The history of Freaks follows the classic tale of controversial art facing backlash from a society unprepared to question its collective norms. Upon its debut in 1932, the film had already been gutted by a third to ease the stomachs of audiences. Contemporary critics revealed their true colors. MGM faced so much outrage and revulsion that they pulled the film and sold the distribution rights. Freaks, which effectively ended the career of its producer and director, Tod Browning, would lie dormant for decades waiting for culture to catch up and finally see it as the masterpiece it is.
The plot mainly revolves around a dwarf named Hans, the leader of a circus sideshow, and his seduction by Cleopatra, the circus trapeze artist, who ultimately tries to marry and then murder him for his fortune. Freaks’ most iconic scene is The Wedding Feast, where Cleopatra secretly poisons her new fiancé unbeknownst to the performers celebrating their engagement; that is, until she screams “You dirty slimy freaks!” and tosses wine from her own loving cup onto them after a ceremony of acceptance and chants of “We accept her. One of us!”
Tensions between the performers and Cleopatra grow as her intention to kill Hans is discovered. But Browning makes it clear that it isn’t about “freaks” vs. “normal people” when seal-trainer Venus confronts Hercules, Cleopatra’s coconspirator and circus strongman.
My people are decent circus folk. Not dirty rats what would kill a freak to get his money.
Freaks has a horrifying ending, but the film is more defined by what happens throughout as we’re treated with short glimpses into the performers’ everyday lives from chores to marriage proposals and newborn babies. These moments aren’t cheap skits that objectify the actors. Never do we see them take stage for the purpose of amusement. The performers are portrayed with respect and compassion. It is the “normal” and “beautiful” people and their actions that horrify us, not the band of “freaks”.
Freaks was an empathic and authentic work of art that sent a strong message about the difference between external and internal beauty at a time when America probably needed it most. Browning was able to deliver a film horrifying yet charming, entertaining yet thought-provoking, and simple yet unforgettable.