Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2005, Volume 25, No. 3
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Browning, Tod (Producer & Director). Freaks. [DVD]. 62 minutes, 1932. A Warner Bros./Warner Home Video release. Script based on Clarence "Tod" Robbins original story, "Spurs." DVD includes the documentary, Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema, 2004. DVD list price: $19.97.

Reviewed by Hioni Karamanos, Independent Scholar

The release of Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks on DVD is sure to delight film fans, academicians, disability activists, and any combination thereof. With this format, new opportunities abound for viewing the film and encouraging discourse from the perspective of Disability Studies. Along with the film, the DVD contains several "special features" worth noting, especially commentary from horror film aficionado David J. Skal, and the documentary, Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema. The DVD also incorporates "alternate ending" sequences and includes the "Special Message" prologue. With so much "bonus material," this DVD allows for, and promotes, a broad range of interpretation.

Long the subject of film criticism and pop culture analyses, Freaks continues to demand academic attention. In part because of its actors and plot, and in part because of its history and legend, the relevance of Freaks to discussions of disability and freakery endures. According to Skal, the short story "Spurs," came to the attention of MGM via Harry Earles, a renowned actor of short stature. Earles' interest in seeing "Spurs" adapted to the screen suggests that he perhaps found it, if not a "good" story, at the very least, a good potential source of fame and profit. Originally intended to compete with horror films from other studios, such as Frankenstein (1931) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Freaks proved far more disturbing; defying and complicating the traditions of the horror film genre with its pseudo-documentary style and "authentic" characters.

Freaks tells the story of a traveling show, focusing on a relationship developing between a freak performer and a non-freak performer. Publicity for the film begged the question: "Can a full-grown woman truly love a midget?" The answer provided by the film proved as disturbing to audiences as the question. Ultimately, Cleopatra (played by Olga Baclanova) does not love Hans (played by Harry Earles) at all. She permits his attention only in a scheme to steal his money and murder him after they are married. Most scenes emphasize the exploitive nature of her relationship to him, simultaneously exploiting audience fascination with sideshows.

For example, during the film's most infamous scene — the wedding feast — a drunken Cleopatra reveals her true feelings toward freak performers. She refuses their offer to accept her as one of them, instead humiliating and insulting her husband and his friends. Once the other freak performers in the troupe learn the extent of her hate and treachery, they band together to rescue Hans and avenge his mistreatment. The gang of freak performers violently attacks Cleopatra, transforming her into a sideshow attraction. Thus, even though some "normal" performers are the most villainous and sadistic characters, the film presents freak performers as a kind of secret society — which average people find extremely threatening and dangerous.

As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's anthology Freakery made clear, freak performers, and their representation in popular culture, remain worthy subjects for Disability Studies. With its outstanding cast, compelling plot, and notorious reputation, Tod Browning's Freaks deserves unique consideration. Not only does the story involve a wide range of performers, it highlights classic sideshow routines — as well as stereotypes and misconceptions. The menacing vision of vengeful "freaks" seems to have left the strongest impression on audiences and critics. However, the implication that "normal" people who hold such prejudices are themselves to blame for social injustice and cruelty remains a powerful theme. Such messages keep the film enigmatic and intriguing.

In addition to its contributions — positive and/or negative — to the history of motion pictures, Freaks also offers material useful to scholars of theater and performance. For those interested in researching sideshows, this film provides some of the only easily accessible footage of noted performers of the era. Included in Browning's cast are such celebrities as: Harry Earles, Johnny Eck, Schlitze, Prince Randian, and, of course, The Hilton Sisters — Daisy and Violet. The film cultivates a "behind-the-scenes" atmosphere that also gratifies audience expectations of freak presentation. In addition to the central characters, there are quite a few remarkable players. For example, armless women appear, much as they would have been in popular photographs or stage shows, casually eating and drinking. The Human Skeleton (played by Peter Robison) and The Bearded Lady (played by Olga Roderick) portray a couple and, in a classically sensationalist scenario, she gives birth to their child — alleged to be a bearded female infant.

Such scenes may "humanize" the otherwise "exotic" characters, by showing them in relationships and interactions beyond their work as sideshow spectacles. However, these sequences may also bolster existing stereotypes and fetishes of people with disabilities and freak performers. In one of the film's most amusing subplots, conjoined twins Daisy and Violet are the object of the affections of two different men, each of whom interact as if in the company of only one girl. On one hand, this portrayal skillfully communicates the "normal" and "genuine" desires and interests of Daisy and Violet as individual, adult women. On the other hand, such scenes cater to the "prurient interest" of audiences fascinated by freaks as sexually "deviant" and wholly "Other" — evidenced in a scene depicting Daisy as being stimulated by amorous attention paid to Violet. Tensions between exposing the myth of normal/abnormal dichotomies and presenting freak performers in ways that indulge the audience's appetite for gawking, creates a narrative riddled with fascinating contradiction.

Most informative of all the DVD features is the audio commentary by David J. Skal. Co-author of Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Skal has also written numerous books and articles on horror films, including, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. His authority is without question, but some may find his books over-emphasizing the "exotic" nature of his subjects. Notions of disability, identity, and the oppression of those with anomalous bodies remain downplayed in favor of discussing the metaphoric and "entertainment" purposes such differences may serve the culture at large, especially an able-bodied audience. Nonetheless, Skal's commentary provides abundant background and context. He is careful to include discussions of alternate endings and other things cut from the film at various stages, doing what he can to restore lost material. He also quotes numerous reviews and press releases, which provide another level of insight.

The additional material presented on the DVD reveals that Freaks suffered numerous cuts to comply with the Production Code. Adopted in 1930 to avoid the introduction of government censorship of motion pictures, The Code sought to appease audiences and critics who feared Hollywood's influence on, and corruption of, American society. In the "Alternate Endings" section of the DVD, Skal meticulously compares scripts and notes with what remains of the existing prints. Like the "Alternate Endings" feature, the "Special Message" once attached to the beginning of the film is now viewable separately. This segment was included as a prologue in the theatrical re-release of the film, reducing the potential for further censorship. Sensationalistic in its pseudo-academic style, it concludes with the following:

Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world. With humility for the many injustices done to such people, (they have no power to control their lot) we present the most startling horror story of the ABNORMAL and THE UNWANTED.

While Disability Studies scholars will find both the film segments and the audio commentary useful for research, the included documentary, Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema, opens more avenues for investigation. The frictions inherent in freak discourse — between extolling the talent of freak performers and exploiting those deemed "abnormal" — become clearer thanks to the inclusion of experts beyond Skal. This documentary supplies extensive material on the making of Freaks and seeks the wisdom of present-day performers as well as sideshow historians. In addition to Skal, Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema includes contemporary observations from Sideshow Performer/Historian Todd Robbins, Sideshow Performer/Historian Johnny Meah, Actor Mark Povinelli, Actor Jerry Maren, and Sideshow Performer Jennifer Miller. While Robbins and Meah provide a unique sense of "inside" history, viewers interested in a sharper critical perspective on freakery and performance will likely find the comments of Miller, Maren, and Povinelli more telling.

Underscoring the circumstances of employment and professional talent, Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema recognizes freakery as a legitimate performance. However, to some it may seem a little too quick to embrace sideshow display as a "positive" force in the lives of people with disabilities. For instance, the revelation that Daisy and Violet were, literally, sold into the sideshow circuit and enslaved for much of their lives — gaining independence in 1931 only after filing a lawsuit — unfolds more like an obstacle they courageously overcame than as an example of the sort of abuse commonly inflicted on those with anomalous bodies. Even so, the documentary succeeds at presenting aspects of professional freak performance as both livelihood and social phenomenon.

In conclusion, the DVD of Freaks makes a powerful contribution to any multimedia collection focusing on disability, freakery, performance, or representation. More than simply the VHS version reincarnated, the DVD provides superior picture and sound. Furthermore, the additional audio commentary, Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema, and other materials make this edition of Freaks worth watching. Freaks inspires a broad range of emotion and reaction — as easily reviled as celebrated. From love to hate for such a film, this DVD enhances the array of responses.