as an introduction to Freaks [thus the “official introduction” mode] a few years ago at the behest of Jim Emerson for an online project that promptly went kerflooey. As far as I know it was never published.)