The normals are the real freaks in this still gut-wrenching horror classic
In mid-1931, MGM production head Irving Thalberg summoned scenarist Willis Goldbeck to tell him the time had come for the prestige studio to take heed of much-smaller Universal’s success with Tod Browning’s Dracula. Browning had done many silents for MGM, so Thalberg commissioned Goldbeck to write a vehicle for Browning’s comeback, something “even more horrible than Dracula.”
Drawing on a Tod Robbins novel called Spurs, Goldbeck created a world even more self-contained than that of Grand Hotel (made the same year) – the warped world of Freaks, the garish world of the circus sideshow, replete with bearded lady, vain acrobats, simpering pinheads, even a hermaphrodite. Thalberg’s reaction to the script was: “Well, I asked for something horrifying.”
Freaks was shot in 36 days on the sets still standing from Garbo’s Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise. Real freaks were brought to Culver City to populate this bizarre world, but the line between film and reality blurred when the freaks ate their meals in the MGM commissary. Even the most hardened showbiz veterans were “shocked and nauseated.” Neither their complaints nor those of studio executives could stop Thalberg from completing the film. Its release was another matter. It received so much bad press and created such ill will that MGM was forced to withdraw it from circulation, suffering a loss of $164,000. – Mark A. Vieira
Tod Browning’s Assault on Glamour
It’s hard to believe that Freaks was actually produced at MGM, using the studio’s facilities and craftspeople. This is not only because we associate director Tod Browning as much with Universal, especially after the spectacular success of Dracula (1931), as with MGM, but also because in many ways Freaks seems out of place in MGM’s glamour factory, where even the least expensive movie bore the stamp of the studio’s plush style.
Freaks’ opening disclaimer – “For the love of beauty is a deep-seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization” – is clearly ironic in light of what follows. Browning, a circus habitué himself, friendly with “fringe” people from hoboes to sideshow tramps, finds beauty not in the physically whole, powerful, conventionally attractive characters (Olga Baclanova’s Cleopatra, Henry Victor’s Hercules), but in the authentic pinheads, armless women, legless men, Siamese twins, and the others who give the film its title. These physically compromised but spirited characters are the true stars.
Browning’s career abounds with subversions of conventional morality, with an emphasis on physical deformity (The Unknown, The Unholy Three). Freaks is his most renegade work, simultaneously titillating and terrorizing audiences not only with tableaux of a subculture populated by the physically “abnormal” but also of seemingly deviant sex – the full-sized Cleopatra’s salacious dropping of her cloak to tempt the midget Hans (Harry Earles); a kiss given to one Siamese twin that’s clearly felt by the other; a lustful look from hermaphrodite Josephine at Hercules that triggers a brutal punch in the face. These and similar scenes establishing the loose sexual and romantic alignments of these circus denizens assault audience notions of romance and push at the boundaries of the raunchy pre-Hays Code style.
In addition to attacking the stifling morals of the day, Freaks encourages a reading of Browning himself as a sort of ungrateful artist figure, assaulting his patrons (Mayer, Thalberg) in his search for artistic truth. The circus itself appears as a distorted symbol of the Hollywood studio, creating vast profits for its owners by displaying its employees – whether actors or “monsters” – in garish popular entertainments. The film can be seen as an attack on MGM and Mayer in particular. The midget Hans, a “good” but fallible character, is Mayer’s distorted double, a specific satire of the short, gauche Old World European impresario of humble origins, with the film even reproducing physical affectations in Hans like Mayer’s cigar smoking. Like Mayer, Hans has access to enormous wealth (he is coming into a large inheritance); hence he must be cultivated, appreciated, honored, indulged, and loved by the more glamorous but considerably less wealthy “normals” who surround him. Like Mayer, he will distribute his largesse (in Mayer’s case the vast ego-building resources of the MGM “dream machine”) to those who curry his favor. When Hercules and Cleopatra, e.g., the MGM movie star, offend Hans, they must beg his forgiveness, because Hans holds the key to their financial independence.
Hercules and Cleopatra’s attempts to poison Hans and seize his money reflect the mogul’s built-in paranoia, the fears of a man who controls a vast industry that his workers – particularly the women – harbor hidden resentments and are in fact secretly trying to kill him. Like Mayer, Hans is highly susceptible to the lure of physical beauty, something he himself lacks, and he is naïve enough to believe he can be loved by a beautiful women, loved for himself in spite of his size, gaucheness, and Old World ways.
The film’s ambience reinforces this connection. Touches of “Old Europe” represented by moguls like Mayer are everywhere evident, from the multiple ethnicities of the circus denizens (the “mother” of the pinheads is French, the midgets German), to the freaks’ induction of Cleopatra into freakdom in a scene that recalls European beer halls, to the painted wagons and tents of the circus itself.
Mayer’s virulent dislike of the film, his removal of the MGM logo and easy yielding to the ban that kept it out of circulation for decades may have been due to more than a general feeling that it featured “unpleasant” images. Browning’s attitude is clear. The “beautiful” characters – Cleopatra and Hercules, whose working lives depend (like movie stars) almost entirely on the way they look – are maimed or killed. The movie shows the folly of trusting the kind of beautiful surface – “glamour” – that was MGM’s particular trademark by having that surface disfigured and destroyed by the “low elements” represented by the freaks. – Gary Morris