Freaks (1932) by Tod Browning or monsters’ beauty at it’s best

Our society is divided. On one hand, the able bodies, sliding through life like nothing else exists; on the other hand the disable ones, reduced to use different toilets as the “normal people”. This is a recurrent issue in our western society, the relation to the disabled body always has been complicated and full of awkwardness.

In 1924, Tod Browning, an American director who worked in a travelling circus for a couple of years decided to put bits of his story into a movie. The film is also based on the 1923 short story Spurs by Todd Robins. The story takes place in a travelling circus where disable and able bodies struggle to live together. It revolves around Cleopatra, a very beautiful able woman doing the trapeze in the circus. When she learned that the German midget Hans has a lot of money, she will try everything to marry him in order to have access to his wallet.

As you go through the movie you realize how much of a genius Tod Browning was for that time. First, he took “real freaks” for his movie and not some able actors playing the disabled, which makes it truthful; secondly, when watching it, it soon hits you that the circus is an analogy for the all world we live in, with all that cruelty and unfairness. Hans the midget is deeply in love with Cleopatra and never realizes that he is being use just because of his money.

Of course the movie is called Freaks with a ‘s’ and Hans is far from being the only disabled body of the circus. There is the common bearded lady, a human skeleton, a couple of microcephalics that are referred as ‘pinheads’, wearing dresses mainly due to their incontinence, a disputed claim. There is also the Human Torso, a guy without legs walking on his hands and the ‘Bird girl’ who had a bird headed dwarfism. All this joyful crew has to struggles against the clowns, the acrobats and the very mean muscle man who will never consider them as equals or humans.

As you go along the movie, and let’s remember that we are in 1932, it hits you how the ones considered as “Freaks” are definitely the more human ones. They are much more capable of empathy and feelings that are torn down by the individualistic system we still live in. All the able bodies want to achieve wealth and glory. All the disabled bodies are just trying to survive and be happy as much as they can. Makes sense, doesn’t it ? They are full of love and happiness and have no troubles going towards people. The same process does not happen the other way around.

Freaks began to be shot in December 1931 and got his first disastrous screening at the beginning of 1932. People were outrage, first by the tone of the movie taking an active part in the diabolization of the able bodies and secondly because, for most of them, it would be the first near horror movie they ever saw. One of the last scene of the film has everything of the horror movie genre with creatures crawling in mud under heavy rain, and the able couple trying to run away in that chaotic situation. The end of the movie, which i will not reveal, made a tremendous impression on the viewers. It can seem funny today but for that time, it was one of the most powerful image you could give to your audience. A woman even threatened to sue the MGM (the producing company) claiming that Freaks gave her a miscarriage.

After the first screening, Tod Browning almost had to cut half his movie to make it watchable for big audiences. It took off the scene where the human torso is rolling a cigarette, in the end he just light it up. One emasculation scene was cut down as well as the final scene where all the horror happens. We are still frightened, even now, but we will never know what it looked like before as the cut bits were lost. So all we have now is a one hour movie mainly revolving around the love-abuse relationship. It kept all its power to shock and entertain even almost a century after.

It still has some strong images people can relate to. One of them is the birth of the child made by the human skeleton and the bearded woman. Their relationship can be analyzed as an antagony of Hercule and Cleopatra’s relationship. The love between the two able bodies has nothing truthful and is based on money and sex. It’s the other way around for the disable couple, they embody love and happiness, it allowed the people to think and it is still very relevant today.

It made the reader understands through a cheesy story that what you look like does not matter, it’s what you have inside that is the real deal. This movie was forbidden in the UK for 30 years, god knows for what reason. It has been rediscovered at the beginning of the 70’s and stayed as a counter culture movie since then. In the end, we realize that we are all Freaks and that everybody is the same, dwarf or no dwarf, strange face or mathematical beauty, arms or not, legs or not, we are all the same inside. It’s who we choose to be towards others that really matters.

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  • Chris Miloutac

    That’s so good to finally hear something about that movie that was for too long forgotten. Great insight ! I’ll check the Cinema Section every weekend.