Freaks (1932) – The Body Beautiful
The constructed concept of physical human beauty is the creation of a few and addiction of the rest. The tempting visible may turn out to be inherently contemptible or the grotesque may ravish one with innocence. Deformity, inherited or acquired, is antithetical of the endorsed notion of beauty. And as a literary or cinematic subject it has routinely been ignored save in horror or exploitation genres.
Barely a century ago, any anatomically asymmetrical freshly born was consigned by families to garbage bins or donated to travelling circuses to become an ogle worthy exhibit. They were cursed as even religious imagery contrasted the handsome, muscular Gods against a hideous, deformed Devil. Within the mutilated clique however there existed no such differentiation. Their individual impairments were collective in the face of such societal rejection and an extra missing limb or organ made no difference. Their adversity united them.
Certainly, Director Tod Browning was destined to make Freaks (1932). Working in a circus before he joined films, he did stints as a contortionist, illusionist, a clown, and even an escape artist. Despite his alcoholism, his low budget big hit Dracula (1931) and knowledge of this microcosmic universe swung a reluctant MGM to give him the project.Like Alice, Tod Browning takes us through the looking glass, backstage of a circus concealed by the fancy facades, where he reveals a repulsive yet bewitching subterranean world. The disabilities on display are in your face to acknowledge, as uncomfortable an audience experience today as it was then.
The characters however go about their domesticity with absolute normalcy; eating, drinking, falling in love, having babies and pegging the laundry even with the lack of arms or legs or even both. As Browning turns on the blender, he churns our consciousness and makes us introspect.
The Browning ‘Friends List’ accumulated for this film would cause consternation today but it includes some truly fascinating real people. Sample this;
the inter-sexual Josephine Joseph, with her left/right divided gender and the pretty Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton who are dating two different gentlemen, together;
the arm less wonders Frances O’Connor and Martha Morris who raise a toast with their feet;
the completely limbless Prince Randian ( aka The Human Torso), the handsome legless Johnny Eck and Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow the microcephalics (aka pinheads).
Back to the story. Hans, a midget, is in love with a feted trapeze artist, Cleopatra, venerated for her beauty and called ‘Peacock of the Air’. She teases him, just enough to keep him interested while seducing the strong man Hercules on the side.
Indifferent to advice from his ‘freaky’ friends, Hans plies Cleopatra with expensive gifts which are financed by his large inheritance, so far unknown to everyone. When news of his fortune is revealed to the greedy Cleopatra, a sinister plot is hatched to marry and murder him, with Hercules acting as an accessory to the crime.
Browning does not paint all the ‘normal’ humans as monsters. The sub plot of another love story features Phroso the clown and the recently separated Hercules’ ex flame Venus, both compassionate and caring, the humane face of humanity.
Showing magnanimity even in their shock, the tribe decides to accept this outsider as one of their own during the wedding feast while chanting “We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!”
Petrified of drinking from the same cup as them, a drunken Cleopatra betrays her disdain, screaming ‘you dirty slimy freaks’ and tossing back the wine, while mocking a silent Hans, thus bringing a swift end to the festivities. Soon after the wedding, Hans takes ill as the poison fed to him in the garb of medicine takes effect. As a stunned Venus overhears of this macabre deed, word spreads around the camp.
Here the film’s casual tone becomes more determined and makes a u-turn. The kosher, infantile pretense of the clan finally ends. Humiliation they can take but homicide they will not stand for. The gloves come off and eyes turn watchful.
Pushed to the point of no return, what happens next is what horrifies the most and does not merit revelation. The mood, lighting, editing and sound combine to create a resolutely bone chilling experience. Probably what led to it being banned in many European countries for 30 years.
Been considered lost for 30 years, it was rediscovered at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. Ah, what would cinema do without the French! Since, it has been read from multiple approaches: a sympathetic rendering towards the imperfections of nature, sadistic and exaggerated piece of exploitative trash and even a poignant fairy tale in the vein of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’
Perhaps the real testament to the longevity of the film in the counter culture circuit stems from the viscerally visual manifestation of our own vanity, the fear of losing our looks through aging, neglect or disease and being abandoned in love and life – an extant nightmare for all.
To whet your appetite: In a fascinating scene, Browning makes the limbless Prince Randian perform a feat he was famous for: pulling out a cigarette from the pack, lighting a match and contentedly smoking – all hands free, using only his mouth.
With the expiry of copyright, Freaks is now in the public domain. Here’s a link to download: