You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
This week Lucy Randall looks at Tod Browning‘s 1930s ‘horror’ film, Freaks.
I ought to be upfront: Freaks has not been an easy film to write about.
I’ve noticed the film has been on the radar for many, horror buffs especially, but seen by only a few. Screened rarely in public forums, the film is easy to deem as inappropriate, having seen it or not. The film that allegedly brought Tod Browning’s career to a shamed close, Freaks is the story of a travelling circus and its community of sideshow acts taking vengeance on the people who exploit them.
The film’s protagonists are an engaged couple, Hans and Frieda, who both have dwarfism. Hans is wealthy by inheritance, observed early in the film’s narrative by the scheming, trapeze-flying beauty, Cleopatra. Frieda, is quick to notice her rival’s intentions. Tensions rise as Cleopatra’s flirtations capture Hans’ attention, though Frieda tries to remain supportive. Inevitably, Frieda’s efforts fail, and Hans marries his emotional captor. After Hans suffers her humiliating acts and her attempts on his life, his community take action and claim grotesque revenge.
There is more to be said about the film’s context and its legacy than the film itself. A pre-code production by MGM, who were known more reputably for classier style productions, Freaks leaves us to wonder more acutely about censorship, formal and informal. Freaks was long banned in Britain and many other countries for showing “too graphic a display of humans with the severest of physical disabilities” (take note: this quote, taken from The Guardian, is from our own time – 1999). The film was originally cut from 90 minutes down to 60 minutes, with concerns around its grotesque and violent ending. The original ending has been discarded, but gives a more visceral experience of Cleopatra’s grisly fate, while her partner in crime and lover is castrated and turned into a falsetto-singing sideshow act.
Visibility in Freaks defines its uniqueness. It’s been widely acknowledged that Freaks is an anomaly. Stylistically, the film wavers between observational drama, melodrama and horror. Its inconsistencies are notable: performances by the cast of the freak community are naturalistic, while their more villainous counterparts – the ‘normal’ people – are performed with tones of pantomime recognisable from the silent era.
Its mood in parts is more like cinema verité than anything else, as the camera patiently stays put as people go about their lives. While Browning opens the film with a fearful tone, the narrative we follow in flashback tenderly takes its time establishing the relationships between characters in the circus community. Hans and Freida are both so authentically charming, and our investment in their relationship is seamless. The sideshow community to which they belong are given more screen time than the characters leading “normal” lives in the troupe, and that screen time is more deeply considered, with time taken in developing their characters and relationships. Happy moments are cultivated, such as the communal gathering as the Bearded Lady gives birth to a child. It is this tenderness I was surprised by: how rarely today it is we see disability on screen, and yet this strange film is hinged on their presence.
What happened after Freaks that caused a ghostly absence of people with disability? Are we so affronted by seeing disability on screen that even now it is still rare? The cast have an array of visible physical disabilities: Browning recruited cast members from circus troupes who were not trained in screen performance. And so, on screen, we see disabilities that are perhaps more rarely seen today, such as microcephaly (“pinheads” was once the colloquial term) and tetra-amelia syndrome, which causes the absence of limbs.
The film is far less sinister than its original marketing implies, and in some respects, is refreshing. Browning, who had directed the 1931 version of Dracula, a more successful and palatable film for audiences of its time and ours, had apparently started his young adult life with a travelling circus, so one may assume seeing Freaks that this was his passion project, the risk he had to take.
Evidently the film’s publicity team were at a loss: looking back on contemporary promotions and reviews of the film, the messaging is mixed, with the tagline: “Can a full grown woman truly love a midget?”– it’s understandable audiences did not know how to feel when they saw the film.
Audiences have come a long way since Todd Browning’s horror film notoriously wrapped his career. Our sense of cinema has evolved, and our patience for the early talkies depending on our acquired tastes and love of context. As is the case in horror, with a growing academic discourse behind it and the support of those with a love for genre.
Unsurprisingly, Hollywood’s relationship to disability has been sketchy. If the Academy Awards are anything to go by, merely a handful of recipients in its near century-long history have had physical disabilities.
The most prominent instance was in 1986, when Marlee Matlin was awarded Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for Children of a Lesser God. While Matlin has gone on to experience success in film and television, this was the first lead role to be played by a Deaf actor in sixty years – a phenomenal absence in cinema. More sadly, there has been only one instance of a wheelchair user winning an Academy Award, Dan Keplinger, who won Best Short Documentary for King Gimp in 1999, and because the stage wasn’t accessible, his award was accepted on stage by two able-bodied representatives.
There would be solid reason in audiences rejecting the film on the basis of exploitation, for fear that representation on screen is for the purposes of frightening the audience, that misfortune and the nature itself could both be horrific. It would be understandable to think this way in the decades that have passed since its production. However, its more contemporary relative, the fourth season of American Horror Story: Freak Show, features in a major roles actors with both dwarfism and microcephaly playing ‘freaks’.
Stella Young, one of Australia’s most relevant disability advocates who very sadly passed away in 2014, resentfully referred to the practice of able-bodied actors performing the roles of people with disability as “spacking up”.1 The expression, evidently drawn from the descriptor for wearing blackface, calls for the inclusion of actors with disability for both the sake of their own employment and for visibility more widely. Actors with disability today campaign for their inclusion on screen via initiatives such as Don’t Play Me Pay Me. Their reasons? A significant absence from the Hollywood payrolls. The recent Oscar accolades given to Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne, along with Daniel Day Lewis and Jamie Foxx, for their portrayals of people living with disability are demonstrative of our interests as audiences in that experience.
As actor Harvey Fierstein raises in the 1993 documentary The Celluloid Closet, “visibility at any cost” can act as a crutch to isolated audiences in some cases more than the hurt poor filmic representation can cause. Here, he is referring to images of the queer male in film, specifically the ‘sissy’. While over the decades we have seen Hollywood churn out disability narratives, the actors with disability are harder to come across. People with disability are missing out: here is one of the most pronounced instances of disability on screen.
Indeed, language in the film is deeply problematic. Our standards of language around disability today vary, there is still ongoing ambiguity about what is ‘right’ or indeed preferred by people with disability. By comparison to the language used in the written components of the film, we’ve made considerable leaps and bounds. Opening with a ‘special message’ that acts more like a linguistic slap in the face, the bar is set low to begin as we see the kind of language by which this otherness is constructed: “crippled and deformed tyrants”, “misfortune”, “malformed” and “abnormal”. The intent behind this preface, however, is to garner the audience’s sympathy and brace us with a sense of humility, perhaps even shame: “They are forced into the most unnatural of lives. Therefore, they have built up among themselves a code of ethics to protect them from the barbs of normal people.”
Evidently, I don’t know that I can say that the film is commendable: I am an able-bodied person, it would not be right for me to speak on behalf of people living with disability who may rightfully take a strong disliking to this film. But there is a lot to be taken from this film. What function the film appears to perform, however, is pushing us to recognise how severe the lack of disability in Hollywood and commercial filmmaking more generally really is. 83 years on, where are we now?
Grace Sharkey: We are all on board with the disability narrative. Just this year, both Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore won Oscars for their portrayal of brilliant people who must now face life with a disability. Disability is being seen on our screens today, but as Lucy makes clear, the state of this representation is complicated.
The popular film criticism of today is often concerned with what is ‘good’ representation and what is ‘bad’ representation. I cannot say if Freaks is ‘good’. It is not my narrative to speak on behalf of. But I will say that there is something surprisingly pleasant about this film. The most famous scene from the film is when the circus performers chant, “We accept her, one of us” in regards to able-bodied Cleopatra, who then turns on them, seemingly afraid. The joy and sense of community between the circus crew is touching and bright, and the behaviour of the able-bodied Cleopatra is fully felt. Browning’s film made an impact for its ‘sympathetic’ portrayal of the disabled, and perhaps now that we’ve come a long way, we can see that a story meant to make us sympathise may not be the only worthy story being told in relation to disability.
Perhaps Freaks is not particularly redeemable. It might not be ‘good’ representation, whatever that might mean. But it does do something that Hollywood consistently does not do. As Lucy points out, it represents people living with disabilities played by people living with disabilities and there is something satisfying about that. We can only hope Hollywood revitalises this act, soon.
Dominic Barlow: By my judgement, the censorship that Lucy recounts seems to have had a devastating effect, because Freaks carries a cringingly snobbish perspective on its sideshow cast. As she describes, the lengthy opening scroll is a craven grab at credibility among its theatrical audience, with its pretentious allusions to the great misshapen characters of myth and history, and the hysterical notion that “never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature.” Fill our coffers with your pity dollars, it says, and quick, before the white-coats at the institute fix them all!
As for the film that follows, it’s a mishmash of vignettes that centres on a revenge/romance plot but fails to find a coherent tone. The remove via camera rigidity that Lucy mentions seems to me more like a result of the limitations in both filming technology and a cast inexperienced with acting on mark. Without variation in the visual template or transitions between scenes, it becomes a listless check-off of novelty scenarios (Siamese twins getting married! A tetraplegic having a smoke!). Surely another symptom of its ruthless edit-down.
We hear early on that if you “offend one, you offend them all”, and hence all of the troupe team up to take revenge on the promiscuous villainess, as though having any kind of deformity inducted them into a murderous hive mind. Despite the callback, it feels strange that we should be given looks at their individual lives before they should become lumped together as an aggressive herd. This is especially stinging considering how far Hollywood has come with disabled representation in Hollywood, and how far it still has to go, as Lucy has run down. Regardless of what tack Freaks is taking – black comedy, quirky romance, dark thriller – it is a patronising work that can’t follow through on any of them, and thus becomes the only malformation worthy of scorn here.