It’s difficult to see Tod Browning’s 66-year-old Freaks, even though it has the reputation of being one of the masterpieces of baroque cinema. It has been more written about than watched. Yet the tramps’ last supper in Bunuel’s Viridiana was said to have been inspired by it, and Max Ophuls, Fellini, Bergman and a host of horror merchants have inserted clips from Freaks into their films.
One of the reasons it is not often shown these days, even in repertory, is the feeling that it would be politically incorrect to do so. After all, not so long ago Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small – a parable about an institution of dwarfs who revolt against their fully sized governor – was picketed at the National Film Theatre. Freaks was banned in many countries (for 30 years in Britain) as too graphic a display of humans with the severest of physical disabilities.
Yet Browning, who ran away from school to join a circus where the ‘freaks’ performed, was concerned not to make his strange performers objects of horror or pity but to show thm in such a matter-of-fact manner (without close-ups or dramatic music) that you could even watch Randian The Hindu Living Torso, without arms or legs, light his own cigar without assistance.
The problem is that for all his laudable insistence that these people are fully human, Browning had a freakish tale to tell. The film is based on Spurs, Clarence Robbins’ short story, and was somewhat surprisingly commissioned by Irving Thalberg, the youthful president of MGM who had noted the success of Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein at rival studio Universal. So the film had to mix horror, or at least grotesquerie, with an attempt at social comment, and it’s the final sequences that cause the trouble.
Essentially, this is the story of Cleopatra, a beautiful trapeze artist for whom the midget Hans, although already engaged to another of his size, has an almighty crush. She is having an affair with Hercules the no-good strongman and she laughs at Hans behind his back.
When Cleo realises that Hans will come into a small fortune she marries him, but her true feelings are even displayed at the wedding celebration. Hans knows the medicine she is giving him is poison, and eventually Cleo and Hercules are chased through the forest by the avenging ‘freaks’. He is killed and she mutilated, becoming half-woman, half-chicken and squawking like a bird.
This horrific moment ends the film, but there are at least two other endings, intimating that Hans returns to his fiancee, either with joy or regret at what he has lost.
While it is clear that Browning wants us to regard the attractive Cleo and Hercules as the villains of the piece, the chase scene, with the circus performers crawling and slithering through the wood, creates horror and unease. Clearly, Cleo and her strongman see them as monsters and so, at this point, do we.
There are blatant moments of sexual innuendo, such as when Venus the seal trainer says to Phroso the clown: ‘You’re a pretty good kid.’ To which he replies suggestively: ‘You’re darn right I am. But you should have caught me before my operation!’ And when someone kisses one half of the Siamese twins on the lips, the other sister apears to be enjoying it as much. Both have fiances and you can’t help thinking what on earth was likely to happen in the marital bed.
But despite doubts, Browning’s film succeeds in being, as one critic has put it, ‘moving, harsh, poetic and genuinely tender’. It was undoubtedly before its time and no one has equalled it. Browning never did, but then he never had the chance since Freaks was a flop and Thalberg regretted he hadn’t listened to those at MGM who warned him against it.
Today, it looks like a damning antidote to the cult of physical perfection and an extraordinary tribute to the community of so-called freaks who made up its cast.