The Ethics of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)

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Produced by MGM in 1932, Freaks (dir. Tod Browning) was withdrawn upon its initial theatrical release and is one of the few films from the era that remains truly shocking to contemporary audiences. The film features real circus “freaks” and their apparent monstrosity was one of the driving forces of the numerous controversies that plagued the film. Their representation remains a point of contention for the contemporary viewer, and whether or not the film does more harm than good in regards to its subject remains an open question for the socially conscious. The film encounters many of the same legal and ethical issues that freak shows have, offering a cinematic equal to the roadside attractions and circus shows.

Tod Browning’s career had been no stranger to the physically disabled and many of his silent films, including The Unknown (1927) and The Unholy Three (1925) featured prominent characters with physical disabilities. Before coming to Hollywood, Tod Browning had worked fifteen years in the circus and many of his films feature elements of this locale, experience he incorporated into many of his work. His films all deal with the turmoil of being different and often dealt with the difficulty of love and romance for those who stand beyond normality. In contrast with the beautiful people who populate the screen, Tod Browning was concerned with human ugliness – inside and out. Monstrosity was central to his cinematic oeuvre, as he explored difficult notions of deformity, disability and cruelty in regards to the human form. Michael Koller, programmer for the Melbourne cinematheque, describes quite eloquently the nuance and darkness present in Browning’s work when he says,

Browning’s interest in outsiders and the rejected was no doubt nurtured by his time in the circus, and he well understands the audience’s attraction to this image of the dark underbelly of carnival life, hidden by the masquerade of gaiety. His heroes were not the attractive and glamorous found in most movies, but those misbegotten beings normally hidden from our sight and treated in a condescending manner. SOURCE

Coming off the success of Dracula (1931), Tod Browning’s next assignment for MGM was to be something “even more horrible than Dracula”. Using a magazine story called “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, in which a circus midget falls in love with the beautiful bareback rider, who agrees to marry him when she learns he has inherited a large sum of money, the story was adapted by screenwriter Willis Goldbeck (best known for writing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). The film would feature real Freak Show attractions and many were brought in from Culver City to be featured in the film. Production for Freaks began in October of 1931 with a budget of $290,469. The presence of the freaks on the MGM lot caused a lot of problems and as a result, one of the film’s producer’s Harry Rapf, organized a delegation to confront Thalberg and Mayer in order to stop production. This was eventually vetoed and production was allowed to continue under the condition that the majority of the cast be forced to eat outside so as not to disturb too many people. Shooting was completed in mid-December and was $10,000 over projected budget.

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Initial previews of the film were disastrous, resulting in almost 30 minutes worth of cuts and the film had to be submitted twice to the New York Board of Censors before it was approved. Even with the rather extensive changes, the film was quite shocking on its release and much of the press was wary of it. The review for the New York Times opened with, “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer definitely has on its hands a picture that is out of the ordinary. The difficulty is in telling whether it should be shown at the Rialto—where it opened yesterday—or in, say, the Medical Centre”. The film was also condemned by the National Association of Women, who decried the film as being further evidence of the lowering moral standards of Hollywood cinema.

Due to surrounding controversy, bad press and an inability to find an audience, MGM withdrew the film from circulation after just three weeks. The studio did very little to fight for the film’s distribution and many suspect this was due to studio head, Louis B. Mayer’s, dislike of it. The MGM logo was even removed from the prints. The difficult reception and inability to find an audience was especially difficult for director, Tod Browning, whose career never quite recovered.

The film was able to find something of a second life through Dwain Esper, who Louis B. Mayer sold the rights to in the mid 1930s for $5000 plus royalties. He would distribute the film as part of a travelling road show during the 1930s and 1940s, usually pairing it with other footage of “freaks”, while also featuring some of the cast as part of the show. Travelling road shows were among the underground means of film distribution and were not subject to the same rules and regulations of the production code. The rights of the film would eventually revert back to MGM in 1957.

The film had even less luck in the UK, where was refused certification in 1932 as it was felt that the film exploited for commercial reasons the disabled persons in the film. This ban was upheld even into the 1950s, when it was brought up again for classification. The rights had been bought by a new distributor, Adelphi Films, and the director of the company, Arthur Dent wrote a letter to the BBFC making the case for the film to get an X Rating. The ban, however, was upheld and the film would only find distribution in the UK in 1963.

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The controversy that has long surrounded Freaks is related largely to the depiction of the physically disabled. Though the film does encounter other issues related to the production code (in particular the insinuations of abnormal sexual practises, though the majority of these issues are directly related to the physicality of its cast), its source of embarrassment for MGM was related far more to its unusual cast than anything else. In the contemporary era in particular, issues of consent and representation are at the heart of the film’s controversial nature. One way in which we can understand the legality and controversy surrounding Freaks is by looking at the laws and practises surrounding Freak Shows in the United States.

In his article entitled “Dangerous Bodies: Freak Shows, Legal Discourse, and the Definition of Disability”, Brigham D. Fordham addresses the legality and ethics of the Freak Show in the United States. He argues that to ban Freak Shows is unconstitutional as they should be protected by the first amendment. Contrary to what one might think, the banning of Freak Shows does not take into account the humanity of those with “abnormal bodies”. He describes the context of his argument as follows:

Myriad towns and cities today have ordinances that prohibit or charge a fee for freak shows, and a number of states have passed laws aimed at limiting or prohibiting the exhibition of those with unusual bodies. In California and Florida, laws prohibiting freak shows have been held unconstitutional—not because the laws were thought to violate the First Amendment, but rather because persons with unusual bodies have a right to be employed and, surprisingly, the courts assume freak shows are the only possible job for such people (Fordham 3).

Fordham continues to argue, that the belief that these people are being exploited shows a lack of respect. That in spite of the fact that many of these people are adults, that they are seen as being unable to consent to being a part of the performance. Fordham says, “If we believe that those with unusual bodies have the same rights and mental capacities as others, the argument goes, we cannot fault freak show performers for striking a bargain between dignity and financial reward (15)”.

Issues of consent run far deeper than this, however, and part of consent is seeing alternative venues of choice (Fordham 16). Those who participate in Freak shows must not only choose to be there, but also have alternatives, as well as the time and capacity to make the right choice. This is where things become difficult to analyze without directly invoking the subjects at hand, but it becomes important to consider the possibility that these people are not being exploited in order to fully address the concerns surrounding Freaks.

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The reception and controversy surrounding Freaks, points less to a concern for the people involved in it, then a social discomfort with those who are physically disabled. The multitudes of reactions surrounding the film’s social value or exploitative nature did not include the voice of the subjects themselves and as Fordham says, “This reaction of fear and disgust, encouraged by the forms of the traditional freak show, reflects attitudes leading to discriminatory treatment of persons with different bodies.  One who is perceived as being better off dead and whose appearance awakens horror is unlikely to be treated as having the same value as others” (Fordham 21) . Though one can just as easily look at Tod Browning’s film and condemn him for not involving his cast in their own representation, one cannot dismiss the autonomy involved in agreeing to be in such a film.

Arguing in favour of the film’s distribution in 1952, Arthur Dent the director of Adelphi who owned the rights of the film at the time, said, “I do think that the sympathetic manner in which these characters are portrayed should go far to eliminate from the public mind the usual feeling of horror which is their first effect in circus side-shows” (SBBFC). In 1963, when the film was finally allowed distribution, the Secretary of the Board for the BBFC expressed concern over the screening of the film, saying that the film would potentially “attract people who wish to come and see Freaks for unworthy reasons” (SBBFC). Again the suggestion being, that the cast of the film was somehow not in control of their image, were not offered consent and are perhaps not long to be seen by anybody at all.

The controversy related to the film’s subject ignored forthright the sensitivity in which Tod Browning portrays the characters and though in the film’s final act, they are portrayed quite monstrously, there is a continued theme that beauty and ugliness lies skin deep rather than at the surface. In adapting the screenplay, changes are even made to make the “beautiful” people the villains. The film ironically addresses human’s love for beauty, and already suggests its dangerous implications in its prologue that reads: “For the love of beauty is a deep-seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization”. This suggests a powerlessness that most of us face in its wake, but similarly suggests in contrast with the film itself, that beauty and goodness are not mutually exclusive. Ultimately the film’s villain,Cleopatra uses beauty as a veil, hiding her sinister and ugly insides. On the other hand, the freaks whose monstrosity could easily equate them with evil and aberration demonstrate camaraderie, loyalty and love with utmost sincerity.

The only snag in this argument, is the film’s finale in which the freaks take their revenge. In this portion of the film, they are crawling through the mud, snarling and bearing weapons preparing to exact their revenge. To dwell too much on this aspect of the film, however, is to deny the film it’s context in terms of both era and the necessity of classical Hollywood narrative forms. As ambitious and groundbreaking as Tod Browning may be, he could hardly shake too many boats as long as every studio’s eye was closely watching. Whether this becomes an essential point against the film is up to the viewer, personally I accept it as being part of the horror form and as much as I’d enjoy a more grounded resolution that is in tune with the more sympathetic portrayal that precedes it, I have to concede that those expectations are not realistic.

One also has to go so far as to consider that the majority of the film’s cast went on to find little work and it is not because of the film’s failure. The film industry, as a whole, seems to have an innate discomfort in depicting those with physical abnormalities, and they are rarely showcased on the screen. The issue of censorship and controversy surrounding Freaks is not, as some have argued, about the ethics of representation and image but a desire to suppress the image of those deemed different as they make people uncomfortable. Though it remains to be seen as to whether or not these images are empowering, the fact remains that Tod Browning’s vision is quite sympathetic to the plight of the so-called “Freaks”.

Freaks  remains a unique film in American film history, and the controversy that surrounds it sheds fascinating light on the perception of the disabled in American society. Though it was never banned in the United States, its reception and the discomfort it elicited incurred a rare form of self-censorship on the part of a major studio, as the film was severely cut and pulled after just three weeks from distribution. It suffered a worse fate across the pond, where it was banned for 30 years in the UK. To this day, the film remains contentious due to its apparent exploitative nature, though that judgement may be misplaced. Though the film could have similarly suffered under the reign of the production code had it been released several years later, the fate of the film does not lie so much in its depiction of sex or violence, but rather in society’s discomfort with those who are different. The film maintains an important legacy in the history of American cinema, and not just as a product of its time. The film was recently screened as part of TCM’s A History of Disability in Film Festival in early 2012 and one of the programmers, Lawrence Carter-Long explains’ the films lasting impact:

The importance of showing ‘Freaks’ in 2012 is that it takes those conventions of who we’re supposed to identify with and where our sympathies lie and turns everything upside down. Our sympathies aren’t with the buxom blond non-disabled woman. From the beginning, your sympathies are with the freaks themselves. That’s the impact of the film. The audience is rooting for characters who look like what is traditionally the villain in a film. It challenges you to reconsider the outsider. SOURCE

Freaks remains a fascinating point of reflection for contemporary audiences as we are forced to reconsider our perception of the cast from a new perspective.

– Justine Smith

Works Cited

Fordham, Brigham A. “Dangerous Bodies: Freak Shows, Expression, and Exploitation.” Social

Science Research Network: UCLA Entertainment Law Review Vol. 14, No. 207, (2007):

n.p Web. 2 Dec 2012




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