Tod Browning’s Freaks: The Original Freak Show

Long before American Horror Story: Freak Show, Tod Browning's Freaks was one of the most moving looks at society’s outsiders.

I have to thank the Ramones for introducing me to Freaks. Their chant “Gabba gabba. We accept you. One of us” was a cheerful invitation to explore the world of pinheads, cretins, and outcasts and never had I felt so at home. I loved the side show at Coney Island. I convinced my old editor in chief at the now-defunct horror fiction magazine Wicked Mystic to co-sponsor along with my Vampyr Theatre, a fundraiser at Irving Plaza to save the Brooklyn landmark from the encroaching chain-mail commercialism of McDonald’s.

Freak shows are cons. Con artists put on the best shows. As comfortable as I am here at Den of Geek, I would feel just at home in a Den of Freaks, as a search through some of my other writings will bear out.

In the early days of film, Tod Browning explored the tortured psyche of the outcast in his cinematic collaborations with Lon Chaney. He brought nuance and empathy to his monsters. Sometimes his monsters weren’t as monstrous as the people around them. Sometimes they were more glamorous. They certainly could be more magnetic.

People forget today that Bela Lugosi made women swoon in Browning’s Dracula. The 1931 vampire classic made so much money that MGM snatched Browning to make a horror film at the studio best known for glitz and glamor. Irving Thalberg, the studio’s production head, wanted him to make Arsène Lupin with John Barrymore. Browning suggested they get the rights to Tod Robbins’ 1923 magazine short story “Spurs.” He had worked at a traveling circus on his way to filmmaking and got Willis Goldbeck and Elliott Clawson to write a script, along with collaborators Leon Gordon, Edgar Allan Woolf, Al Boasberg, and Charles MacArthur. Myrna Loy was originally set to star as Cleopatra and Jean Harlow as Venus until Thalberg opted against using major stars. They went with Leila Hyams, who had been in MGM’s first talkie, Alias Jimmy Valentine, as Venus and the Russian Tigress, Olga Baclanova, as the gold-digging chicken lady-to-be.

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Browning cast carnival performers and real people with deformities instead of using makeup. As Han and Frieda, the young lovers at the heart of the film, he used members of the Earles family troupe “The Moving Picture Midgets,” best known for their work with Laurel and Hardy. Harry Earles played Tweedledee in Browning’s The Unholy Three in 1925 and he reprised his role along with Lon Chaney in the 1930 Jack Conway-directed sound remake. Earles was the one who suggested using the magazine story to Browning. He would go on to be one of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz, which featured the whole family. His sister, Daisy Earles, is heartbreaking as Frieda. She is as much hurt for Han as she is for herself when she sees him degraded.

As the Human Torso who lights a cigarette using only his mouth (I’d love to see the footage of him rolling it), Browning cast The Human Caterpillar, Prince Randian, a limbless P.T. Barnum sideshow performer who had tetra-amelia syndrome. The multilingual performer would ultimately have four daughters and a son with Princess Sarah.

The Siamese Twins were played by Daisy and Violet Hilton. The Hilton sisters had been performing in Europe since they were three, but their management kept their money. They tap-danced with Bob Hope as the Dancemedians in 1926. The sisters were discovered dead in 1969 of Hong Kong flu. The forensics report said Daisy died first and Violet died two to four days later. Half Boy was played by Johnny Eck, the Gooney Bird from Tarzan pictures. Eck was a sideshow performer, actor, artist, photographer, illusionist and ran a penny arcade. Leonardo DiCaprio has been trying to make a movie out of the story of his life since the 1990s. The Armless Girl, who eats, drinks and smokes with her feet, was played by Frances O’Connor, who performed as a living Venus de Milo.

Cowboy actor Wallace Ford, who appeared in more than 200 movies, plays the sensitive clown Phroso. Former concert violinist Roscoe Ates stuttered jealously as Roscoe. The ladies’ man Hercules is played by Henry Victor, who was in the 1916 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray and would go on to play Captain Schultz in the 1942 comedy To Be Or Not To Be. Rounding out the cast is Schlitzie as himself; the intersexual Josephine Joseph as Half Woman-Half Man; Rose Dione as Madame Tetrallini; Peter Robinson as Human Skeleton; Olga Roderick as the Bearded Lady; Koo Koo, who had Virchow-Seckel syndrome, played herself; Martha Morris as Angeleno’s Armless Wife; Elvira Snow as Pinhead Pip; Jenny Lee Snow as Pinhead Zip; Elizabeth Green as Bird Girl; Delmo Fritz as Sword Swallower; Angelo Rossitto as Angeleno and Edward Brophy and Matt McHugh as the Rollo Brothers.

Freaks is a soap opera, like Peyton Place or General Hospital. The freaks are no different than any other group, they have their own peculiar code, but it’s really no different than a gated community might have a neighborhood watch. They protect themselves from normal people. The people they perform alongside. The people they entertain, who’d call the cops when they see freaks enjoying a sunny afternoon in the park. The freaks’ lives are full and joyous. The freaks have their normal moments and some are quite beautiful. The Bearded Lady has a baby. They celebrate and relax together. But they aspire to the bourgeoisie. Jealousy and the desire to fit in are the downfall of the circus freak. “They don’t realize I am a man. With the same feelings they have,” Han says, clearly identifying himself from the outside. Man is still they, not we.

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“Children? They are monsters.”

We emerge into the film as outsiders looking at the most curious of curiosities. We quickly become immersed in the world within the world. The freaks are outsiders in a world of outsiders, a society within a society, the traveling circus.

The normal performers are also outsiders. Gypsies. Always on the road. In a mobile world, they are long-time neighbors. Some are decent, like Phroso and Venus, some are patronizing, like the strongman Hercules, and some are devious and cruel. For the most part they get along like any community. The sword-swallower and the others see them get up, go to work and go to bed. The normal performers’ lives are no picnic either. At least the pinheads get to have a picnic.

The regular people in the circus don’t present a good case for normal. They are jealous, petty and sometimes abusive to themselves and to the freaks. “Let her try doing anything to one of us. She don’t know about us,” Frieda foreshadows.

Cleopatra swings down off her trapeze to net Han and share his life and inheritance. After the wedding, the freaks decide to initiate Cleopatra into their society of outsiders. They cheerily chant “Gooba gabba. Gooba gabba. We accept you. One of us. One of us.” As they pass her a loving cup. But Cleo is scared to be one of them, scared to be associated with dirty, slimy freaks. She humiliates the love-struck Han, which is a grievous offense. She compounds it by letting it slip that she’s been having it on with Hercules and further compounds it by giving Han ptomaine poisoning. “I’ll never forget what you are doing for me,” he warns her. Dirty. Slimy. Freak.

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“Coppers don’t have imaginations,” Venus threatens Hercules after she gets wise to what’s going on. This is a very frightening prospect in a world of imagination, the circus. The freaks even supply their own incidental music, a simple descending pattern on a recorder. We sense menace. The first sign of trouble is a switchblade. The soap opera turns dark. Doom grows as another undersized enforcer cleans his gun with his handkerchief. The freaks equalize the fight. They bring down Hercules with that switchblade. The atmosphere is swallowed in the shadows of mud and feathers. The code of the freaks is upheld in one of the most suspenseful sequences in cinema.

Audiences at the time hated it. The studio recut it from 90 minutes to just over an hour, lopping off Hercules’ castration and falsetto singing scenes and adding a happy ending. It was banned in England for thirty years. Moviegoers stayed away in droves. Tod Browning’s career never recovered. The United States National Film Registry chose to preserve Freaks in 1994. Bravo TV ranked it number 15 on its list of the 100 Scariest Movie Moments. “Gooba Gabba. We accept her. One of us,” was nominated by the American Film Institute for one of its most memorable movie quotes. 

Freaks is social commentary personified. It is an almost anthropological study of social class. It could be read as commentary on slavery, on fascism, on child abuse. It is one of Browning’s most personal films. It is moving and powerful and you’ll never look at freaks the same way again after seeing it. 

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5 out of 5