There used to be a theory in art college that many of the professors blandly bandied about like religious dogma. It was the theory of “aesthetics only.” This theory maintained that it did not matter whether a painting was of a landscape, a penis, or non-representational. A work of art could only be judged by aesthetic criteria.
The biggest problem with that theory is that it rarely holds true. A good example of this would be in comparing the work of Diego Riveria to the work of his wife, Frida Kahlo. Riveria was clearly a better painter, aesthetically. He had a far better sense of composition, and a keener sense of color than Kahlo. However, Riveria lacked Kahlo’s obsessive vision, and it is her vision that remains far more memorably etched in our conscience.
Another example which blows the “aesthetics only” theory out of the water would be in comparing D.W. Griffith to his one-time assistant Tod Browning. There is no doubt that, aesthetically, Griffith was a far more innovative and fluid director. However, Griffith lacked two important qualities which Browning had in spades: obsessive vision and pronounced human empathy. It is the latter of these two vivid Browning qualities that renders Griffith a grossly inferior artist when compared to the inimitable Tod Browning.
Browning was consistently drawn to and connected with the social outcast, while Griffith espoused his racial superiority and reprehensibly tidied that up in his protruding “aesthetics” chest. That Griffith was (and still is) celebrated, smacks of American and Hollywood hypocrisy and superficiality at its most blatant.
Of course, this is nothing new, nor is it confined to the film community. Conductor Rafael Kubelik was mercilessly attacked and driven out of Chicago by Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy because he programmed ethnic and contemporary music. How is the late Ms. Cassidy remembered? Chicago named a theater after her.
Celebrated New York Times Music critic Olin Downes publicly ridiculed Dimitri Mitropoulos for his not so secret sexual preference. The freak Dimitri left the New York Philharmonic and succumbed to a fatal heart attack shortly after.
Browning remains yet another outcast artist, who is critically compared in unfavorable standing next to the likes of Griffith and fellow “horror” director James Whale. Yet, Tod Browning defines the word auteur far more than these, or any director of his time, and he has had a far more impactful influence on the generation of auteur directors who followed him (including David Lynch, David Cronenberg, John Waters, Alejandro Jodorowksy, and Tim Burton [well, early Tim Burton]).
After the 1931 box office success of Browning’s Dracula and Whale’s Frankenstein, MGM second in command Irving Thalberg approached Browning and asked him to come up with something to outdo both of those films. Browning responded with his manifesto, Freaks.
From the beginning of Freaks‘ genesis, there were problems aplenty. Thalberg’s fascistic boss, Louis B. Mayer, was vehemently opposed to it even at the conceptual stage, and his objections only intensified. During filming, many on the MGM lot found the sight of the freaks so disturbing that they sought to have the production stopped. Fortunately, Thalberg came to Browning’s aid and saved filming from being sabotaged on numerous occasions.
Then there is Thalberg himself, who remains one of Hollywood’s most interesting paradoxes. Unlike Mayer, Thalberg loved movies and, knowing his bad heart would doom him to an early grave, he worked diligently on projects he believed in, securing his legacy, albeit anonymously since he always refused screen credit. The Marx Brothers were a pet project. The brothers really did create as much surreal havoc off-screen as they did on and many at MGM wanted them gone, but Thalberg took them under his wing and lavished their productions with so much professionalism, craftsmanship and care that the Marx Brothers films following Thalberg’s death are substantially weaker.
As much as Thalberg loved movies, he loved them for their entertainment value alone and he had no understanding of film as art. It was Thalberg, with Mayer, who butchered Stroheim’s Greed. When Browning finished Freaks, Thalberg, who had previously defended Browning, did not hesitate to cut nearly a half hour of footage from the film (and, as was the norm at that time, burned the excised footage).
It was not even box office whiplash, since the film opened to huge crowds in San Diego, but rather it was critical and audience reactions that prompted Thalberg to hand Browning over to the wolves. While Thalberg did give Browning the green light to proceed with the inferior Mark of the Vampire (1935) three years later, Freaks, in effect, ended Browning’s career. He would only be given two more films, one of which, The Devil Doll (1936) he did not even receive screen credit for. Browning’s career came to a whimpering close in 1939. He died an obscure, alcoholic recluse in 1962.
Browning, the perennial outsider, couldn’t have cared less. He had run away from an affluent home at the age of 16 to join a carnival side show and the dancer he had fallen in love with. He began acting in his thirties, assisted Griffith, began making his own films and had been moving towards Freaks for years, stamping almost everything he touched with his own unique personality. Many of his films are lost, or exist only in truncated condition and very few of those have ever been released in any format whatsoever for the video market.
The Unholy Three (1925), The Blackbird (1926), The Road to Mandalay (1926) the unjustly neglected, compelling The Show (1927)—with its own parade of freak characters, and soon to be labeled freak star, John Gilbert—the masterful The Unknown (1927), the lost London after Midnight (1927), West of Zanzibar (1928) and Where East is East (1929) are all unmistakably the hand of Browning. Not coincidentally, all languish in obscurity. Browning himself continues to be dismissed by less insightful critics, who evaluate the man and his work by contemporary entertainment standards or even accuse the great empathetic artist of exploitation. Browning’s standing still remains low. Neither he, nor any of his films have received a single honor by a major film recognition/preservation institution.
Despite Freaks strong American box office opening, it was soon yanked (after two weeks) and banned pretty much worldwide for the next fifty years. Freaks was much written about throughout the 1960s and 1970s. With the advent of the video market in the 1980s, the time was ripe for rediscovery.
Does Freaks live up to its reputation? That depends solely on perspective. That it is a masterful vision and labor of love from the most authentically unusual artist to emerge from the Hollywood system is of little doubt. If one approaches Freaks expecting it to be in line with the “classic horror” mold films of the 1930’s, however, then one is apt to be disappointed. Despite the misguided marketing strategies of the studio, or Blockbuster-styled category labeling, Freaks is not a “horror” film in the normal understanding of the word. Aptly, it is a horrifying film in the abnormal sense, for it is the horrifying, normal people who intend to murder for money. Freaks is an unsettling vision and that is the only description one can give to it, genres be damned.
That Browning used actual carnival freaks, as opposed to “real” actors, certainly killed what little chance the film had for box office potential. Myrna Loy and Jena Harlow were among the actresses MGM attempted to obtain for the lead. Not surprisingly, neither of these tinsel town types would touch it.
The most unsettling thing about Freaks is in its unflinching turning of the tables. For Browning it is the beautiful ones who are the freaks and the freaks who are the beautiful ones. That the freaks are not professional actors is blatantly obvious from the outset, yet they ring far more authentic than the professionals in the film and, indeed many Hollywood actors of the period. The glamorous acting of countless actors in the thirties rings far more false, and is far less memorable. Of course, little has changed. The pinheads exude a unique substance and spiritual ethos that one could never gleam from Hollywood’s fashion plate, which has consistently confused fashion with style.
As in Browning’s Dracula, it is clear that the director’s interest lies in developing the perennial outsider. The “normal” characters in Freaks seem under-developed, which may have been Browning’s choice, or character development may have been lost in Thalberg’s merciless excising of nearly a half hour of footage. The tacked-on happy ending has been debated since its release. It does not work, coming off as a diluted afterthought.
Olga Baclanova plays Cleopatra, the beautiful trapeze artist who dwarf Hans, played by Henry Earles, falls in love with. We know her fate from the outset, which mutes the potential for much needed suspense. Cleopatra is merely using Hans for his wealth while she carries on a not so secretive affair with Henry Victor’s Hercules. Frieda, Hans’ pre-Cleopatra fiancée, is played by Harry’s sister, Daisy Earles, and she sees through the scheming of Cleopatra and Hercules.
This is a very slow-moving build up. Ironically, Browning, having been accused of exploiting the freaks by critics who simply don’t have the guts to readily admit that they just don’t want to see them, only shows the freaks in their natural, behind the scene, daily environment. He never resorts to showing them on stage or in performance. Instead, he shows these physical mishaps in reality checks, doing everyday things we would do, such as smoking a cigarette.
Foolishly, Hans does not listen to Frieda’s warnings and marries Cleopatra. The wedding banquet scene is still among the most discussed moments of Freaks. The freaks chant “Gooble, gobble. We accept her, we accept her. One of us.” They lift their bowl of wine in acceptance of Cleopatra as a fellow freak, and Cleopatra does a freak out. She douses them with the wine, calls them filthy freaks and, with Hercules, mocks her new husband.
Cleopatra is slowly poisoning Hans. Hans and his community know it, and plan retaliation. The sequence is beautifully filmed by Browning. The culprits are exposed in the back of a wagon, deep in the night, during a thunderstorm. Browning’s critics have accused him of demonizing the freaks here. Quite the contrary, Browning empowers his misfits and, in communal effort, they exact a terrifying revenge on an abusive, hostile and normal society who forever has branded them as freaks.
Theologian Hans Kung rightly has said that visionary John XXIII will never be canonized by the institution. Visionaries never are canonized by institutions or institutional types. Kung adds that this matters little since those who appreciate and understand vision have already canonized him.
The same could be said for Tod Browning. It matters little if the Academy Awards, the American Film Institute or by-the-numbers critics pay him due or not. The visionaries canonized him a long time ago.