What's It All About?

What's It All About?

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Evolution of Tod Browning's Freaks

European poster for Freaks
This article is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Spring Blogathon, Fabulous Films of of the 1930's.  Click here to find all the wonderful bloggers who are participating:  http://www.clamba.blogspot.com/2015/04/cmba-spring-blogathon-fabulous-films-of.html

Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks has been analyzed, reviewed, hated, admired, recommended and shunned since its first screening 83 years ago. My interest is in one aspect of this movie's impact upon audiences -- the evolution of its acceptance.  In his production, Browning filmed this fictional story of circus freaks using not actors, but real men and women who had been born with deformities and made their living traveling the sideshow circuit.  In many ways, the movie was a source of pride for most of its stars.  They had lived their lives being stared at and vilified, and made their living in the only way open to them -- as circus attractions.  The idea of being wanted for a mainstream Hollywood movie appealed to most of those who appeared in Freaks.  Browning himself believed not only in the monetary interests of a shock value movie, but also in spotlighting the fact that these are human beings with the same feelings as anyone else, kindness, love, anger, bitterness and rage.  His intentions met with complete failure in 1932.  Stories abounded of people fainting and running screaming up the aisles during the first few minutes of the movie.  Freaks was considered so disgusting that theatres throughout the country pulled it and refused to show it.  It was definitely a box office dud, and only decades later was it met with interest and perceptive observation.

The aspect of Freaks that interests me for the purpose of this article is simple -- we are not as dramatically affected by Freaks now as people were in 1932.  We certainly have a better understanding of medical anomalies.  Deformities are no longer seen as a curse or an evil as in the past.  The development of babies in the womb is an open book because of prenatal imagery, and we have reached a point in medical involvement in which some problems can actually be fixed in utero.  Deformities certainly still occur, but for us in a country rich in medical breakthroughs and treatments, the same anomalies as seen in Freaks are very rare, if not completely eradicated.  Even the crude terms used for deformities have evolved ... pinheads are microcephalics, Siamese twins are conjoined siblings, midgets and dwarves are little people ... names can indeed hurt, and our modern terminology helps to make that a thing of the past.

We now have television shows that spotlight people who are different.  Little People, Big World is very popular, showing a family who is really like any other family, with the exception of certain special needs.  However, it is my observation that most families require special needs of many types, even though these may be invisible.  The problem of the "dysfunctional family" has become so widespread that functional families seem to be a rarity.  There are a great many TV shows about fat people, strange obsessions, odd-looking people who are that way either by birth or choice of tattooing and piercing.  There isn't a whole lot that we don't see anymore.  The people of under-developed countries particularly suffer from terrible deformities and diseases, and now remarkable doctors, plastic surgeons and nurses give of their time and skill to travel around the world to help them without charge.

We still stare ... there is no denying that ... but most of us try not to and are embarrassed when we do, a far cry from years past.  I remember shopping for groceries and turning the corner of an aisle to be confronted by a man with an advanced case of  neurofibromatosis, which used to be called Elephant Man's disease.  I couldn't help being shocked, but I managed to quell the instinctive gasp we do when surprised in that way.  He just gave me a smile, and I smiled back with a little shake of the head at myself.  It turned out he was the produce man, and I will never forget his gracious behavior and the courage he must have had to just be living a normal life with a normal job.  Would I have screamed and run in 1932?  I am glad I live in a world where an unintentional surprise was all that I experienced and all that this gentleman had to endure.  There are still people who rudely snap pictures on their cell phones of those who are different, but media attention to these insensitive jerks prove them to be undeserving of any respect, an opinion shared by the majority of Americans.

Sometimes it seems that nothing ever really changes, and we see that opinion manifested every day in the news.  Various ethnic groups, religious groups, political groups, all cry out that bigotry is still the same as years past.  I do not believe that.  Certainly there are people who have not changed, who still live by the code of discrimination, but I see that more people have evolved than not.  Such issues are now discussed openly, and people who suffer bigotry have more ways to address and punish the haters than ever before.  That is because there are more of us who want to do what is right than ever before.  Just this one small example shows that ... at least for the cast of Freaks we know things have evolved -- the very word itself, freaks, is no longer tolerated.

Here is a little pictorial of some of the performers we were introduced to in Freaks.  All were very well known in their day.

Schlitze

Johnny Eck, the Half Boy and Prince Randian, the Living Torso


Brother and sister act Harry and Daisy Earles

Actress Rose Dione with Schlitze, Zip and Pip,
and a little person who I believe to be Angeleno

Violet and Daisy Hilton (with actors portraying their husbands)

23 comments:

  1. Very perceptive, Becky.

    Today we watch the movie "Freaks" to enjoy its melodrama and admire the perseverance of the gallant cast.

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    1. Thanks so much, CW! I was watching a show about strange obsessions (and boy, were they STRANGE!), and the line of thinking took me right to Freaks and the changes since then. Now, can you imagine a 1932 audience watching the show about strange obsessions? Madness! Chaos! LOL.....

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  2. You hit on a lot of similar points as I did when I wrote about FREAKS... but I think I like your version better. Great post.

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    1. Rich, I couldn't find your Freaks article -- could you send me a link? And thanks for the compliment (but I doubt if mine is better!)

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    2. GOOBLE GOBBLE
      http://widescreenworld.blogspot.com/2012/06/freaks.html

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    3. Found it! I commented on your blog -- your article is excellent!

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  3. Very thoughtful post, Becky. The show "American Horror Story" last season ripped off much of Browning's work (at least on the surface), but I wonder how many young people watching knew. Sadly, the "different" have always been exploited. "Freaks" urges compasion and sometimes we humans seem to take 2 steps forward an 1 step back sometimes, as the definition of freaks and "different" evolves over time.

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    1. That's a very thoughtful response, Chick ... I wondered the same thing when I watched American Horror Story this season. Unless they have parents like us, I doubt if hardly any kids would know about Browning. Evolution is definitely start and stop and start again, but I see us doing it

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  4. Excellent post, Becky, very well written and an insightful discussion of the then and now. How we perceive films over time is often how we perceive our changing society over time, and you've nailed several emotional elements beautifully.

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    1. Thanks so much, Jacqueline -- I've got to get my rear in gear tonight and have fun visiting the other blogs!

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  5. A very insightful and thought-provoking post about one of the most unusual films of the 30s. I had never thought of it before, but reality shows are really the circus sideshows of the 21st century.

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    1. Amanda, I wish I had thought of that phrase about reality shows -- wonderful turn of words! Thanks for your kind response.

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  6. A very thoughtful and insightful entry. Fortunately, as you mention, medically we have come a long way in avoiding some of these "sideshow" attractions. While you mention many of those in the film wanted to be in the film, I feel they still must have had a hard life, especially if they ventured outside of their small circle. People were and still are cruel. It's been quite a few years since I have seen the film and I just remember having a hard time with it. And yes, the reality shows of today are this century's freak shows.

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    1. John, you are quite right -- most of the performers had very difficult lives, and some, particularly the bearded lady, were sorry they had done the film. Violet and Daisy Hilton had a very traumatic and difficult life. But it's also true that some found rewarding lives -- Prince Randian married and had children. And it's said that Schlitze, who was actually a man, told his sister on his deathbed that "We fooled them all, didn't we?" Thanks so much for coming by with such kind words for my piece.

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  7. This was a wonderful look at "Freaks", and society's view of people who have physical deformities. It's so sad to think of people running from the theatre screaming. Some people have enough to face without witnessing that sort of thing.

    I've never seen this film because I always wondered if it was just exploiting these people. But, now that I've read your insights, I will watch for it. Thanks!

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    1. Now that's what I consider a compliment -- hearing that you want to view the film makes me feel good. It is certainly dated and melodramatic, but it gives some insight into the backstage life these folks lived.

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  8. Great, thoughtful review of this complicated movie. How sad that it was met with such disgust when it was released. As you said so eloquently, thank goodness some things have changed!

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    1. I'm so glad you came by and that you liked my article. We have indeed come quite a ways from the feelings about deformed people since the film was released, and that says something good about people.

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  9. Becky, the brilliance of Briwning's film is that the "freaks" are normal and likable and the "non-freak show" are ugly people. That resonated with me when I saw it in the 1970s, it holds true today, and I wonder if many viewers of the 1930s felt the same. I suspect the answer is yes. Thus is the power of great filmmaking!

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    1. Excellent point about this movie, Rick ... that is one of the real truths about Browning's portrayal. Trust you to highlight this aspect so well!

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  10. Big Sis, your post about FREAKS was superb. I was especially touched how people are getting more understanding.about such issues. Our friend, Johnny Sal had quite a problem with various birth defects, but he's made a good living as a wedding singer.

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  11. Great post, Big Sis! I remember my brother watching FREAKS years ago. Thanks for the food for thought, including TLC's LITTLE PEOPOLE, BIG WORLD.

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