I was recently inspired (largely by Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” series) to start a weekly series of posts devoted to what constitute “my favorite movies.” This is a multi-purpose idea: to probe into why, exactly, I consider these movies my favorites; to explore the difference between personal taste and objective quality; and to just see how much I can extract meaningwise from the movies in question. I’ve jotted down a little list of possibilities to start from, but I plan it to be pretty fluid and, like Ebert’s series, a “collection” rather than an limited or exclusive list of any kind.
And so, I figured, what better movie to start out with than one that’s much-beloved by myself and others, but generally neglected in official “best ever” lists, Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)? I first encountered the film maybe 5-6 years ago (on TCM, of course), launching me into an obsession with Browning’s work. I’d long been familiar with Dracula (1931), but soon watched collaborations with Lon Chaney, Sr. like The Unknown (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928). While Freaks may not be as culturally omnipresent as Dracula nor as emotionally focused as The Unknown, it’s nonetheless a totally one of a kind film and probably, in the end, Browning’s most notorious.
Freaks occupies several interesting borderlands. It’s a mix of narrative (a romance/revenge storyline) and spectacle, tapping into the average viewer’s anthropological voyeurism. I’d compare it to Tabu, which was made one year earlier by master of melodrama F.W. Murnau and pioneering documentarian Robert J. Flaherty, in the way it drapes spectatorship into foreign lifestyles around a fairly simple plot. It also sits in the space between mainstream Hollywood productions and exploitation cinema: produced by MGM (and originally slated to star Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow), it nonetheless has more in common – in terms of subject matter and presentation with its low-budget, independent brethren than it does with, say, Grand Hotel. One sign of this affiliation is the fact that Freaks was exhibited nationwide by Dwain Esper (director of Sex Madness, among others) in the years after it was roundly condemned by mainstream authorities.
Indeed, when it came out, Freaks received as vicious a response as The Rite of Spring or L’Âge d’or: people fainted, shrieked, even miscarried, and Browning’s career was pretty much ended (though he did manage to direct two more horror classics, Mark of the Vampire and The Devil-Doll). All of this just added to its reputation when, 30 or so years later, Freaks was revived as one of the original, most-appreciated cult films, which is where it sits today. So why the uproar and outrage? Maybe the clearest reason is this: Freaks is nothing if not transgressive. The title itself suggests that everything about the movie is outside the norm, and vehemently different. It’s a movie intended to shock and surprise as much as anything out of exploitation or John Waters; you can see it even in the carnival barker’s introduction. Superficially, he’s referring to the deformed Cleopatra, but ultimately, he’s talking about the movie as a whole.
So what kinds of difference, transgression, and line-crossing do we have in Freaks? First, there’s Hans, the midget, who loves the “big woman,” Cleopatra, setting up the film’s main conflict. There’s the freak community existing within a world that rejects them. A Frenchman condemns a group of young freaks as “monsters” even as Madame Tetrallini, herself physically normal, defends and mothers them. Repeatedly, the film bumps up against a fear of physical abnormality, and a fear of compromising bodily integrity – a current that runs throughout pretty much of all of western horror fiction, from Frankenstein to Lon Chaney, from the career of David Cronenberg to a large number of urban legends, and more. It’s a fear that serves as Freaks‘ main subject, making the film both in your face and ahead of its time, a forefather of the body horror subgenre.
An easy way to discuss the film’s encounters with difference might be to look at all the heterosexual pairings that populate it: there’s Hans and Frieda, the midgets who are a romantic couple here, despite being played by Harry and Daisy Earles, real-life siblings. Hans loves Cleopatra, the beautiful acrobat, who is conspiring and making love behind Hans’ back with Hercules, the strongman. I see Cleopatra and Hercules, with their mythological namesakes, as being just as freakish as Hans and Frieda – but instead of having “not enough” (i.e., in terms of height), they have “too much”: they are the super- woman and man, on display because of their excess of feminine and masculine qualities. A third couple is seen in Phroso and Venus, both played by recognizable MGM character actors (Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams), who are the film’s representations of physical normality, yet tolerant of the abnormality that surrounds them.
Other couples abound in the periphery: we see Angelo Rossitto (the dwarf) and Frances O’Connor (the armless girl) eating together in a trailer; the stuttering, emasculated Roscoe married to Daisy, a Siamese twin; and the bearded woman and the human skeleton, who have a child together. In a very interesting twist on this pattern, the film has Josephine Joseph, ostensibly half-man and half-woman, split right down the middle. S/he brings to my mind the theory espoused by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium of a world originally populated by four-legged, four-armed creatures who were broken apart into two-person heterosexual couples. In one of the film’s many perverse subplots, Josephine Joseph is a couple unto him/herself – s/he hits on Hercules, only to be rejected, and later gazes on in sexual frustration as Hercules embraces Cleopatra. It’s symptomatic of the film’s many ambivalences that one minor character finds him/herself inherently crossing gender boundaries.
Freaks, then, brings the viewer across one line after another through its characters, many of whom are uncategorizable both in physical and sexual terms. (Another example is Schlitze, a male pinhead who is dressed and referred to as female.) The prejudice they face from the “normal” world makes the film, I think, a very durable metaphor: the impossibility of a freak/normal marriage between Hans and Cleopatra echoes miscegenation fears, and on a broader level the film’s conflict can apply to anyone who has ever felt rejected or dehumanized for any reason, just as the film itself was rejected upon first release. Like the freak shows it depicts (although curiously, only fractions of any performances are ever seen) and like the exploitation cinema that claimed it, Freaks has always been sideshow (or underground) entertainment smelling of sawdust and spilled beer. This lack of respectability, coupled with the film’s insistence on transgression, gives it much of its cult credibility. (What’s cool about seeing a movie “they” are encouraging you to see? Incidentally, Freaks was banned for decades, like A Clockwork Orange, in England.)
Thus, Freaks itself as a film manages to match the “forbidden” qualities of its own subject matter – a depiction of taboo violations becomes a taboo in itself. I’m sure semiotics could have a field day with that. Just mentioning Freaks is a sign of outsider qualities, as with the Ramones’ “We accept her! We accept her!” in the song “Pinhead,” or Bill Griffith’s long-running, enigmatic comic strip “Zippy the Pinhead.” (There’s just something about being a pinhead, it appears, that succinctly signifies exclusion in a way that “dwarf” or “legless boy” doesn’t.) I think it’d be worthwhile to examine in some more depth the infamous “Wedding Feast” scene.
It’s strange that, although generally considered a horror film, Freaks contains little explicit horror beyond the physical identities of its actors. However, everything about the wedding feast is so bizarre and so foreign that it constitutes “horror” just as much as any violent assault or intrusion of the supernatural. While the human skeleton plays no particular tune on the harmonica (creating a strange but merrily circus-appropriate backdrop), two otherwise absent characters demonstrate sword-swallowing and fire-eating, which amounts to a pair of filmed circus performances. Then, under the leadership of Angeleno the dwarf, the freaks prepare Cleopatra “a loving cup”: an enormous goblet of champagne from which one freak after another drinks in succession; meanwhile, Josephine Joseph and others strike up a surreal refrain of “We accept her, gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us…” What makes this most effective as horror, I think, is how naturally the freaks join into the nonsense verse “gooble gobble.” Consider an earlier exchange between Angeleno and Frances O’Connor, the armless girl, with regard to Cleopatra:
Angeleno: Let her try it. Let her try doing anything to one of us.
Frances: You’re right. She don’t know us. But she’ll find out.
All of these subtle hints at the extremity of the freaks’ sense of togetherness are, of course, proven true in the grisly climax, and they suggest something the movie never shows us outright – the unwritten, unspoken code of the freaks and their concealed knowledge that an attack on one of them will be treated as an attack on all. In this regard, the wedding feast is an inversion of the climax; together, the two rituals show the family of freaks while at the heights of celebration and at the depths of revenge.
Freaks is a roughly-made movie, I admit. It stars professional performers, but they often fail as actors, as with the living torso Prince Randian’s single but inaudible line, “Is there anything I can do in the act, bro?” The editing is patchy, some scenes go on too long, and the movie’s been through so many versions in its storied history that it’s hard to identify a definitive version. (E.g., some have a tacked-on prologue, while others have a tacked-on ending.) But as with much of Browning’s career, the way the material is presented is subservient to what‘s being presented: an ensemble cast full of genuine physical abnormality. Freaks‘ sheer audacity is what lets it live on in infamy while most of the more-accepted films of 1932 have since been forgotten. Carefully treading the line between understanding and exploiting, it’s compelling and enjoyable in its violations of our basic beliefs about the human form. And the fear inspired by this violation makes it a horror classic. Positioned brazenly on the outside of everything, Freaks is one of my favorite movies.