Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Film directer Tod Browning worked carnivals when when he was younger, both as a talker ("Step right up folks...!") and as an attraction (he did a live burial stunt.) He'd carnival films before, but it was his 1932 film Freaks that got him into hot water.
The problem was the cast. He used sideshow performers: People without arms or legs (or both). Conjoined twins, a half-man-half-woman, pinheads and more..  Critics and viewers hated it.   The movie bombed, and was was widely banned..   Browning's career hit the wall.
Freaks follows a traveling circus. Cleopatra, a glamorous trapeze star, is engaged to Hans, a dwarf. Her secret plan is to murder him so she (and her thug boyfriend) can get his pending inheritance. Things get ugly at the wedding party. She gets drunk, insults her groom, and cackles. The freaks (who throughout the film have been portrayed as kind and friendly), offer to "accept her" as "one of us" and perform a chanting ceremony. Offended, Cleo has a meltdown, screams "Freaks!  Dirty, slimy freaks!" at them, and kicks them out.
The seal trainer overhears the murderous plans. Hans and his pals are warned. He plays dumb, secretly spitting out the "medicine" his wife gives him. Other freaks are always nearby, watching...
A storm hits. The freaks confront Cleo. With knives. (Thug Boyfriend is busy trying to assault the seal trainer.) Soon the villains flee in terror into the woods, with the freaks in persuit.
Our villains, we learn, get mutilated.
It's a weird movie. Part freak show, part "Why, they aren't that freakish at all" show, part "evil people get punished" fable. I suspect this and the fact that it was banned helped make it a cult hit.
Also, I think everyone fells out of place or powerless sometimes. Seeing the underdog (in this case, the freaks) outwit  jerks assures the audience that they, too, might be able to defeat their tormentors (hopefully not by carving them up, but you get the idea). It assures us, "Underdogs are people too. And we can kick some serious %&!! if provoked."


booda baby said...

What an interesting thing to consider. It's easy to think that Americans were so innocent and easily disturbed, but this is patently not true. I wonder how much the year/time had to do with the reaction.

Namowal said...

I wonder that too, Boodababy.
I agree that the depression era wasn't exactly a sheltered palace with a high fence.

Namowal said...

Maybe part of the problem was that all of the sideshow performers were born that way. I don't know how well understood birth defects were in the thirties, but I bet there was a bigger stigma to being born without a limb as opposed to losing one in an accident.
At least the latter had an explanation. The former might have been considered mysterious and frightening, perhaps shameful. Maybe viewers didn't like being reminded of the possibility that their kids could be born different too?
I suspect a lot of critics that complained about "exploitation" were in fact unnerved that so called "freaks" can and do happen.

Sally said...

Namowal, I think you were on to the essential in your last post. I remember being about 6 and going to Madison Square Garden. I think it was to see Roy Rogers, or maybe Gene Autry. Somehow I got to see the side show before mymother grabbed me away.

They had a genuine side show and it was very scary. There was no concept circulating that these were birth defects that could happen to anyone. NO WAY! These people were from the other side! Somehow it seemed as if they could reach out and pull you in if you weren't careful. It makes no sense. Related to the primitive appeal of fairy tales maybe.

Namowal said...

Hi Sally,
I never saw a freak show, but I remember being spooked by disabled people when I was really little. (No wonder you found the show unnerving!) I suspect there's a primitive part of the human brain that automatically reacts like that.
I remember reading about a wild chimp that lost the use of his arm from a disease. His dragging arm terrified his former friends. They shunned him (but probably were less likely to catch what he had).
When I grew older it wasn't the big deal it once was. Not that I'm sensitive (ick) or enlightened.
Jaded, perhaps.