Before I continue my discussion on David Lynch, I thought we’d take a step back to the Thirties with one of the weirdest, darkest and most controversial films I’ve seen. It’s so controversial that the version I saw had 26 minutes cut out. It’s Freaks by director Tod Browning, and a movie I am never likely to forget.
The film is set in a circus, where a trapeze artist by the name of Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) marries a sideshow midget, Hans (Harry Earles), after realising he has a large inheritance. She cheats on him and generally mocks him until the so-called ‘freaks’ get their own back. The unique feature of this early movie is that Tod Browning decided to enlist people with actual deformities to act as the ‘freaks’ rather than using costumes and make up. Examples of ‘freaks’ are the midgets, who look like children despite being roughly 30; the pinheads; Siamese twins; Josephine Joseph, the half woman half man; Peter Robinson, the human skeleton; Elizabeth Green, the stork woman; and last but not least, Prince Randian, the human torsos. Totally limbless, he has an excellent scene where he lights a cigarette entirely using his mouth, as you can see below.
Of course, the film caused quite a scandal in its time, with one woman complaining that the film had caused her to suffer a miscarriage. In today’s enlightened times however, we can afford to reassess this largely misunderstood work. It’s certainly not the most aesthetically pleasing film, and it is rather morally ambiguous – the freaks turn Cleopatra into a grotesque ‘human duck’ by the end. But it does highlight forms of discrimination and challenges the audience to think about how we perceive people with gross deformities – that’s ‘gross’ as in large, not as in disgusting. Tod Browning was very forward thinking to have placed these individuals in his film, ahead of so-called ‘normal’ people as this really makes the film even more powerful and justifiable. The very fact that the audience of the Thirties couldn’t handle the film shows just how much it needed to be made.
The saving grace of this peculiar and occasionally rather amateur film is that it is not exploitative, but rather empowering. If you feel queasy seeing a person with microcephalia, then this movie leads you to ask yourself why. For a Thirties movie, it was actually rather ahead of its time.