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Tod Browning And The Inherent Humanity Of FREAKS, X-ray Art And MORE!
The Bite #97

Tod Browning And The Inherent Humanity Of FREAKS, X-ray Art And MORE!

February 19, 2020

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By Kristen Lopez*

I doubt Dracula director Tod Browning could ever have fathomed that when he convinced MGM to buy the rights to Tod Robbins’ story, Spurs, it would change not just his life, but those of the audiences who encountered it. He certainly could never have known how much it would affect a disabled girl living Sacramento who wanted to write about movies but never expected to see herself represented.

Freaks is a film I hold close to my heart, as do a lot of film lovers and historians who discuss its place in the world of disabled representation. The story is about a family of circus performers — all played by actual disabled circus performers — who band together when one of their own is preyed upon by an able-bodied person. It has been considered a dirty, exploitative picture, and, in my case, a revolutionary one. It may have ruined Browning’s career, but that’s more because it’s a movie that sides as wholeheartedly as it can with its disabled leads.

Reading Freaks in 2020 involves looking at both Browning’s own history as well as how it frames and presents the circus “oddities”, ironically in a way that still feels progressive today.

Browning grew up in a circus family, so he understood the way everyone banded together; a group of nomads and outcasts, everyone felt like an outsider in the beginning. Filming Freaks was perceived by Browning as a love letter to the people he knew. Watching the movie, especially in a landscape where disabled people are still seen as saintly or pitying, it’s clear that Browning eschews that. Yes, it is a horror film, but it is about the horror of how the able-bodied treat those different from them.

The beautiful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) finds little person Hans (Harry Earles) to be nothing more than a child she can manipulate. She chronically coos over him, pinches his cheeks and likens him to a baby. When the two are married in a macabre ceremony, she forces him to ride a pony (drawing comparisons to P.T. Barnum’s purchased Little Person, Tom Thumb).

The various circus performers are presented frankly, their disabilities on full display. Browning even goes so far as to show the mundane adaptations these people utilize, like Frances O’Conner’s armless character eating with her feet. For Browning, there’s nothing unique about this — it’s just how these people live. Yet, time and again, he reminds the audience of how mistreated these people are. When a group of microcephalics play by the river, they’re shooed away from able-bodied visitors who see them as monsters.

There’s an added air of meta-commentary watching this now, knowing that studio head Irving Thalberg tried to sell this as a scuzzy, haunting exploitation picture, perceiving the movie as the story of monsters, at odds with Browning’s vision. In a way, Browning was commenting on the studio heads themselves.

Watching Freaks today is to see a movie that uses horror to prove a point. Who are the monsters in this situation? It isn’t the characters espoused by the title. Freaks is a movie that tries to serve an underrepresented community but that failed to thrive in 1932. Maybe in 2020 we can appreciate it a bit more.

*Kristen Lopez is IndieWire’s TV Editor and a freelance pop culture essayist whose work has appeared in ForbesMTV, and The Hollywood Reporter. She also runs the classic film podcast, Ticklish Business.


Image Of The Week #97 - Benedetta Bonichi Collana Di Perle - The Bite

Defying Expectations

Italian artist Benedetta Bonichi uses Xrays in her art, using the medical imaging technique to play with reality and our concepts of truth. This image, Collana Di Perle, blends the image of the perfect housewife and hostess with something more sinister and potentially predatory.



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