Circus dwarves Hans and Frieda (Harry and Daisy Earles) are engaged to be married. They work in a tight-knit community of ‘freaks’ that includes a ‘human torso’, a pair of conjoined twins, a ‘half boy’ and assorted other characters. The conniving trapeze artist Cleopatra (Baclanova), a ‘normal’, learns that Hans has an inheritance, and she seduces him for his money. At the wedding feast after they marry, Cleopatra is offered a loving cup as part of her initiation into the freaks’ community. However, at this point she heartlessly rejects the freaks and turns against Hans. Soon after, the freaks learn that Cleopatra and her boyfriend, the strongman Hercules (Victor), have begun poisoning Hans. In retaliation for this attempted murder, the freaks attack Cleopatra and Hercules in a climactic rainstorm chase scene. At the film’s conclusion, Cleopatra is revealed as now transformed into a legless, quacking ‘human duck’.
Scorned in its own time, Tod Browning’s Freaks eventually became one of the most important American cult films. First released in 1932, this film starring little-known actors and circus sideshow performers was an anomaly in the production roster of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio renowned for its high production values and its slogan: ‘More stars than there are in heaven’. This is a film that critiques the star system, both in its casting and in its narrative; indeed, it can be interpreted as a denunciation of our culture’s obsession with appearances. The differently abled bodies of the freaks who star in the film – armless, legless, small or exceptionally thin – serve to undermine the typical ideology of beauty promulgated by other Hollywood films. (I use the term freak without quotation marks in the spirit of defiance with which the term has been reclaimed by some in the disability community, much like the word queer has been reappropriated.) The film’s very plot involves unmasking a beautiful circus star – Cleopatra, the trapeze artist and ‘peacock of the air’ – as a greedy, repugnant character whose exterior attractiveness is ultimately destroyed at the end, when she is turned into a ‘human duck’ and becomes a sideshow spectacle herself.
Director Tod Browning is renowned for his films about outsiders. Browning himself had a background in circuses, having travelled with a number of carnivals and sideshows in his youth. Freaks is Browning’s most well-known picture due to its status as a cult film, along with the early sound version of Dracula (1931) he made for Universal, which stars Bela Lugosi. Browning also made a number of important silent-era features with actor Lon Chaney, the legendary ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’, in particular The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1927). The Unknown, considered by many today to be Browning’s masterpiece, tells the story of a circus performer (Chaney) who has his arms cut off to please the woman he loves (she fears the embrace of men), only to discover she has fallen for a strongman.
Freaks has been controversial since its release. Initially produced as a horror film, the picture was made at a time when disabled bodies were becoming viewed less as curiosities, as they had been in the old freak show tradition, and more as medical anomalies that could be ‘fixed’ by modern science. Freak shows had come to be looked down upon as low entertainment, and disabled people were now subjected to pity rather than gawking. Needless to say, neither approach allows the disabled person the dignity of his or her difference. What’s more, despite the changing attitudes about disability in the 1930s, the film still encourages an openly voyeuristic gaze. This seemingly anachronistic gaping, coupled with the film’s emphasis on the sexual desire of the freaks (Hans the circus dwarf explains that ‘I am a man, with the same feelings [other men] have!’), evidently made the film distasteful for 1932 audiences. Even after substantial re-editing by the studio, the film was a commercial flop, and it was quickly pulled from distribution by MGM.
Freaks then disappeared until 1947, when infamous B-picture director Dwain Esper purchased the film’s distribution rights and placed it on the exploitation circuit. Esper added a lengthy prologue, which reads in part:
“Before proceeding with the showing of the following HIGHLY UNUSUAL ATTRACTION, a few words should be said about the amazing subject matter. BELIEVE IT OR NOT —— STRANGE AS IT SEEMS. In ancient times anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil. For the love of beauty is a deep seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization. The revulsion with which we view the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated is the result of long conditioning by or forefathers. The majority of freaks, themselves, are endowed with normal thoughts and emotions. Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one. Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world. With humility for the many injustices done to such people (they have no power to control their lot) we present the most startling horror story of the ABNORMAL and THE UNWANTED.”
This prologue, accompanied by documentary-style orchestral music, regularly appears as part of the film today, but it must be understood as something that was added later for the film’s exhibition as an exploitation feature; it was never part of Browning’s original film. The prologue also highlights the film’s two opposing themes: the humanisation of freaks (who are ‘endowed with normal thoughts and emotions’) and the exploitation of freaks (who are ‘blunders of nature’).
After its initial commercial failure, Freaks was rediscovered as a cult film in the 1960s. The film’s successful reissue began at the 1962 Cannes Festival Repertory, where it appeared as the official horror film entry. The film soon gained newly appreciative audiences in Europe and the USA, who interpreted it quite differently than previous generations. In a new era, when the meaning of the term ‘freak’ had changed, audience members were more inclined to proudly fly their freak flag high. Instead of pitying the freaks or wondering how they might be fixed, these spectators were more likely to identify with their struggle against the cruel and conventional world of the ‘normals’. The film played regularly in late-night movie theatres for years in the late 1960s and early 70s, making it ‘possibly the oldest of all midnight attractions’. 1
Freaks has thus been received in widely varying reception contexts, and as such, it demonstrates the importance of audiences in shaping film meaning. From horror film flop in 1932 to cult film hit in the 1960s and after, this film has meant quite different things to different spectators in different historical moments. Freaks continues to inspire a wide range of responses in viewers today, from amazement to outrage. Such divergent responses are produced not only by different reception contexts outside the film, but also by the film’s own inner textual ambivalence: the first two-thirds of the film work to humanise the film’s freaks, but the concluding section reinscribes them as classic horror-genre monsters. The question surrounding this film today has become: is it humanising, or is it exploitative?
For many viewers, the story of Hans’s doomed love for Cleopatra pales in comparison with the film’s portrayal of everyday circus life. The first section of the film introduces the viewer to a cast of sideshow characters, many of whom were circus performers of some renown. Many of the actors had worked for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circuses, or on Coney Island. One of the most memorable performers in the film, Prince Randian ‘The Human Torso’, began his long career working for P. T. Barnum in 1889, and was still working in a freak show on Times Square at the time of his death in 1934 at age 63; the film features part of his cigarette-rolling and lighting act. Perhaps the most famous of the film’s sideshow performers, Daisy and Violet Hilton, were conjoined twins who had toured Europe and the USA as a Siamese Twin act from the age of three, playing music and dancing on vaudeville. Harry and Daisy Earles, who played Hans and Frieda, were brother and sister who comprised part of a four-sibling little people act called ‘the Dancing Dolls’. (Harry Earles had already starred in Browning’s film The Unholy Three and would later appear as one of the ‘Lollipop Kids’ in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939).) Johnny Eck, ‘The Half Boy’, had long performed a sawing-in-half magic act with his full-bodied twin brother. Angelo Rossitto, memorable as the dwarf who passes the loving cup around the table at the wedding feast, parlayed his experience as a sideshow performer into a highly successful career in cinema, working in numerous films and television programs; he eventually became one of the founders of Little People of America. As this brief account of just some of the cast of Freaks begins to indicate, part of the film’s appeal is the sense of realism achieved by the casting of real actors with disabilities. This realism, however, is counterbalanced by a strong dose of fantasy, as the performers’ everyday life is fictionalised into a horror story.
In its opening scene, the film encourages its audience to identify with the freaks. ‘But for the accident of birth, you might be even as they are’, a carny talker says to the audience-within-the-film. The film’s first half then contains a long sequence that serves to normalise the freaks. We see them going about their everyday business: working, playing, and, in keeping with the film’s salacious tone, reproducing: ‘The bearded lady’s baby is born!’ Much of the sequence is accompanied by swirling Calliope music on the soundtrack, which sets it apart from the rest of the film.
Once this circus music background finally stops, the narrative of doomed love begins to dominate the film. The film’s tone becomes progressively more carnivalesque, building up to a sensational wedding banquet scene which is preceded by the film’s only intertitle, which reads, ‘The Wedding Feast’. In this scene, Hans has just married Cleopatra, and the freaks decide to initiate her into their group. They begin to chant: ‘Gooble gobble, gooble gobble! We accept her, we accept her! Gooble gobble, gooble gobble! One of us, one of us!’ This chant filled with nonsense words sounds like a different language, and the scene has been criticised for making the freaks seem inscrutable and alien. At the same time, however, the crazy babbling quality of the chant has surprised and delighted audiences for decades, and it has become a kind of initiatory battle cry for the film’s cult audience. (The Ramones’ punk rock slogan ‘Gabba Gabba Hey’, featured in their song ‘Pinhead’, was famously inspired by this chant.) Despite their offer of a loving cup, Cleopatra brutally rejects the freaks’ allegiance, and proceeds to humiliate Hans by dancing around with him on her shoulders. After that, she tries to murder him. If one has been siding with the freaks, the revenge that follows seems well deserved.
The macabre revenge sequence that finally comes, however, does indeed turn the freaks into monsters, undoing the humanising work of the first portion of the film. Johnny Eck, Angelino, Schlitze, and others – even Prince Randian, carrying a knife in his mouth – march and slither through a rainstorm in the mud to attack Cleopatra and her ‘normal’ boyfriend, Hercules the strongman. While audiences may cheer their cause, the characters who generated so much empathy earlier have now been rendered devilish mutants, after the manner of classic horror villains. The film’s humanising has been neutralised in a blaze of sensationalism, and the film’s conclusion raises the tone of voyeuristic fantasy even higher with the shocking image of Cleopatra, legless and quacking like a duck after having been deformed by her assailants. Freaks may be far more acceptable now than when it was first released, but it is a product of the 1930s with a sensibility that could not be reproduced today.
1. J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies, New York, Harper and Row, 1983, p. 295.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: MetroGoldwyn-Mayer. Director: Tod Browning. Producers: Tod Browning, Irving Thalberg (uncredited). Screenwriters: Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon (uncredited). Suggested by Tod Robbins’ story ‘Spurs’. Cinematographer: Merritt B. Gerstad (uncredited). Editor: Basil Wrangell (uncredited). Cast: Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Rosco Ates (Roscoe), Henry Victor (Hercules), Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), Rose Dione (Madame Tetrallini), Daisy Hilton (Daisy the Siamese Twin), Violet Hilton (Violet the Siamese Twin), Schlitze (as himself, The Pinhead Girl), Josephine Joseph (Half Woman-Half Man), Johnny Eck (Johnny the Half Boy), Frances O’Connor (The Armless Girl), Peter Robinson (The Human Skeleton), Olga Roderick (The Bearded Lady), Koo Koo (The Bird Girl), Prince Randian (The Living Torso), Martha Morris (The Armless Girl), Elvira Snow (Zip the Pinhead), Jenny Lee Snow (Pip the Pinhead), Elizabeth Green (The Bird Girl), Angelo Rossitto (Angelino), Edward Brophy (Rollo Brother), Mat McHugh (Rollo Brother).]
Rachel Adams, Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Sally Chivers, ‘The Horror of Becoming “One of Us”: Tod Browning’s Freaks and Disability’, in Christopher R. Smit and Anthony Enns (eds), Screening Disability: Essays on Cinema and Disability, Lanham, University Press of America, 2001, pp. 57–64.
Oliver Gaycken, ‘Tod Browning and the Monstrosity of Hollywood Style’, in Christopher R. Smit and Anthony Enns (eds), Screening Disability: Essays on Cinema and Disability, Lanham, University Press of America, 2001, pp. 73–85.
Robin Larsen and Beth A. Haller, ‘The Case of Freaks: Public Reception of Real Disability’, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter 2002, pp. 164–72.
David Skal and Elias Savada, Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Master of the Macabre, New York, Anchor Books, 1995.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.