Tod Browning's Freaks

Editor’s Note: It’s with great honor that we welcome James F. Broderick, author of “Now a Terrifying Motion Picture!: Twenty-Five Classic Works of Horror Adapted From Book to Film,” and his essay excerpt from the book which details the strange history of Freaks.

Can a movie be considered a “classic” horror film when it was panned by critics, reviled by audiences, and banned for decades from even being shown? When even the studio that produced it didn’t stand behind it, and the director’s career was ruined after the film’s release? When the stars of the film are not actors at all but rather members of a group of real-life circus freaks, including armless and legless people, as well as a bearded woman and “the pin-headed lady”? And when many critics and fans of the horror genre don’t even consider the film to be part of that category, classifying it instead as a sort of docu-drama?

Okay, add to that the film was based on an obscure story by a long-forgotten writer and has been unavailable on tape or DVD for much of the past century, and you hardly have the makings of, well, a “classic.” And yet, that’s exactly what Freaks is – a masterpiece of horror, an unsettling and brutally candid story about the treachery and torment that can be a part of the human conditions – for some humans, anyway. The story of the film goes far beyond the actual “plot” of the movie, and involves a movie studio eager to cash in on the horror film “craze,” a celebrated director looking to make a different kind of film that drew on his personal involvement in the carnival circuit, and an audience that had demonstrated a perverse and profitable interest in human oddities. But of course, there was also an actual “story” on which the film was (very loosely) based, a short work of fiction called “Spurs” which is, in its way, even more bizarre and horrific than the film which it spawned.

The name Tod Robbins doesn’t mean much to readers today. But Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins was part of that group of writers of horror and supernatural fiction who helped develop their genres and contribute to the popularity of their fields by publishing short stories in the pulp magazines of the early-to-mid 20th century. Robbins also wrote novels, and had the distinction of having one of his books made into a movie twice – both versions starring Lon Chaney, the famed actor who was billed as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” (One was a silent film, the other Chaney’s only talkie, both titled The Unholy Three.) His work is often accompanied by the words “strange,” “twisted,” and “bizarre,” and in fact, his work is populated by characters who exist on the very fringes of society, often living a fairy-tale-from-hell kind of existence. Robbins’ own life followed something of this pattern. Born in 1888 to prominent members of New York society, he caused something of a scandal when he eloped with Edith Norman Hyde (who would go on to win the first “Miss America” crown in 1919). The marriage wouldn’t last – a pattern that would recur – though he seemed to have finally found some happiness with his fourth wife, noted British tennis player Nellie Anderson. He emigrated from New York to the French Riviera, but refused to leave France after the German invasion.

He spent most of the war in an internment camp, but survived. After the war’s end, he wrote a final novel, “Close Their Eyes Tenderly,” published in 1947. He died in 1949. Except for hardcore fans of pulp horror fiction, Robbins has drifted into literary obscurity – save for his short story “Spurs.”

The story revolves around a midget named Jacques Courbe, who’s part of a traveling French circus, and a fellow performer he falls in love with, “a tall, blonde woman of the amazon type” named Jeanne Marie. Jacque, who rides a large dog in the circus behind a train of regular-sized horsemen, may be diminutive, but his desires are painted in larger than life terms. He’s a kind of Don Quixote type, a character who lives in his own fanciful world, protected by imagination from the rigors of harsh reality. “What matter that he had no lady, and that his daring deeds were severely curtailed to a mimicry of the bareback riders who preceded him? What mattered all these things to the tiny man who lived in dreams, and who resolutely closed his shoe-button eyes to the drab realities of life?”

Unlike Quixote, however, Jacque’s heart is not inclined toward goodness and forgiveness, but rather revenge against those who would mock his station in life. So Jacque decides to proclaim his love to Jeanne Marie – who is herself enamored of the charms of the circus strongman, Simon. When Jacque shows up at Jeanne Marie’s dressing room one night to declare his intentions, the scene is a nauseating and tragic-comic mess. Jacque has a huge melodramatic streak to offset his tiny stature. He kneels to her, not kissing her hand but instead “he went and pressed his lips to her red-slippered foot.” She is shocked, repulsed, and then deeply amused, and she mocks him.

The whole story, like this one, early scene, is extremely weird. The tale has a surreal, nightmarish quality, like a Salvador Dali painting, or a Twilight Zone episode. There’s no attempt to establish a fixed, believable reality– a quality Robbins reinforces by his extremely prolific use of exclamation points. Everything in this story is heightened, extreme, exclamatory, pumped-up. There are no oasis of rationality here. We’re in a freak show, and Robbins over-the-top prose style is oddly apposite to the world he’s presenting.

Though she laughs off his proposal, she soon changes her mind when she learns the dwarf has just inherited an estate and a large sum of money. She now imagines herself “a proud lady, ruling over a country estate.” Plus, she reasons, “these pygmies are a puny lot. They die young!” So they get married, and the wedding reception degenerates into a violent farce, with their fellow freaks arguing about who is the most popular attraction – a debate which results in an all-out brawl. The “wolf-lady” takes a bite out of the juggler’s hand, prompting the circus’ owner to chime in: “Ah, my children, my children! This is no way to behave! Calm yourselves, I pray you! Mademoiselle Lupa, remember that you are a lady, as well as a wolf!” True enough.

Freaks Poster

The beefy Simon steps in to restore order, and he picks up Jacques and places him upon his new wife’s shoulders – a big mistake, as we’ll soon discover, because she decides to return to their farmhouse with her new husband still perched on her. Simon bets her a bottle of Burgundy that she can’t carry him all the way home, and she replies “I swear that I could carry my little ape from one end of France to the other!” The scene ends, a year passes, and Simon hears a knock on his dressing room door. It’s a female visitor, “a tall, gaunt woman dressed like a peasant.” It’s Jeanne Marie, of course, and she tells him about the hellish year she’s endured with her midget husband: “There are no ignominities which he has not made me suffer.” “To whom do you refer?” he asks. “Surely you cannot mean that pocket edition husband of yours.” Well, yes, that’s exactly who she means. It turns out that he’s been forcing her to keep her vow – of carrying him on her shoulders everywhere they go, until she has covered the equivalent distance of traversing France. “If I so much as slacken my pace, if I falter, he goads me with cruel little golden spurs, while at the same time, St. Eustice [his large, vicious dog] nips my ankles.”

The estate in which they live is isolated, and there’s no place to escape, no one to help her. Every night, after the trio returns from its daily sojourn, — which leaves Jeanne Marie exhausted and in pain, her boots worn down to the bare souls, her body stopped and weakened – her husband leaps off her shoulders and writes down the tally of how far they’ve walked. He insists that she carry him until they reach the distance she bragged about in her drunken and insulting diatribe at their reception: “from one end of France to the other.” To get out of her plight, she would gladly poison her husband, or his devil dog, but she is forced to first take a bit out of all the food that is prepared for both man and beast.

Now that the traveling circus is back in town, she’s raced to Simon while her husband is sleeping to seek his protection from her tormenter. No sooner has she revealed her plight than Jacques, riding upon St. Eustice, bursts in. Simon scoffs at them, daring them to attack. They do, the dog ripping apart the strong man’s oiled biceps and the midget plunging a sword into his gut. He dies ingloriously on the floor in a pool of blood. Jacques’s wife, thoroughly downtrodden, assumes the position, picks up Jacques and places him on her shoulders, and trudges home in utter desolation and total defeat. As they depart, the circus owner sees them, as he muses ironically: “Can it be?…Yes, it is. Three old friends. And Jeanne carries him! Ah, but she should not poke fun at M. Jacques Courbe. He is so sensitive; but alas, they are the kind that are the most henpecked.”

Thus ends “Spurs,” a story of misery, revenge, murder, and deformity, an illustration of how fickle cruel fate can be. The story juxtaposes odd comic bits with dark, distressing facets of human existence. There are no heroes. Everyone is either vain and superficial, angry, disillusioned, or simply waiting for the wheel to turn. Inescapable horrors await the gifted as well as the maimed.

Tod Browning, the director of 1931’s landmark horror breakthrough Dracula, was the logical choice for the film version of “Spurs.” Not only was his reputation as a director at its zenith, but also Browning had spent some years actually working the carnival circuit, and he was familiar with the life, such as it is, of a troop of real-life circus freaks. Because of both his experience behind the camera, and behind the tent flaps, the resulting film Freaks is often hailed as his real masterpiece, and one of the most moving and unsettling films ever made. In its way, Freaks is every bit as bizarre and surreal as “Spurs” – yet it conveys a humanity, a genuine pathos, totally absent in the short story. The most important change to the story includes the “victimization” of the dwarf character, who emerges sympathetically as a character. He is the subject of a murder plot by his new bride, a money-chasing opportunist in league with the circus strongman. In “Spurs,” the dwarf’s revenge was grossly disproportionate to his wife’s insensitive slight. In Freaks, the ante is upped. The crime of the wife is much greater — though so is her punishment.

Browning’s directorial sympathies clearly lie with the circus freaks. He uses his camera to show us the varying ways of looking at these “freaks” (and leaves no doubt as to how he sees them). Yet Browning is no dewy-eyed sentimentalist – this is, after all, a movie that turns coldly horrifying. His freaks are truly freakish – so much so that preview audiences found the film exceedingly distasteful to watch. But for those who can get past their initial un-comfortableness with these avatars of nature’s malignity, “fascinated revulsion turns into tender comprehension.”

The movie begins with a carnival barker talking up the “living, breathing monstrosities” to a crowd gathered outside a circus midway. The barker’s diatribe suggests the overall sympathetic tone of the film will take in its presentation of these freaks: “”But for an accident of birth,” he tells the crowd, “you might have been as they are.” He urges the crowd to come forward to a lighted pen, where he promises them the “most astounding living monstrosity of all time!” We see the skeptical faces of the onlookers turn to sheer horror as they gaze upon someone who “was once a beautiful woman…she was known as the `Peacock of the Air’.” The crowd registers their absolute revulsion – and the movie dissolves into a flashback, where a beautiful trapeze artist, Cleopatra (the prolific silent-screen actress Olga Baclanova), is seen swinging above the bigtop, as a dwarf (played by diminutive screen veteran Harry Earles) looks up at her, admiringly. During a break in her act, Hans, the dwarf, strikes up a conversation with Cleopatra, and we see how love-struck he is.

Suddenly, the film moves from the world of the circus to a wooded estate, as a gamekeeper animatedly tells the landowner of some “horrible, twisted things” that he’s seen in a clearing on the estate. As they head toward the clearing, the camera leads down the path, to a frolicsome gathering of circus freaks, dancing, laughing, playing. The gamekeeper is aghast, but when a matronly-looking woman (“Madame Tetrallini,” she calls herself) among the freaks explains who they are, and that she was only looking to give them a chance to “play in the sunshine.” The landowner obliges them, smiling warmly, telling her they may all remain as long as they wish. Thus, the two ways of seeing the freaks: as monsters to be shooed away, or as human beings seeking comfort and joy.

Back to the circus, and lots of behind-the-scenes vignettes of the performers interacting with each other, including Hans, who tells Cleopatra he’ll be visiting her later that night. We also get glimpses of Hercules, the strong man, an abusive and obtuse character who argues with Cleopatra before she storms out of his tent. And, amid it all, there are scenes with the half-man, half-woman, the stuttering clown, the dwarves, the bearded lady, Siamese twins, the “human torso,” and various other performers. As a director, Browning takes his time, lingering behind the scenes, revealing the rich, interwoven fabric of carnival life, helping the viewer to see all the performers as complicated individuals who exist outside the spotlight of the bigtop. The scene which best coveys the humanity of the circs freaks involves a mad dash to the tent of the bearded lady – who has just given birth. Her fellow freaks all assemble lovingly around her bedside to welcome the new addition (a girl, we’re told, “and it’s gonna have a beard!”)

Hans continues his wooing of Cleopatra, amid champagne and declarations of his love. She appears bemused but is obviously only feigning interest. Meanwhile, a fellow dwarf and former girlfriend of Hans’ named Frieda, comes by his tent to warn her that Cleopatra couldn’t possibly love him, that she’s just stringing him along because he brings her expensive gifts. But he tells her Cleopatra makes him genuinely happy, and he will continue his pursuit of her. So Frieda takes her concerns to Cleopatra, warning her not to toy with Hans – but she mistakenly blurts out that Hans has recently inherited a fortune. Cleopatra and Hercules, the strongman, hatch a plan to have her marry Hans for his money – and then do away with the little man.

Then comes the wedding feast. Each of the various members of the circus entourage performs, or makes a toast, and there’s lots of laughing, fire eating and champagne drinking. The freaks agree to make Cleopatra “one of us,” and they pass a “loving cup” of champagne around the table, each drinking and singling “We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! ” The viewer knows how unworthy she is to be accepted so lovingly by the freaks, and soon she will prove just how unworthy she is.

Tod Browning Freaks

She angrily chastises the well-wishers, telling them how insulted she is to be called one of them. She tells them to get out, and insults her husband for allowing the chant to have started in the first place. Alone, she tells Hans the wedding was “only a joke.” Throughout these scenes of the lovelorn Hans and his sincere-if-naive attempts to win Cleopara’s heart – and the gatherings of the freaks at the bedside of the bearded lady and the wedding celebration – the film creates a climate of warmth and support among these human outcasts. They might not have much, but they have each other. And when around each other, they are noble, compassionate, supportive, and deeply committed to their community and its welfare. That’s what makes the climax of the film so problematic.

After Cleopatra and Hercules’ plot to poison Hans is discovered by a doctor who treats the stricken dwarf (they spiked the wine at his wedding), the freaks decide to avenge themselves against the scheming pair. A week passes, and covertly, they move against the duo. There are lots of tense moments as we see the small, disfigured bodies, watching, waiting for the moment to engage their truly vicious revenge. As rain falls and thunder rumbles, and the caravan rolls through the French countryside at night on their way to the next town, the freaks strike. Cleopatra is stunned to find two of the freaks at Hans’ bedside (where she has been giving him his “medicine” for the last week – a mixture of the poison that didn’t finish him off at the wedding.) They pull a knife and a gun on her. Meanwhile, the rest of the freaks come after Hercules, crawling through the mud in one of the most eerie and menacing stalking sequences in cinema history.

The viewer doesn’t see what the freaks did to them – not at that moment. It seems pretty clear that Hercules was about to be knifed to death (each of the freaks was holding a knife in their tiny little mouths as they made their way on all fours towards Hercules). As for Cleopatra, the one-time “Peacock of the Air” – well, the viewer finally sees what the stunned and sickened onlookers saw at the beginning of the film: she’s been mutilated, her legs cut off and turned into a stumpy, feathered tail, her fore-shortened arms also covered with feathers and her vocal chords cut so she can only utter a grating, hen-like “bok-bok-bok” when she tries to speak.

The jarring image of the lovely Cleopatra, reduced to a pathetic freak, deformed and imprisoned in a body not her own at the hands (or teeth, in the case of the armless freaks) is unsettling, and will perhaps change the way some viewers have felt about the placid, good-natured community of circus freaks we’ve seen throughout the film. Did Cleopatra deserve it? Can the freaks’ behavior be justified? Is Browning making a statement about justice and vigilante violence – and if so, is he condemning it, or justifying it? That’s left open to each viewer’s interpretation. Either way, it’s a thought- provoking, if horrifying, end to a film about human nature in its most extreme states.

“Now a Terrifying Motion Picture!” includes stories on 24 more classic horror films.

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