To those who never saw the movie, the story takes place in the backstage world of the traveling circus. It is about a midget who falls in love with a trapeze performer.
We're plunged straight into sexual intrigue, as Cleopatra, the trapezist, flirts with Hans the midget, much to the embarrassment of Frieda, his equally tiny fiancée. Cleopatra discovers that Hans has a fortune of his own and marries him despite her affair with another performer.
‘Freaks' begins with a classic enigma - What's In The Box? A crowd gathers around an animal pen, eager for the latest sideshow marvel. The monstrosity remains hidden from view; all we are told is that "she was once a beautiful woman", now she causes "shrieks and gasps of horror".
Browning introduces a whole gallery of ‘freaks'; Madame Tetrallini and her clan of Pinheads (microcephaly's), out picnicking with the dwarf Little Angelo, and Johnny. When a growly peasant tries to get them evicted by the landowner, the Madame pleads for her "children" to be allowed to stay, the gruff lord of the manor surrenders.
We meet the Siamese twins Daisy and Violet, who are presented as flirtatious and coy, managing to conduct separate courtships with two very different individuals.
Other than Cleopatra and her lover, other able-bodied figures, include Venus the seal trainer and Phroso the clown, Hercules the Strong Man, and others.
Browning introduces the second half of the movie with a title card: The Wedding Feast. The scene marks an absolute change in pace, tone, and mood. At the wedding feast, Cleopatra insults the "freaks," and thus invites their hostility. She starts to poison her new husband to gain his wealth. The "freaks" learn of the attempt, and on a rainy night when the circus is bogged along the road, they kill the performer and chase the woman.
Representation and Images:
The movie uses images to reflect the beginning of the 20th-century way of treating people with disabilities and fortifies stereotypes. Watching it in the second decade of the 21st century, I have to say that in a way it was ahead of its time, as it dedicates a large time to show the ‘normal' life of the ‘abnormal' people. They love, they work, they eat and drink, and they have a culture. Horror seems a very long way away as the movie presents a series of pictures showing the domesticity of the freaks; they eat, drink, and peg out laundry, unremarkable everyday acts made remarkable only by the lack of arms or legs or even both. The audience is introduced to many so-called monstrosities, none of which present any threat whatsoever. The only menace stems from the able-bodied Cleopatra, plotting with Hercules and tricking poor Hans into buying her furs and jewels. Whilst the freaks (and Venus and Phroso) are gentle and courteous towards one another, Hercules and Cleopatra mock Hans, calling him "the little polliwog", with the Strong Man threatening to "squish him like a bug." I find this large portion of the movie representing normality for people with disabilities to be ahead of time and rather progressive way of representation.
Having said that there are many ‘old style’ representations in the movie. In the first half of the movie at least, the Freaks are usually represented as childlike, harmless, and more frightened of strangers than strangers are of them. When a growly peasant tries to get them evicted by the landowner, the Madame pleads for her "children" to be allowed to stay. She gathers her ‘children’ in her skirts in a matter channeling Snow White. She’s protecting the helpless…
In another scene we witness the "pinheads" Schlitze, Elvira and Jenny Lee dancing and playing in the forest. From a distance, they look like innocent, happy children. But as the camera approaches, it is clear that they are neither children nor are they quite adults either. Thus, it is the ambiguity here, rather than the disability itself, which is momentarily disturbing.
Thinking about the 1930’s when the movie was made, this is the way people with disabilities were perceived. By using this representation, Browning is truthfully mirroring his time way of thinking about people with disabilities as childlike and sexless creatures.
On the other hand, we have the Siamese twins Daisy and Violet, are presented as flirtatious and coy, managing to conduct separate courtships with two very different individuals. I assume that showing ‘freaks’ as having ‘normal’ normal relationships in this world (the Bearded Lady gives birth, and her husband, the Living Skeleton, hands round cigars like any other proud father) is not something that was easy to swallow back in the days the movie was made.
Other then representing people with disabilities in a childlike stereotype, the movie also reinforces the stereotype of women as weak, sexual object and manipulative. For example the phrase by Venus: “Women are funny, ain't they? They all tramps, ain't they?”
Surprisingly not loyal to the stereotype of people with disabilities as sexless beings come the wedding scene. The Koo Koo, the Bird Girl, shimmies her hips on the table; it's crude burlesque for an adult audience and the freaks roar in a drunken approval. Was Browning trying to break the stereotype?
Going back to the representation of freaks as horror images. At the beginning of the movie, the ‘what’s in the box?’ idea: What Cleopatra is now is best left to the mind's eye. The viewers have an hour to ponder the question before finally being allowed to peer inside the pen, an hour in which all manner of human peculiarities and malformations, are paraded across the screen.
Building the feeling of horror is also the wedding scene, in which the freaks sing in unity, “Gobble gobble, gobble gobble! One of us! One of us!” while beating rhythmically on the table. While the words themselves are friendly and accepting, they almost sound like a threat in this scene.
Part of the terror of the final is the sense that events are heading towards an inexorable conclusion; the freaks will not be denied a satisfaction once they choose to reach for it. Who came up with the plan? Who is the freaks' leader? It doesn't matter — they act as a unit, preying on those, like us, who might have been fooled by their child-like exterior. "Offend one and you offend them all." Cleopatra's doom is sealed. No longer innocent and infantile, the freaks peer through windows and from under caravans, keeping constant watch on Hans, whom Cleopatra is, rather obviously, attempting to poison.
Or the end of the movie, Cleopatra is the thing in a box, now revealed to be another form of 'Bird Girl', a squawking, legless imbecile, her beautiful face and form ruined. It feels both revelation and relief, like all good sideshow freaks she is not as terrifying as she might be; she doesn't quite live up to the hype of the barker and our imaginations. I can’t help but to think about the “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, even when that woman has the face and dimensions of an angel. Was Browning implying that Perhaps Cleopatra's hideous fate was her doing all along? Is he trying to show images of disabled bodies as a punishment? Or is he trying to show Cleopatra as not as frightening as she could be in order to say that there is a way of life with disabilities? Is he implying that being a ‘freak’ is not all that bad, after all?
Some of the texts in the movie made me shiver. They are hard and represent the way disabilities were seen by the general public at the beginning of the 20th century.
The growly peasant refers to the playing freaks with “There must be a law in France to smother such things at birth", definitely represents both the yack factor and the belief that some lives are not worth living. Same does the enigma- What's In The Box? the movie begins with a crowd gathers around an animal pen, eager for the latest sideshow marvel and hears the caution in the tale—
"We told you we had living, breathing monstrosities. You laughed at them, yet but for the accident of birth, you might be even as they are! They did not ask to be brought into the world, but into the world they came."
The idea of disabilities as monstrous: Cleopatra jeers at Hans, calling him "my little green-eyed monster." Or the idea that people with disabilities are bad. As Venus is beginning to warm to Phroso "You're a pretty good kid", he reminds her never to judge by appearances "You're damn right I am. You should have caught me before my operation.”
Browning cast real life “freaks” (a term embraced by the sideshow community and the freaks themselves) in his film. Some of the stories around the production of the movie represent the general attitudes towards people with disabilities at the time. Most famously, F. Scott Fitzgerald, a sometime scriptwriter at MGM, allegedly walked out of the studio cafeteria in disgust when he saw the famous Siamese twins, Daisy, and Violet Hilton, eating there. Another employee recalls “Suddenly, we who were sitting in the commissary having lunch would find ‘Zip the What-Is-It’ sitting at the next table or the Siamese twins who were linked together, and half the studio would empty when they would walk in because the appetites went out”
Some additional food for thought:
The film was problematic at the time of its release. Audiences and critics shunned the film for showcasing actual abnormalities of nature, and it was in some cases banished for decades after its release. An example of the way the film was treated is a review in the New York Times published on July 9th, 1932
“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. "Freaks" is no normal program film, but whether it deserves the title of abnormal is a matter of personal opinion. Its first audience apparently could not decide, although there was a good bit of applause.”
Later on the movie was marketed as an exploitation film under sensational titles like Forbidden Love and Nature's Mistakes.
But what was so problematic about this film at the time? What was so horrifying, so offensive, that it ruined careers?
Perhaps the problem lies in the fact people used to comfort themselves by breaking down the world into neat binary oppositions, such as Male/Female, Self/Other, Human/Animal, Child/Adult, "freaks" blur the boundaries between these reassuring oppositions. The viewer's horror lies in the recognition that this monstrous being is at the heart of his or her identity. Do we need the freak to confirm our own static, bounded identities? I think there is a certain horror that we may not be as delimited as we think. If the androgynous can transcend traditional gender categories, then perhaps our own genders are more fluid. For many that can be a truly horrifying thought.
Could we look at the wedding scene and rather than seeing the freaks as threatening, see this scene as a celebration of diversity and the monstrous characters here as Hercules and Cleopatra. After all, they are the ones who are plotting against Hans.
In 1932 Browning probably intended to "horrify" with this film, and he succeeded to such an extent that MGM had to pull the film from circulation. Could it be possible that Brownings own view of his disabled actors is more in line with those of ours today? Could he have hoped the movie would humanize the "freaks" of his film for mainstream audiences, portraying what is different as beautiful? Was he just making his film for the wrong audience? Was he ahead of his own time?
‘Freaks' is much more than simply a cinematic sideshow with human abnormalities on display for the masses to point at and ridicule, and much more complicated than a one-note horror story. The film operates on multiple levels, insulting some viewers and fascinating others. No matter how you react to the film, you will react. I see different things in it every time I watch it. To me, the movie and the usage of truly disabled actors in it created something unforgettable that could not and will not ever be matched or replicated; our politically correct world would simply never allow it. For that, we must savor Freaks as a genuine rarity about all that is ugly and beautiful about being human.
 Norden, Martin F. The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994.
 Accessed online at: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9E07E6D61031E333A2575AC0A9619C946394D6CF