"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

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.


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)