Tod Browning is probably best remembered for directing BÈla Lugosi in Dracula (1931), but of the handful of his films I’ve seen, his most extraordinary are The Unknown (1927) and Freaks (1932), two movies that use the auspices of the horror convention to reveal complex notions about physical and social “normalcy.” Both films have been released as excellent DVDs in the US, Freaks just this week by Warner Home Video.

Browning was a Hollywood eccentric to be sure, a filmmaker who delved artfully into themes no other mainstream filmmaker seemed to touch, issues that were rooted in his past: at 16, he ran away from home and joined the circus. According to Elliott Stein’s 1980 essay in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Browning worked for many years as a tent builder, a “barker,” a clown (with the Ringling Brothers), a contortionist, and even appeared in a riverboat act as “The Living Hypnotic Corpse.”

Browning later became one of D.W. Griffith’s stock performers and gradually moved behind the camera, signing a contract to direct films for Universal. After the studio’s hugely successful series of horror films of the early ’30s, and for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, MGM–the studio most renowned for its glitzy musicals and glamour–hired Browning to make “the ultimate horror film.” He based it on Tod Robbins’ novel Spurs, set within the world of the circus and cast real developmentally and physically disabled veterans of circus “freak shows” that were then at the height of popularity.

Freaks, however, is far from an exploitative picture. Critic Andrew Sarris wrote that it is “one of the most compassionate films ever made” in its depiction of severely malformed people (a pair of Siamese twins, microcephalics, armless and legless folks, dwarves, a bearded lady, and others) and their backstage camaraderie. There are no shock cuts in the film and the actors’ physical disabilities are never used to generate gasps, but to present real people marginalized by Hollywood’s typical adulatory gaze.

The film begins with a sideshow circus announcer shamelessly tantalizing his audience with the promise of unveiled shocks. “But for the accident of birth, you might be as they are,” he darkly muses, but Browning takes such a sentiment seriously, so the rest of the film addresses the performers offstage rather than onstage, thus undermining a potential source of exhibitionism. It’s part of the film’s brilliance that the lines between normal and abnormal, us and them, and even morality and immorality, are constantly blurred and reversed, establishing an unpredictable interpretive pattern that challenges age-old stereotypes about health and beauty, deformities and evil.

Browning also understands that the gateway to social judgment and scandal lies fully within the moral implications of one’s gaze, both in the circus and in the movies. In an early scene that could serve as a master shot of this theme (pictured above), a beautiful (but cruel) trapeze woman sneaks a look through backstage curtains, gazing at a circus audience beyond, while a dwarf, Hans (Harry Earles), admires her figure. Additionally, the camera represents the subjective view of Hans’ fiancÈe, Frieda (Daisy Earles), who, it is revealed in a subsequent reverse shot, gazes sadly in pained jealousy. And we–the film’s audience–gaze at all three, judging and appraising, empathizing and peeping.

The film’s narrative revolves around a murder plot by the trapeze artist and the circus strongman and their efforts to steal Hans’ wealth. But before the viewer can adopt any easy moral interpretations, the circus performers themselves devise their own brand of cruelty and revenge.

Freaks was immediately shelved by MGM for several decades and few managed to actually see the film–it was even banned overseas in a display of censorship that suggested more about the assumptions of the censors than the content of the film. (Many critics suggest it was precisely the film’s empathy toward its subject and ambiguous moral structure that enflamed its critics the most.) But it experienced a revival at the 1962 Venice Film Festival and has steadily been embraced as a remarkable aberration in Hollywood’s Golden Age, a film that has lost little of its impact and relevance in the 75 years since it was made.

The Warners DVD offers an exceptional transfer with a mixed bag of extras. Although it claims to include three alternate endings, they’re merely three alternate cuts of the extant footage, and the documentary and commentary overlap a lot of information on the actors and their individual histories. It would have been nice to include an analysis that critiqued the film thematically or aesthetically, but the commentary largely focuses on historical facts. Nevertheless, this is a film cinephiles have long awaited on DVD, and it’s great to finally have it.

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