For those like myself going through American Horror Story withdrawal this week, I decided to write about what was a likely inspiration for this season’s Freak Show, the 1932 horror classic, Freaks. Directed by Tod Browning, famous for the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula (1931), Freaks was extremely controversial at the time and nearly ended his career. MGM cut 26 minutes from Browning’s version, releasing a 64-minute movie that was poorly received, both critically and financially. However, in the 1950s, it was rediscovered and became a cult classic, gaining an audience in the 1970s and 1980s.
The film version of Freaks is based on a short story by Tod Robbins called, “Spurs,” although only the primary plot thread remains in its translation from page to screen. MGM owned the rights to Spurs; however, I find it interesting that Robbins wrote another short story, The Unholy Three, which Browning directed in 1925, starring the great Lon Chaney. (It was remade five years later as a “talkie” by Jack Conway. Chaney again starred; it would be not only his only speaking role, but also his final film role before he died of throat cancer at the age of 47.)
Since it is only 38-pages long, I was able to read Spurs soon after watching Freaks. The consistent plot thread is that a dwarf performer falls in love with an average sized woman performer. When she learns that he stands to inherit a fortune, she agrees to marry him, while at the same time carrying-on with another man. In the story, Jacques Courbe is the dwarf who fancies Mademoiselle Jeanne Marie, “a daring bareback rider” at Copo’s Circus, who has a secret relationship with her performing partner, Simon Lafleur. In the movie, Hans (Harry Earles) is the dwarf who fancies Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a trapeze artist, who has a secret relationship with circus strongman, Hercules (Henry Victor).
In both stories, the scam is revealed during a feast following the wedding. As the short story describes:
“Following the ceremony, a feast was served in one of the tents, which was attended by a whole galaxy of celebrities. The bridegroom, his dark little face flushed with happiness and wine, sat at the head of the board. His chin was just above the tablecloth, so that his head looked like a large orange that had rolled of the fruit-dish.”
The stories then diverge on two different paths after the scam is revealed and the feast erupts into chaos. On paper, Jacques forces his new wife to carry him on her shoulder for the next year because of her declaration, “I could carry my little ape from one end of France to the other!” On screen, events take a decidedly more American Horror Story approach as Hans and his friends deceive Cleo and plot their revenge. (This development is the only outright homage I noticed Freak Show pay to Freaks as it depicted the downfall and final fate of Stanley, played by Denis O’Hare.)
In the short story, the aforementioned “galaxy of celebrities” includes Griffo (giraffe boy), Monsieur Hercule Hippo (giant), Mademoiselle Lupa (sharp-toothed growler), Monsieur Jejongle (fruit, plate and knife juggler), Madame Samson (snake charmer) and “a score of others.” The feast is really the only scene in which these freaks play a part. In the movie, though, the titular freaks are integral to the story and are played by actual carnival sideshow performers with real physical deformities. They include Siamese Twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, Half Woman-Half Man Josephine Joseph, Half Boy Johnny Eck, Armless Girl Frances O’Connor, Human Skeleton Peter Robinson, and several more.
The movie also adds a few significant characters and plots. The Bearded Lady (Olga Roderick) gives birth. Violet is married to stuttering clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) while her sister becomes engaged to the show’s owner. Perhaps the most unsettling for me is The Living Torso, Prince Randian, who has no limbs but is able to light his own cigarette. With only 64 minutes, these scenes are not long; however, they convey an important aspect of life for the freaks: they are part of a loving family that genuinely cares for its members. And that helps demonstrate the freak “code” defined at the very beginning of the movie, “Offend one, you offend them all.
While American Horror Story did not borrow much specific from the story of Freaks, the two share the overall sentiment that “regular” people have toward the “deformed.” In both, the freaks are ridiculed by regular people. Not only do regular people refer to them as “monsters,” but the freaks refer to themselves as monsters as well. And in both, various freaks declare that they have the same feelings as regular people. This all seems natural. Whether made in 1932 or 2014, the stories take place during eras when people favored disgust over the unusual rather than compassion.
However, I’d like to think that people watching either Freaks or American Horror Story have matured at least a little in their feelings between 1932 and 2014. I’d like to think that, based simply on their casts of characters, people find movies or TV shows featuring the deformed less horrific now than they did then. In fact, I barely categorize Freaks as a horror movie. Its characters are not exploited; the additional scenes I mentioned earlier exist to show their humanity. There’s a palpable camaraderie among the freaks that I find touching. It’s the drama in the movie to which I connect emotionally.
Certainly, the finale of Freaks is horrific. It happens on a stormy night and images of the characters lurking under wagons, through windows and around corners builds suspense. I don’t know if time has taken a physical toll on the actual film, if the MGM cuts made it choppy, or if it was simply filmed this way, but other than the mood that is set, the ending of Freaks is not scary. Even the final money shot is brief and leaves viewers to fill in an awful lot of what must have just happened. It’s certainly not the outright gory and sensational approach of American Horror Story.
Unfortunately, not only did MGM make cuts, they also forced a “happy ending” epilogue to be attached to the end. It’s organic, I suppose; it logically explains what might have happened next. But it causes you to finish the movie feeling good rather than unsettled. That’s another reason Freaks doesn’t necessarily feel like a horror film to me. However, this epilogue features the best character addition to the story (and the actress who gives the most heartfelt performance). This is Frieda (Daisy Earles), a female counterpart to Hans who turns the original story’s love triangle into a sweet love quadrangle.
Freaks is required viewing for anyone claiming to be a horror fan. Perhaps you’ll identify more with its horrific aspects than I did. For me, it’s a fascinating snapshot of history that says more about the time in which it was made than it does about the time within the story itself, particularly in reference to how we view those who are different. At the beginning of Freaks runs a long “disclaimer” that outright acknowledges its freaks are abominations. The expected and acceptable behavior was to be reviled by them simply because of their deformities. Today that wouldn’t be, to say the least, politically correct. But I’d also like to think it just wouldn’t be acceptable on any human level.