An Analysis of Tod Browning’s Freaks
Perhaps there isn’t a period as fascinating in the history of cinema as Hollywood’s ‘pre-code’ era. Although this period only lasted about a mere five years it has had a permanent impact on the film industry. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, American cinema was in somewhat of a transitory period. Silent films were becoming a thing of the past but more stringent censorship guidelines hadn’t been enforced. This led to a great slew of films that bluntly tackled issues of promiscuity, infidelity, prostitution, deadbeat husbands, raunchy behavior, drug and alcohol use, etc. Notable films from this period of time include The Divorcee (1930), Red-Headed Woman (1932), Baby Face (1933), and Three on a Match (1932) which stars a very young Bette Davis. One of the most intriguing films from this period is Freaks (1932) which was directed by Tod Browning.
Freaks a depression-era film featuring real-life circus oddities stands the test of time mainly due to its authenticity and mostly sympathetic portrayal of circus performers. The cast included very real sideshow entertainers such as the Hilton sisters who were conjoined twins, Johnny Eck who was born without a lower torso, and the limbless performer Prince Randian. Even though Freaks is often classified as a horror film its style and tone defy a definitive label. In many ways, it’s a classic tale of good vs evil, a love story, a slice-of-life drama, and a social commentary on how we often treat and exploit the more vulnerable in our society. The underlying premise is quite simple; “Normal” circus performers Cleopatra and Hercules run a scam on the gullible dwarf Hans who has an impressive amount of money. With the help of the kind-hearted and open-minded ‘normals’ Venus and Phroso, the freaks successfully help Hans exact revenge on his two nefarious scammers. Though this is the main plot the first two-thirds of the film also heavily focus on the ins and outs of everyday circus life. There are love triangles, marriage proposals, hook-ups, and a child birth. Humans are often innately curious about other humans and this film most definitely feeds that curiosity. ’Abnormal’ people engaging in relatively normal behavior shouldn’t seem like such a novel or provocative concept but here it is. In spite of this, the film never comes across as exploitive. Tod Browning treats his casts and characters with the respect and integrity that they deserve and that shines throughout the entire film and while I doubt that Browning was a feminist Freaks also continues the pre-code trend of strong female characters who have their own minds, desires, and motives. Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, and Daisy Earles all churn out stellar performances. Leila Hyams as Venus is snarky and frank with a heart of gold. After breaking up with her boyfriend Venus gives a brief but honest moment of commentary on the perceived gender roles of women venting ‘That’s it, that’s it. Go ahead and laugh. It’s funny, ain’t it? Yeah. Women are funny, ain’t they? They’re all tramps, ain’t they? Yeah. Except when you can get money from them!’. She eventually finds solace in the arms of a better man but this rant is a defining moment for her and it can still resonate with female viewers who have ever felt used and taken advantage and then subsequently cast aside and disrespected. Venus deserves to be treated with dignity because she chooses to treat all those around her with dignity. She is essentially the antithesis of the beauteous yet untrustworthy trapeze artist Cleopatra. Both are blonde and beautiful but with different hearts and minds. Neither is a prop.
Olga Baclanova as Cleopatra uses her strong will and beauty to manipulate others for financial gain. In many ways she’s a classic movie villain but Cleopatra never feels like a total cliché. I credit this mostly to Baclanova’s performance. While Cleopatra has virtually no redeeming qualities one could understand her horror and anxiety at her faux-wedding with Hans when his colleagues chant the infamous “One of us…gooble gobble, one of us…”. It’s a sincere and welcoming initiation but it pushes Cleopatra over the edge for she has no desire to be in the same company of “filthy, slimy, freaks!”. It’s a mean-spirited comment and Baclanova sells it with absolute disdain and disgust. It’s a powerful moment but not in a good way. This outburst ultimately leads to the beginning of her demise. By rejecting the ‘freaks’ she’s destined to literally become one. This leads to a dramatic tonal shift in the final act of the film as Hans and his cohorts get their revenge on Cleopatra by mutilating her, stripping her of her power and beauty. It’s karma at a high cost. Not totally underserved but jarring nonetheless and Baclanova owns this character whether she be a glamourous trapeze artist or a squawking duck lady. An impressive feat.
Venus and Cleopatra are both examples of a more out-spoken type of strength whereas Frieda (Daisy Earles), Hans’s poor put upon ex-fiancé demonstrates a different kind of strength. She’s a ‘soft’ character and arguably the heart of the movie. She’s also the most conventionally feminine. While Daisy Earles and Harry Earles are siblings in real life (both have dwarfism), they play lovers in Freaks. As a result there is a restrained quality to their relationship but this works in its favor. After the demise of Hercules and Cleopatra, the film wraps up with an epilogue of sorts. Frieda reunites with Hans at his home and attempts to reconcile with a gentle embrace. It’s very sweet. Daisy embodies the power of love and forgiveness. There is a firm case to make that she could do better than Hans but this was still the 1930s and the heart wants what it wants. After the grotesque conclusion to Cleopatra’s story arc, Hans and Frieda’s reunion feels like the proper poignant note to end on.
Freaks is a bit of a kaleidoscope. Changing tones that oscillate from the mundane to the menacing to the macabre to the heartfelt. It reflects the complexities and the universalities of the human condition. To quote Depeche Mode ‘people are people so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully?’. That really does embody the film’s mission statement. It’s unfortunate that such an iconic film derailed Browning’s film career as this is one of his finest moments. With his direction and gung-ho cast, Freaks elevates itself from what could have easily been exploitive drivel.