Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) is a film that would never, ever be made today. In fact, considering how badly it bombed, it’s safe to assume that many people thought that it shouldn’t have been made in the early 1930s either. Nevertheless, it became a cult classic, and I for one love it.
I also feel like it’s one of those films where people feel like it’s not right to love it, due to the fact that Browning used people with real disabilities in the cast, which could definitely be seen as exploitative. Given that the film is called ‘Freaks’, and the horrific climax involves the sideshow performers rising up against those who have wronged them. And yeah, it’s definitely problematic, as much as it is of its time.
Also, I think one has to be careful of getting so tied up in political correctness that we start to speak on behalf of others. The fact is that (with the possible exception of the performers with microcephaly), the cast was made up of adults who were fully aware of what the film was about and what they were signing up to do, and regardless of whether some of them later regretted it, it is no one else’s place to say whether it was right or wrong of them to take part in the film.
I was watching the ‘making of’ documentary on my DVD and it featured an interview with the actor Mark Povinelli, who is a little person. He said “I think you have to be careful to limit [exploitation] to the individual and when the individual feels like they’re being used and feels uncomfortable about what they’re doing, then it’s exploitative. I think society has to be very careful about deciding for others what is harmful to the individual.” So basically what I said but put a lot more eloquently. He also acknowledged that there isn’t anything shameful about being fascinated by difference because it’s a natural human trait that we all have. Even today there are frequent documentaries about extraordinary people on the television, and while they’re certainly a lot less sordid than the P. T. Barnum style sideshow, it still comes down to the same thing – the human fascination with difference.
The thing that I find so compelling about Freaks is that it really gives a sense of the community amongst the circus performers, and the love they have for each other. Love that will eventually drive them to acts of violence when one of their own is abused.
The main story revolves around Hans (Harry Earles, who originally proposed the story for filming) who abandons his fiancee Frieda (real life sister, Daisy Earles) for the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). It transpires that Cleo and her strong-man lover are just trying to con Hans out of his fortune (sidenote: he has this vast fortune, so why is he working in the circus?), and after the wedding she begins to poison him. However, the other performers find out and plan their revenge.
Perhaps the most famous scene is the wedding feast, where the performers try to accept Cleo as one of their own, much to her horror. It is a scene of supreme cruelty, where we are exposed to the true ugliness of the beautiful Cleopatra, and feel great empathy for the sideshow performers. To the extent where it seems perfectly justified when their promise to make Cleo ‘one of them’ takes a darker turn.
While the film is undeniably clumsy in its execution, I feel like it’s definitely an attempt to challenge the objectification of people of difference. Personally I find the real horror in the film lies in the cruel behaviour of Cleopatra and Hercules. I wonder if that’s why it’s become such a cult classic. Goodness knows there are enough people in society who feel like outcasts for whatever reason, and there’s something cathartic about seeing these people rising up against their oppressors. I don’t know. Basically, you should watch this film. It’s not comfortable viewing a lot of the time, but I think it’s worth it.
By the way, apologies for not posting that often lately. I’m in the final stage of my PhD and it’s kind of taken over my life and I feel like my brain is dissolving. I’ll try and be more regular though.