The film Freaks(1932), directed by Tod Browning tells the story of sideshow performers in a traveling circus. Browning grew up in the circus, and cast people with actual deformities as the “freaks” in the film. Freaks is a controversial film that was ahead of its time, and can be seen as either unethical or sympathetic in its portrayal of the “freaks.”
Freaks is a pre-code film, meaning that it didn’t have to follow the strict restrictions of the Motion Picture Production Code (Fallows). As mentioned earlier, Browning cast people with actual deformities, which caused lots of controversy. Browning is criticized for this choice, because many of the people who were cast as the “freaks” were unable to coherently give consent for their work. The presence of actual freaks caused lots of problems in the MGM studio, and as a result one of the films producers Harry Rapf, tried to stop production, but failed to do so. During production the majority of the cast was forced to eat outside, because the studio didn’t want to disturb too many people (Smith). For the majority of the film, Browning does not exploit the “freaks,” but the end act can be seen as exploiting the “freaks.” In this scene the “freaks” take their revenge on the antagonist characters, the audience see’s the “freaks” crawling through the mud and rain carrying weapons preparing for their revenge. This could be considered as exploiting the “freaks,” because this scene depicts them almost as monsters and the tone of the scene is so dark.
It wasn’t until 1962 at the Cannes Film Festival when the film was finally received positive acclaim. During this time the counter culture generation had embraced the term “freak,” and the film found new life making it the first cult film. Most of the film portrays the “freaks” in a sympathetic manner, and while all the people in the story are circus performers, the film never shows performances from the “freaks.” Instead Browning shows the audience the “freaks” every day lives, and shows them doing typical things like eating, drinking, and other day to day activities. Browning also shows the “freaks” struggling with the same issues many people have, this is seen with the Siamese twins trying to balance their relationship and family. The real “freaks” of the film are actually the “normal” characters, and the audience never see’s the freaks do anything bad until the end of the film. Although the end scene where the “freaks” extract their revenge does exploit the “freaks,” the audience does see that Hans does end up feeling bad about what happened to Cleopatra and Hercules.
Overall, the controversy associated with this film is very interesting and depending on your beliefs it can be seen as exploitation or sympathetic in its portrayal. However, the message is the same in that outward beauty is only skin deep and treating people based on their appearance is a true atrocity.
Smith, Justine. “The Ethics of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) – Sound On Sight.”Sound On Sight. N.p., n.d. Web. http://www.soundonsight.org/the-ethics-of-tod-brownings-freaks-1932/
Fallows, Tom. “After Dark: Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) Review.” WhatCulture After Dark Tod Brownings FREAKS 1932 Review Comments. N.p., n.d. Web http://whatculture.com/film/freaks-1932.php