When I first became interested in the horror movie genre, many years ago now, I read a reference to Tod Browning’s film ‘Freaks’ that fascinated me. It was not so much the lurid portrayal of ‘real freaks’ that attracted my attention, I only had to look in the mirror to see some deformed limbs. The response that the film provoked, only mildly conveyed in the book I was reading, was immediately recognisable back in the 1970’s.
The movie was summarily banned in Britain for 30 years, which seems a little excessive. It was considered to be ‘overly exploitative’, a lame excuse even then. All of the actors who played the freaks were in fact sideshow performers, people who earned money from displaying their deformed bodies. The freak show has a long history, dating back to the mid-sixteenth century and, participants have argued, it has given them a livelihood. Just like any other human activity there have been people who have abused it, exploiting those participating, but they seem to be in the minority. Although some of the acts did include people with mental deficiency, such as Schlitzie who had a long career in sideshows, the majority of them were very much of sound mind if not of sound body. They knew what they were doing and made a decision to exploit their own peculiarities, often because society would not offer them any alternative employment.
In many respects this was essence of the hypocrisy of the situation for disabled people. Society did not like them; they were seen as odd, monstrous, or even evil for simply being different in either body or mind. However, individuals were often very willing to pay to see such oddities when they were presented in the form of a show. It was for this reason that freak shows became popular and lasted for so long.
Tod Browning actually worked in a circus, he fulfilled the cliché of running away from home to join one before he became a Hollywood director. In 1931 he completed the horror masterpiece ‘Dracula’ with Bella Lugosi. The international success of this film encouraged MGM to give Browning a free hand in his next project and for this he turned to his previous experience, and fascination, with the circus. The result was ‘Freaks’.
The movie is not a classic and yet it is, rightly in my opinion, regarded as important by today’s critics. The story is very simple, avaricious trapeze, Cleopatra, artist discovers that the midget Hans, who she has been tormenting, is an heir to a fortune and decides to exploit him. In this she is aided by her lover, the circus’ strongman, Hercules. Feigning love she marries Hans with a view to murdering him and enjoying his wealth. Her plans are derailed, however, by the loyalty of the circus freaks to one of their own.
There is one thing in this story that many critics seemed to find unpalatable and that is that on screen the monsters are not the physically deformed, they are loyal, brave, and dependable people who look out for each other, but the beautiful Cleopatra and the physically impressive Hercules. They are the ones who plot murder, deception and robbery. It is they who humiliate and insult the freaks and it is they who suffer the due retribution.
Tod Browning went to great lengths to portray his freaks as people, different but human all
the same. For this reason he cast actual sideshow freaks, some of whom, like Johnny Eck, were already quite famous in their own right. This would be quite a brave aspiration even today never mind back in the 1930’s but the futility of it was graphically illustrated both before and during production. The original cast was to be the established actors Victor McLaglen as Hercules, Myrna Loy as Cleopatra and Jean Harlow as the more sympathetic Venus. Each of them voiced an opposition to starring in the film and producer Irving Thalberg decided to cast relatively minor actors Olga Baclanova, Leila Hyams, and Henry Victor in the main roles. During production most of the freaks were told not to eat in the main canteen as their appearance was upsetting other members of staff.
Worse was to come. At initial screenings prior to the film’s release the reaction was so averse that MGM decided to alter the movie substantially. They cut it from 90 to 60 minutes, removed various scenes, such as the castration of Hercules, and tacked on an unnecessary reconciliation scene between Hans and Freida to form a happier ending. None of this was to help. When the movie went on general release it still attracted negative responses. Variety at least concentrated on what was wrong with the movie, that is, pointing out that the story was weak, the action limited, and the acting stilted, all legitimate criticisms.
They New York Times were a little more sympathetic, acknowledging that Tod Browning was attempting to portray the freaks as real people, although expressed in a rather patronising fashion of strange people as children. The NYT also highlighted what was to become the hypocritical vein of many other critics and that was that people had an underlying love of the macabre to begin with, hence their visits to the sideshows from where all of the freaks in the film were plucked. The New York film trade journal Harrison’s Reports stated “anyone who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital. The mood continued with the Kansas City Star claimed that “there is no excuse for this picture. It took a weak mind to produce it and it takes a strong stomach to look at it.” The Hollywood Reporter agreed; “an outrageous onslaught upon the feelings, the senses, the brains and the stomachs of an audience.”
Generally the public agreed. They went to see the film but complained bitterly about what they saw. One woman even threatened to sue MGM on the grounds that seeing the film had caused her to have a miscarriage. The film was withdrawn before it had completed its run, banned in Great Britain for 30 years, and posted a loss of some $164,000.
It seems that the real objection to the film was the appearance of the real freaks themselves. This portrayal of genuine deformity rather than that created by the make-up work of Lon Chaney simply offended some people’s sensibilities. John Mosher of The New Yorker might write that “if the poor things themselves can be displayed in the basement of Madison Square Garden, pictures of them might as well be shown in the Rialto” but not everyone agreed. Looking at freaks was a guilty pleasure and not one that everyone want bringing out into the daylight.
It would be comforting to think that society feels a little differently today wouldn’t it? In 2012 the London Paralympics brought disabled athletes into the limelight in a way that had not been seen in mainstream audiences before. The games occurred at a time when the British Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was in power and enacting cuts to disability targeted benefits as part of its austerity package. The contrast was rather stark. On the one hand disabled people were being lauded as heroes and on the other they were being vilified as ‘spongers and scroungers’. In the lifetime of the ConDem government, 2010 to 2015, hate crime against disabled people actually went up by 41%. In 2012, during the Paralympics, I experienced also experienced being humiliated in public due to being on crutches at the time, but I must balance this out by also admitting that it was followed by someone offering their seat to me on the London underground for the first time ever!
In conclusion I do not think that times have changed that much between 1931 and 2016, which is a little disappointing to say the least. I know that there have been some changes but what I am really referring to is attitude, one person’s behaviour towards another. Very recently in Britain we had an instance where the current Conservative government looked to take more money from disability benefits, which many accept have already been reduced too far, to supplement tax breaks for the rich. That this eventually did not happen is a cause for celebration, yes, but the fact that people in power could even think this way to begin with leads me to believe that the human race still has a long way to go before it can watch a film like Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ and see that the monster is in the nature and not in the appearance of the characters.