Thursday, April 11, 2013

American Sideshows: Tod Browning's "Freaks"


In 1932, Universal Studios in Hollywood was in the horror film business. It had just scored two huge hits with “Frankenstein” and “Dracula,” which had been directed by Tod Browning. Other studios wanted in on the act and MGM tasked Browning with putting together another terrifying film that would thrill audiences – but what Browning chose gave the studio a little more than they bargained for. His next film “Freaks,” used real-life sideshow performers from the silver era of the freak show circuit. It became a film that has remained controversial ever since.

Charles Browning, Jr. (who later went by Tod) was born on July 12, 1880 in Louisville, Kentucky and was in the circus before he ever got into film. In 1896, he ran away from home to join the Manhattan Fair & Carnival Company and his first job was as a talker pitching a Wild Man of Borneo. He later moved his on act, a “Living Corpse” show, where he was buried alive. Browning thrived in the sideshow but eventually moved to Ringling Brothers as a clown. He then went on to vaudeville before trying his hand in moving pictures.

Director and former circus performer, Tod Browning
Browning produced several hit movies in the 1920s and early 1930s, including “The Unknown,” “The Unholy Three” and finally landing a director’s gig with “Dracula.” But with an adaption of Tod Robbins’ story “Spurs,” he created the most haunting film of his career. Thanks to our modern political correctness and the decrease in the human oddities of the past, its cast of real sideshow performers will never be matched. Browning assembled Harry, Daisy and Tiny Doll (little people), the Hilton Sisters (conjoined twins), Johnny Eck (half-man), Schlitzie, Jennie Lee and Elvira Snow (pinheads), Lady Olga (bearded lady), Josephine Joseph (half-man / half-woman), Prince Randian (human torso), Pete Robinson (human skeleton), Frances O’Connor (armless girl) and a number of other curiosities. They were complimented by a number of “normal” actors – who largely played the villains in the film. The plot was a simple revenge story: the evil “normal” woman, Cleopatra, decides to marry the diminutive Hans, who she discovers has amassed a large fortune. Along with her lover, the circus strongman, she tries to poison Hans and steal his money. When the freaks catch on to the dastardly plan, they exact their revenge and turn Cleopatra into something more revolting than a naturally-born freak.

The cast of “Freaks”
When MGM released the movie in 1932, it was immediately banned in the United Kingdom and remained that way for the next thirty years. In the U.S., signs were posted in theaters that read: “Children positively not admitted. Adults not in normal health are advised not to see this picture.” Posters also assured audiences that what they saw on film was not the result of any kind of special effects or trick photography. One of the most terrifying scenes is undoubtedly the dark, rain swept sequence where the freaks cross the circus grounds, knives and weapons in hand, hunting for Cleopatra so that they could take their revenge on her. It's one of the most frightening sequences of 1930s' era horror films -- and audiences were appalled. 

The once-beautiful Cleopatra – after the freaks turned her into a monster that was worse than anything they could have been. It was meant to reflect that her outside was now as ugly as what she was inside, but audiences were shocked and angered by it. The final scene of her as a “bird woman” was cut from the film for many years. 
Although people flocked to sideshows to see freaks in person, they didn’t appreciate seeing them on the big screen. “Freaks” disgusted audiences and critics alike and for Browning, it was the end of his career. He made a film films afterwards, but eventually faded into obscurity. Decades later, on October 6, 1962, he was found dead on the bathroom floor of a friend’s apartment. Ironically, the next year, “Freaks” was brought back to life in theaters and by the 1970s, attained the cult status that it enjoys today.

At the time the movie was released, people didn’t understand what Browning was trying to accomplish with it. He had great respect and affection for the “freaks” that he had worked with in the circus sideshows and attempted to show them as normal, albeit unusual, people. By showing that they lived, loved and experienced heartbreak and anger like so-called “normal” people, he cast them as the sympathetic characters in the film. But perhaps their method of revenge was simply too much for audiences to handle at the time and the film didn’t work in the 1930s in quite the way he planned. 

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