The opening disclaimer of director Tod Browning’s Freaks begins: “In ancient times, anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil.” The film concerns the sad love affair between the midget Hans (Harry Earles) and the beautiful “peacock of the air” Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and what happens to the woman when she betrays the all-for-one group order of a circus troupe’s freaks. After the success of 1930’s Dracula, Browning was commissioned by MGM to produce “something even more horrible.” Shot in little over a month on the sets from Robert Z. Leonard’s Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, Freaks so disgusted audiences and critics at the time of its release that it quickly vanished from active circulation. Considering the biting nature of the film, its damnation was that much more ironic.
Today, hardcore fans have a way of trivializing the film’s moral significance, some calling it a mere “masterpiece of shock cinema.” This is to seriously underplay the film’s blistering humanity and the audacious aesthetic and philosophical lengths to which Browning goes to challenge the way we define beauty and abnormality. Perhaps because Browning was so friendly with these people, he never exoticizes or exploits their appearances. Instead, he casually observes their all-too-human need to love, play and protect their own. Browning frequently lingers on the way the film’s “misshapen misfits” work around their deformities (the armless Frances holds a goblet with one of her feet and the limbless Prince Randian lights a cigarette using only his mouth), recognizing the ordinariness of their actions and their capacity for sexual pleasure.
Browning sees absolutely no difference between, say, the romantic irritations Leila Hyams’s Venus and Wallace Ford’s Phroso encounter and the epic tragedy that separates Hans from his equally pint-sized fiancée Frieda (Daisy Earles). “Yeah, you dames are all alike,” Phroso says at one point. Indeed they are. Frieda shares her troubles with Venus while hanging her laundry on a small tree. It’s impossible to ignore her small stature, but her emotional frustration is every bit as volatile as the bigger woman’s. Freaks’ misfits insist on being on equal footing with everyone else, a struggle for “sameness” that’s startlingly evoked by the film’s final scenes when Browning situates them on the same level playing field (here, the muddy terrain below the carnival cars) with Cleopatra’s equally venomous cohort, Hercules (Henry Victor).
The film’s disfigured children dance around in a circle in a pasture but are displaced by a shocked gentleman who insists, “They’re not children, they’re monsters.” But who is the real monster here? Make no mistake: far more shocking than the physical malformations of the film’s characters are their moral disfigurements. If audiences at the time of the film’s release where freaked out when Siamese twin Violet vicariously feels the kiss a man plants on her sister Daisy’s lips, then surely they must have been just as equally troubled by Phroso making innocent small talk with one of the film’s three pinheads. Phroso is in many ways Browning’s doppelganger. Just as Cleopatra and Hercules scorn the freaks, Phroso goes out of his way to ignore their disabilities.
When Cleopatra marries Hans for his fortune, Browning uses the film’s famous “Wedding Feast” sequence and its rhythmic use of montage to fantastically blur the lines between the normal and the abnormal. Simple human emotions take on ghoulish overtones and Cleopatra’s maniacal, triumphant cackle becomes impossible to distinguish from the rapturous, seemingly naïve laughter of the film’s misshaped protagonists. The tables fascinatingly turn and Cleopatra’s wedding feast becomes a different sort of initiation ritual. (Michael Tolkin cleverly engaged this famous “one of us” sequence in his screenplay for Robert Altman’s brilliant The Player, during a scene similarly concerned with group order and acts of deception.)
Browning is a fascinating visualist and he prefigures the woman’s final disfigurement in Phroso’s abstract poses and costume changes. While wearing an oversized clown costume, he asks Venus to hit him on the head with a toy hammer. When she does, his costume jerks upward and gives the illusion that he’s been disfigured. Later, he refuses to go on a date with Venus because he’s too busy building a sideshow attraction using a bathtub and wheels. Sitting inside the tub, the man (apparently a hardcore completist) comes to resemble Johnny “The Boy Wonder” Eck, the freak with no lower body with whom he frequently shares the frame. More so than his willingness to coddle the film’s freaks, Phroso is truly ennobled by his need to remind them that he is every bit the breathing, feeling human being they are.
Gary Morris of Bright Lights Film Journal fascinatingly sees the film’s circus life as a “distorted symbol of the Hollywood studio” system of the era. Though Freaks doesn’t actively attack Louis B. Mayer (it wasn’t until after its disastrous release that the studio honcho removed his famous logo from the film), it’s very much conscious of the way an insular society (whether it’s the film’s traveling circus or the Hollywood studio system) exploits populist notions of beauty for commercial gain. Who are the “freaks” of the film’s title then? Why, it’s anyone who fails to recognize the humanity of the film’s deformed lot. With good reason, film theorist Andrew Sarris called the film “one of the most compassionate films ever made.”