One of Us: Rediscovering Browning's FREAKS

September 14, 2023 - 3:10pm
Posted by Jim Healy

Tod Browning's FREAKS

These notes on Tod Browning's Freaks were written by Ashton Leach, PhD Candidate in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Freaks plays as the second half of a double-bill at the Cinematheque on Saturday, September 16 at 7:45, preceded by a new restoration of Browning's The Unknown at 6 p.m. Both films screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Ashton Leach

“Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, one of us, one of us,” is a short chant with a long history. Even if someone has never witnessed the iconic scene of sideshow performers gathered around a table, they recognize the menacing implications that exists beneath these words of acceptance. The nature of this chant—and of Tod Browning’s pre-Code horror film Freaks (1932), which made it iconic—is contentious and the subject of much debate, existing at once as a transgressive, problematic relic of a crueler time and as a cultural touchstone that represents a watershed moment in disability representation.

Tod Browning was hired to direct Universal’s 1931 film Dracula, and though there were interpersonal issues on set, the film was a critical and financial success, giving Browning the cachet to make a film that more closely related to his interests. Years before, MGM had purchased the rights to the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, which recounted a love-triangle between performers in a sideshow. In an instance of a cliché come to life, Tod Browning had run away from home as a child to join the circus, and his interest in the subject can be seen in earlier works such as The Unknown (1927). This personal connection made him an ideal fit to direct a film about the hidden world of “circus freaks”. In a still-controversial move, the cast of the film was populated with genuine sideshow performers, most of them suffering from physical or cognitive disabilities. Unlike Browning, who was familiar with this brand of performer, much of the MGM staff on set were horrified by the presence of disabled individuals, and to cope with their discomfort, a secondary tent was created specifically for performers with “unsightly” conditions.

Upon release, the film was met with a vehemently negative reception, as audiences and critics alike were repelled by its unsettling subject matter and the use of actual "freaks" in starring roles. Test audiences left “disgusted”, prompting walkouts and at least one threatened lawsuit from a woman who claimed the film caused her to miscarry. MGM acted quickly in attempts to salvage the project, shaving the runtime down from 94 minutes to a mere 64 minutes in the process. Despite these moves to make the film more appealing, audiences still were horrified, and Freaks flopped, with many citing its failure as the beginning of the end for Browning’s career as a major Hollywood director. Outside of the United States, the film did not fare any better. Even in the 1930s, the film was seen as exploitative and offensive by many, leading to censorship and outright bans in several countries, including the United Kingdom, which did not approve the film (with an X-rating, no less) until 1963, citing it as a “grotesque” and “disturbing”.

Though the film could have been lost to history, a screening at Cannes Film Festival in 1962 fostered a newfound appreciation for its achievements. The film quickly gained status at a cult favorite among the counter-culture movement (many of whom adopted the term “freak” as a term of endearment) and has been since become regarded as a classic with wide-ranging influence. The film has served as a cultural touchstone for television shows such the HBO’s series Carnivale, the fourth season of Ryan Murphy’ American Horror Story (subtitled Freakshow), and The X-Files’ season 2 episode “Humbug.” Musicians, particularly those known for being unconventional and iconoclastic, have cited the influence of the film on their work, with the David Bowie referencing the film in his song “Diamond Dogs” and The Ramones citing Freaks as their inspiration for “Pinhead” off their album Leaving Home. Even non-horror films such as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2010) and Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) have explicitly invoked the “gooble gobble” chant to jarring comedic effect, keeping its reputation alive over 90 years on.

Filmmakers and film lovers have successfully rehabilitated the reputation of Freaks as a daring piece of genre cinema, but academics and critics have instead zeroed in on the element of the film that was once its main source of controversy: its use of genuinely disabled sideshow performers in its cast. In recent years, Freaks has been the subject of renewed scholarly interest as academics have explored the film in terms of representations of disability, class conflict during the Great Depression, and the lingering specter of eugenics. The film may ultimately use its sideshow cast to generate discomfort and fear, but it also depicts the carny experience in a setting in which they are the norm and takes seriously the bonds they share as outcasts. Many theorists argue that the film presents anti-eugenicist themes, a significant choice in a time in when eugenic theory had left American shores and was rising in popularity across Europe. This film urges the audience to see that these “freaks” are not monsters—they are people who still set the table and do the laundry and care for their children. They scratch out the only livings that society will allow them, and together they form something like an ersatz family. Rather the monsters of the film are those that attempt to infiltrate and take advantage of the freaks, regarding them as helpless, easy marks. It is the “normal” people, or rather the “beautiful” and “exceptional” people, who become monstrous—quite literally by the film’s shocking ending. Perhaps that is what so deeply unsettled audiences in 1932: realizing the self-reflective monstrous qualities they hold within themselves.

In 1994, Freaks was entered into the National Film Registry’s archives for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” solidifying its status as both a landmark of genre cinema and a canonical work of Hollywood’s unruly pre-Code period. Freaks is now considered a cult classic, regularly praised for its boldness, its long cultural influence, and, in its own way, its sensitivity. A great film is so rarely just one thing, and Freaks’ legacy is particularly multifaceted. It is transgressive. It is shocking. It is certainly problematic by contemporary standards. But it is also a groundbreaking piece of cinematic representation, a button-pushing howl for acceptance from a filmmaker who counted these performers among his very first coworkers in entertainment. For Browning, “gooble gobble, one of us” wasn’t so much a threat as it was an expression of solidarity from a particularly oppressed community.