Teaching Tod Browning’s FREAKS
This week in my Trash Cinema class my students watched and discussed Tod Browning’s controversial horror film turned cult masterpiece, Freaks (1932). Freaks was released by MGM, but it was an odd choice for the studio given that their house style was associated with glamourous stars (Greta Garbo, John Barrymore), elegant settings, and story properties teeming with cultural capital. But after seeing the phenomenal box office returns for Frankenstein (1931, James Whale) and other Universal studios horror films, Irving Thalberg is supposed to have said to Tod Browning, “I want something that out-horrors Frankenstein!” (qtd. in Norden 115).
What Browning submitted to Thalberg was a film that touched on many of the themes that he had covered in previous releases like The Penalty (1920), The Unnkown (1927), and The Unholy Three (1930). These bleak stories emphasize protagonists (all played by the incomparable Lon Chaney) with physical disabilities and how these disabilities shape their personalities and affect those around them.
Freaks is a tale of love and vengeance in a traveling circus. But unlike his Lon Chaney collaborations, which relied on prosthetics and binding to create the image of disability, Browning cast real life “freaks” (a term embraced by the sideshow community and the freaks themselves) in his film. As a result, many anecdotes have circulated about the strange production history of this film. Most famously, F. Scott Fitzgerald, a sometime scriptwriter at MGM, allegedly walked out of the studio cafeteria in disgust when he saw the famous Siamese twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, eating there. Another employee recalls “Suddenly, we who were sitting in the commissary having lunch would find ‘Zip the What-Is-It’ sitting at the next table or the Siamese twins who were linked together, and half the studio would empty when they would walk in because the appetites went out” (qtd. in Norden 118).
MGM employees were not the only ones to make a fuss about Browning’s casting choices. The Hays Office (which would not heavily crack down on studios until 1934) requested numerous cuts of the original print and a disastrous test screening alerted the studio that the film was going to be controversial and problematic. The uncut version of Freaks (which is lost to this day) did well in its brief, initial run but MGM eventually withdrew it from circulation. The scandal surrounding the film permanently damaged Browning’s career and resulted in Thalberg’s demotion (Norden 118). Clever exploiteer Dwain Esper knew the value of the film, however, and took it on the road, marketing it as an exploitation film under sensational titles like Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes.
But what was so problematic about this film? What was so horrifying, so offensive, that it ruined careers? In her essay “Intolerable Ambiguity: Freaks as/at the Limit,” Elizabeth Grosz attempts to unpack our fascination with freak shows. She concludes that the individuals most frequently showcased in these spectacles, including Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, “pinheads” (microcephalics), midgets, and bearded ladies “imperil the very definitions we rely on to classify humans, identities and sexes — our most fundamental categories of self-definition and boundaries dividing self from otherness” (57). In other words, while we comfort ourselves by breaking down the world into neat binary oppositions, such as Male/Female, Self/Other, Human/Animal, Child/Adult, “freaks” blur the boundaries between these reassuring oppositions. She concludes, “The freak confirms the viewer as bounded, belonging to a ‘proper’ social category. The viewer’s horror lies in the recognition that this monstrous being is at the heart of his or her identity, for it is all that must be ejected or abjected from self-image to make the bounded, category-obeying self possible” (65). We need the freak to confirm our own static, bounded identities. And yet, I think there is a certain terror that we may not be as bounded as we think. If the hermaphrodite can transcend traditional gender categories, then perhaps our own genders are more fluid. For many that is a truly horrifying thought.
For example, in one of the film’s earliest scenes we witness the “pinheads” Schlitze, Elvira and Jenny Lee dancing and playing in the forest. From a distance they look like innocent, happy children. But as the camera approaches, it is clear that they are neither children, nor are they quite adults either. Thus it is the ambiguity here, rather than the disability itself, which is momentarily disturbing.
Grosz also mentions that “Any discussion of freaks brings back into focus a topic that has had a largely underground existence in contemporary cultural and intellectual life, partly because it is considered below the refined sensibilities of ‘good taste’ and ‘personal politeness’ in a civilized and politically correct milieu” (55). It is for this reason that I selected Freaks for my Trash Cinema course — the film, as well as its content, is considered to be in bad taste. It is in bad taste to exploit those with handicaps for a profit and it’s even worse to view the handicapped with horror, as Freaks seems to be asking us to do.
During our class discussion, I wanted the students to talk about these issues as well as Browning’s failure in the film. Freaks preaches acceptance and, as the above scene claims, the belief that we are all “God’s children.” And yet, the film was intended to “out horror” Frankenstein through its fantastic display of disabled bodies.
However, this teaching moment failed as soon as I replayed the famous “wedding banquet” scene for my students. In this scene the freaks have gathered to celebrate the marriage of a midget, Hans (Harry Earles), to the trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Cleopatra and her lover, Hercules (Henry Victor), plan to poison Hans in order to collect his vast inheritance, but at this point the freaks are unaware of her ulterior motives and attempt to embrace her as one of the group.
I wanted my students to see how Browning had made this scene “horrific” by having the freaks don their performance clothing (which serves to further highlight their differences) and chant in unison, “Gooble gobble, gooble gobble! One of us! One of us!” while beating rhythmically on the table. While the words themselves are friendly and accepting, they almost sound like a threat in this scene. Indeed, in the film’s opening frame story, a sideshow barker introduces the diegetic audience to an unseen but undoubtedly horrific sight: “You are about to witness the most amazing, the most astounding living monstrosity of all time!” (Here a woman in the crowd screams and recoils in horror). “Friends,” he continues, “she was once a beautiful woman…” This opening indicates that Cleopatra will meet a horrifying fate at some point during the film.
My students, however, were not horrified by this scene. They did not think Browning was exploiting his disabled actors by making them appear monstrous or threatening. Rather, many of them saw this scene as a celebration of diversity and a warm welcome to Cleopatra (who would reject that welcome moments later). The only monstrous characters in this scene, according to my students, are Hercules and Cleopatra.
I then asked them to discuss the film’s violent climax, when the freaks exact their revenge on Hercules and Cleopatra. I pointed out that in the film’s opening a man describes the frolicking pinheads as horrible, twisted things that “crawl and glide” in the dark. We are meant to dismiss this cruel assessment and yet, in the revenge scene, the freaks are depicted as horrible, twisted, gliding things (Hawkins 269). They crawl through the mud, clutching knives, and peer out at their victims through the darkness. Although the entire film argues that the freaks are happy, normal, loving human beings, this scene appears to undo that message. I wanted my students to therefore question why Browning depicted his disabled actors in this way, exploiting their physical differences as a method for horrifying his primarily able-bodied audience. Indeed, many contemporary critics of the film denounced this scene as a “significant miscalculation by Browning and his scenarists” (Norden 116).
While my students admitted that Browning seemed to replicate the very imagery he denounced earlier in the film, they felt very strongly that the revenge — Hercules is stabbed while Cleopatra is horribly disfigured — was warranted. While most horror films ask us to identify with the helpless victim and his or her suffering, my students argued that their sympathies never shifted. Cleopatra got what she deserved.
Although this class discussion did not go the way I intended — I wanted to talk about taste and exploitation — it did prove to be an interesting example of how a film’s reception can change dramatically over time. In 1932 Browning intended to “horrify” with this film and he succeeded to such an extent that MGM had to pull the film from circulation. Although Browning successfully horrified his contemporary audiences, who were accustomed to the conventions of the freak show, it is possible that his own view of his disabled actors is more in line with those of my students, who saw the film as a quaint tale of love and revenge. So maybe Browning was not an exploiteer after all — maybe he was just making his film for the wrong audience? Regardless, I will need to rethink these issues before I teach Freaks again.
Grosz, Elizabeth. “Intolerable Ambiguity: Freaks as/at the Limit.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 55-68.
Hawkins, Joan. ” ‘One of Us’: Tod Browning’s Freaks.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 265-276.
Norden, Martin F. The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994.