One of Us: Tod Browning’s Freaks, Disability Culture, and the Criterion for Inclusion
Content warning: usage of a slur for little people
Spoilers for the film Freaks
The burden of disability representation felt heavy when, like a number of film critics, academics, and programmers from equity-seeking groups, I was invited last fall to contribute my ballot for the ten greatest films of all time in the once a decade Sight and Sound roundup. How, I wondered, should I make use of my rare opportunity to speak as a representative for a small but vocal community of disabled film critics, given the meagreness of our cinematic representations to date outside of bad biopics and inspiration porn? I fretted over whether to acknowledge this paltry tradition by going out of my way to honour the rare exceptions to the rule, championing the likes of William Wyler’s masterful postwar drama The Best Years of Our Lives, one of only three films in the history of Academy Awards to have yielded an Oscar winning performance of a disabled character by a disabled actor, or boosting the more modest charms of Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax, a mumblecore dramedy about the romantic and economic foibles of a pair of identical twin sisters, one of them a wheelchair user played by actual wheelchair user Tilly Hatcher. Honesty eventually won out, as I found myself compelled to stump for the film that best indulged my own taste for the pulpy and the complicated, Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), the most infamous disability film of the first half of the twentieth century and in some ways still the most progressive.
An early noir about a group of disabled carnival performers who enact swift and terrible vengeance upon the non-disabled grifters who prey upon one of their own and in so doing, offend them all, Freaks is still an equally amiable and nasty piece of work nearly a century after its debut. Though it’s about as tasteless as its reputation suggests, from its risqué intimations of the linked sex lives of conjoined twins (sideshow stars Daisy and Violet Hilton) to a grotesque denouement that sees an able-bodied woman (Olga Baclanova’s villain Cleopatra) violently transformed into a parody of her former beauty, Freaks offers an embarrassment of riches in its wide-ranging depictions of disability. It does so through the diverse bodies and star personas of its cast, including Harry and Daisy Earles of the Doll Family, sibling entertainers with dwarfism, Johnny Eck (who spun his sacral agenesis into a successful career as “The Amazing Half-Boy”), silent film actor with dwarfism Angelo Rossitto (who had more than 70 film credits to his name), Schlitzie, a sideshow veteran with microcephaly, and Prince Randian, widely known in his successful carnival career under P.T. Barnum as “The Living Torso,” due to his multiple limb differences. Revisited from a cultural moment where disabled performers are still largely absent from the films that ostensibly tell their stories, Browning’s film maintains its incredible distinction as an ensemble film about disability that actually features performers whose embodied experiences of the world match those of their characters. More pointedly, it does so through a narrative that is not a mere recycling of disability tropes but an exploration of the solidarity forged by being disabled in community, albeit a community on the fringes.
While my Sight and Sound vote wasn’t enough to ease it into the top 100, the film that sullied Browning’s career before coming a favourite on the midnight circuit is back in the spotlight thanks to the Criterion Collection’s recent announcement of Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers, a stacked package collecting a restoration of Freaks and two lesser-seen Browning pictures set in the same world of carnivals and con artists, 1925’s The Mystic, and 1927’s marvellously strange and rich The Unknown, starring frequent collaborator Lon Chaney as a knife thrower whose desire to be with a woman who abhors hands sees him desperately amputate his own. And while the announcement this July promised, as Criterion editions typically do, a bevy of contextualizing special features, including commentaries from Browning expert David J. Skal, an interview on pre-Hollywood Core horror by the Edgar Award-winning crime writer Meg Abbott, and a liner essay by pre-Code film historian and critic Farran Smith Nehme, comparatively little attention was paid at first to the film’s unique place within the history of disability representation, and its status as a problematic favourite amidst disabled cinephiles, performers, and filmmakers. Only after a some complaints from disabled writers like Film Freak Central editor and founder, Bill Chambers, who wrote that Freaks “is a key disability text, it’s ours,” did they throw us the kind of bone a carnival ringmaster might toss to one of his performers, quietly adding a 2019 episode of disabled critic and Indiewire editor Kristen Lopez’s podcast Ticklish Business about disability representation in the film. The added feature is an illuminating conversation and its inclusion is a good gesture, made without fanfare or apology. But its belatedness and loneliness on the disc makes for an odd celebration of a film about the communal power of the disabled and disenfranchised, which is apparently only recognizable as such in retrospect.
This film emerges from Browning’s background as a circus entertainer, its cast a close-knit freak show performance troupe, including actors Browning had worked with prior to his filmmaking career. Insofar as the ensemble has a single protagonist, it’s Hans, played by Harry Earles. Hans falls in love with Cleopatra, an able-bodied trapeze artist who condescendingly dotes on him, jilting his long-suffering girlfriend Frieda — played by the actor’s sister Daisy, perhaps the most shocking thing about this “sideshow shocker” — in order to marry her. Cleopatra turns out to have bad intentions, which are immediately sussed out by everyone but Hans, plotting to poison and murder her mark and collect his inheritance, then elope with her violent, hulking able-bodied companion, Hercules (Henry Victor). The troupe’s skepticism toward Cleopatra comes out in an early moment where Angeleno, played by Rossitto, expresses the freaks’ credo: “If you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” Despite that premonition, the generous Angeleno and company welcome Cleopatra into the fold on their bacchanalian wedding night, the film’s most famous and oft-quoted sequence. Angeleno dances on the banquet table, leading a chant of “One of us” as he offers Cleopatra a drink from his cup. Setting the final act’s events in motion, Cleopatra violently refuses, calling them “dirty, slimy, freaks.”
Criterion’s early miscalculation about the cultural cache of Freaks in disability circles, where the film has more or less been accepted as one of a handful of films that might be embraced as of “one of us,” or at least one for us, might be a product of the film’s initial marketing, which appealed to the morbid instincts of the freak show passerby with questions such as “Can a full grown woman truly love a MIDGET?” That sheepishness about framing the film as a work of disability culture may likewise be a relic of the film’s scandalized critical reception upon release, which has had an outsized afterlife in lieu of its financial failure and spotty distribution history. The tendency at the time was to characterize Browning’s mere depiction of these characters in plots centred on romance, sex, and revenge as inherently distressing. On his audio commentary for the Warner Home Video DVD release in 2004, Skal suggests that the film’s depiction of actual rather than simulated physical deformity turned onscreen audiences off, which is borne out by the contemporaneous critical reaction of Kansas City Star critic John C. Moffit, who complained that “it takes a strong stomach to look at it.” The Hollywood Reporter, too, fixated on the film’s supposed challenges to the appetite, calling it an “outrageous onslaught upon the feelings, the senses, the brains and the stomachs of an audience.” Breaking from the digestive metaphors but similarly marking a division between the viewer and the debased images onscreen, Variety proposed that the film’s efforts to align its viewers with the interests of a disabled cast of characters were simply unrealistic: “it is impossible for the normal man or woman to sympathize with the aspiring midget.”
These reactions are not reviews of Freaks so much as meta-commentary from anxious nondisabled spectators about the concept of representing performers with anomalous bodies as having their own drives and desires. Though much has been made, including by Skal, of the awkward place the film occupies as a pre-Hays Code horror film that nevertheless had a number of its more unsavoury developments censored, reducing it from a full 90 minute running time to the 64 minute cut most are familiar with, little effort has been paid among film historians to square this moral criticism with prevailing cultural, medical, and political discourses about disability in the 1930s. Yet one cannot separate these comments about the physical repulsion of seeing such figures onscreen from the prevailing wisdom and legislation of the time. That spans the Ugly Laws, forced sterilization, the warehousing of disabled individuals in asylums, and the actual history of freak shows, itself a complicated subject spanning the exploitation of P.T. Barnum and the self-fashioning of disabled performers within that system. The Hilton sisters alone are a fascinating study of agency within exploitation in this respect, having captured the public imagination to the point of performing with Bob Hope and Charlie Chaplin and later co-starring in 1952’s Chained for Life, a gaudy courtroom drama loosely inspired by their lives, all while privately fighting a good part of their lives for legal emancipation from their abusive guardians. Seen from a disability studies perspective in the harsh light of these developments, which do take a hard stomach to look at, Freaks is a radical text that dares to centre a wide range of disabled characters (and their singular bodies) without nondisabled interlocutors to explain them for what Rosemary Garland-Thomson might call normate audience. Nondisabled viewers, as Lopez points out on the podcast, have to either identify with the titular freaks or settle for the “able-bodied buffer” of the gentle non-entity Venus (Leila Hyams), a kindly sounding board for Freida, and Phroso (Wallace Ford), who passes as able-bodied despite his stutter.
Criterion’s curatorial focus on the film’s circus setting and Hollywood’s history of censorship make sense as starting points for a collector looking to fit Freaks on their shelf. But in not commissioning new disability perspectives on the text, and in inviting only a single voice after the fact, they’ve missed not only the communal nature of the film’s disabled politics but also the opportunity to position the set as a critical contribution to disability culture, where the film has had its longest afterlife. The programming note in the packaging, a key part of Criterion’s appeal as a collector of important classic and contemporary films, makes much of Browning’s penchant for this “pungent backdrop” and “sordid tales of outcasts, cons, villains, and vagabonds,” essentially providing a positive update of both the earlier publicity and the film’s initial critical rejection, repackaging the pungent and the sordid as features of Browning’s ethos, not bugs. It’s true that Browning roots around in the pungent in Freaks: there’s a primal earthiness to the central violent set piece, where one by one, the performers crawl and drag themselves through the mud and in the rain to converge upon Cleopatra. There’s a particular jolt to the striking image of Randian’s Living Torso holding the fateful knife that will be used against her in his mouth. But the carnival is more than mere backdrop for Browning, a former carnival barker, contortionist, and vaudeville comedian — who, on the note of his sordidness, often performed in blackface, lest we get too romantic about his sideshow career. It is likewise more than just setting for the cast of Freaks, many of whom are playing fictionalized versions of their professional selves, adapting their acts for the screen.
So what is Freaks, if it is neither an indigestible, unrelatable assault on the nondisabled viewers’ senses nor purely a time capsule for the indulgences of early Hollywood? Criterion is not wrong to characterize its final moments as sordid. Even the most generous assessment of the film’s thematic and narrative machinations has to disentangle the same contradictions of representation and exploitation that power the institution of the freak show itself: it’s an exploitative tradition that also employed and gave a platform to a large number of disabled performers, recreated in an exploitation film that both platforms and lingers over the bodies of disabled performers. Certainly, characters such as the Hilton twins, who each go on a chaste date with a different man over the course of the film, and intersex performer Josephine Joseph’s Half-Woman-Half-Man are observed with an interest bordering on the prurient, albeit of a sympathetic kind; Hercules’s violent treatment of the latter is firmly rejected by the community and, tacitly, by Browning, even as the camera seems to share his gawking interest.
Yet the cast are performers, used to and even expert at being looked at; they know their angles and work them, far from just serving as objects of titillation. Though the cast was ill-treated by the production, famously asked, in an apocryphal story, to eat outside in a tent at a promotional event lest they be allowed to mingle inside with the studio brass, there is an air of respect to the camera’s gaze upon them. The film becomes a kind of sanctioned backstage glimpse of how they live between shows. For long stretches, Freaks plays like a warm, ambling hangout movie, humanely observing the off-stage lives of performers and taking in their adaptable, anomalous bodies as they perform the mundane tasks of life, as when the Half-Man tenderly pours a glass of wine for his partner the Armless Girl (Frances O’Connor), who delicately lifts the glass to her mouth with her foot, or when the Living Torso coolly lights his own cigarette by striking a match that’s pinned between his teeth. There is a delicacy to these moments, a sense that we are glimpsing something rare and private and natural, that gives the film’s depiction of disability an almost documentary realist quality, even as we know we are watching performers who make a living out of being regarded.
If Freaks is a horror film in spite of these lovely moments, then it’s about the horror of its ableist villains’ predatory gaze upon disabled bodies, which they view as meal tickets. Its terror lies not just in the freaks’ final actions but in the nondisabled performers’ successful infiltration of their tight circle, which begins when they appeal to Hans’s desire to be loved by an able-bodied woman. “She’s the most beautiful big woman I’ve seen,” he muses, starry-eyed, when he first looks up at her, cuing us in to the dangers of perception. Much of the film’s reception in disability studies has focused on these reversals of perspective, which subvert Hans’ internalized ableist visual hierarchy. Sally Chivers has written about the distance between the way the film was packaged by MGM as a horror film featuring “creatures of the abyss” and the actual text before us, which if anything locates its viewer within, not above, that abyss, among disabled people who seem rather human and not especially creaturely. She points out that the film’s cult reputation, which persists in ironic repertory screenings even today, has presented the characters as repulsive attractions for the audience to take a lurid but sympathetic interest in, in spite of the film’s own subversive depiction of looking, which encourages us to see the beautiful as suspect and the disabled as normal. Nicole Markotić has similarly noted that the film’s genre thrills come largely from the viewer’s incomprehension at being placed in uncomfortable spectatorship positions. Browning, she suggests, forces the viewer’s sympathetic identification with the troupe when Cleopatra throws their friendly invitation in their faces, leading to messy feelings when they ultimately do violence to her.
Forcing us to align ourselves with the film’s disabled subjects rather than those able-bodied buffers is one of Browning’s trickiest accomplishments in Freaks, and it’s one Criterion might have heeded more deliberately in their framing of the film’s cultural significance. Much of the complicated love for Freaks in the disability community comes from the rarity and the variety of its perspectives on disability. In Salome Chasnoff’s 2020 documentary Code of the Freaks, Sins Invalid performer Mat Fraser says that the film holds up partly because it shows so many different kinds of disabled bodies. It also captures, he says, “the camaraderie and edgy outsider necessity of collective difference.” In a Medium essay on the exclusion of disability in the arts, Paralympian and actor Sarah Houbolt treats Freaks as a kind of ancestor to the work she does, something disabled actors frequently lack. “Watching the film for the first time,” she says of her recent redemptive viewing, “gave me a legacy to follow, a cultural heritage uncovered, and a need to ensure that our history is fully known, and told by us.” Aaron Schimberg, a director with a facial difference whose film Chained for Life is riffing not only on the earlier so-titled film about the Hiltons but on Freaks, and its place in the history of disfigurement in film, is more ambivalent but no less effusive in his praise. In an interview with the BFI, he speaks of Freaks as a necessary starting point: “I wanted to interrogate my ambiguous feelings towards that movie. It’s a masterpiece, it’s profoundly stupid, it’s humanistic and empathetic, it’s totally ridiculous and insulting. But a masterpiece!”
Clearly, Freaks’ peculiar representational riches, anthropological interest in onscreen depictions of anomalous bodies and under-documented performers, and complex and unresolved play with narrative perspective help it meet the criterion for cultural importance for the disabled performers, filmmakers, and critics who view it as foundational to their work and their cinephilia. Like the freaks at the banquet, we accept it, in all its messiness and contradiction. To characterize Browning’s film as primarily an object tucked away in the early Hollywood cabinet of curiosities, though, ready at last to be put on a more respectable shelf, is to elide that edgy outsider necessity Fraser mentions. As Chambers says, Freaks is ours, and it continues to fall to us to claim it.
Angelo Muredda (he/him) is a Toronto-based teacher, film critic, and programmer whose writing on film has appeared in outlets such as Cinema Scope, The National Post, The Walrus, Now Magazine, SHARP Magazine, and Film Freak Central. He has curated film series and educational workshops for Reelabilities Toronto and holds a Ph.D. in English on representations of disability in Canadian literature and film from the University of Toronto. He teaches in the Department of English at Humber College, where he is also Reviews Editor for the Humber Literary Review. He lives in downtown Toronto with his partner and his cat. You can find him on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @amuredda.
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