(Originally posted on 24 May 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)
What is exploitation? In terms of entertainment, the term tends to infer a purely base appeal, with lurid content that’s meant to give viewers a voyeuristic charge. Whether it’s a demolition derby or a peepshow, exploitation more often than not is looked upon as “low-culture,” lacking in socially-redeeming value. Perhaps the most basic form of exploitation is the circus freakshow, which for centuries exhibited people who suffered from all varieties of genetic malformations for the amusement of able-bodied ticket buyers.
In the broad outlines, Tod Browning’s Freaks would seem to qualify as an exploitation movie, perhaps the most famous ever made. Certainly the film’s climactic scene, in which the sideshow attractions take violent revenge on the “big people” who have wronged them, would lead one to believe this is the case. However, I don’t think that it’s quite so simple. Up until the film’s final ten minutes, most of its running time is spent observing the characters going about their backstage lives. The film doesn’t want us to simply gawk at their deformities, but instead takes time to observe their behavior.
Given the film’s subject matter, the cast of Freaks was chosen largely because of their abnormal conditions. Back in 1932, no amount of available effects could have created the film’s microcephalic (pinhead) characters, for example. But Browning, a former circus performer himself, likes and respects these characters, and it shows. Most of them turn out to be engaging personalities. In addition, they aren’t ashamed of their conditions, but have found ways to live “normal” lives the best they can. Johnny Eck, born with no legs, puts on a pair of gloves and walks around on his hands. Likewise, we see a woman with no arms hold a knife and fork between her toes to eat a meal.
Or consider the cast member with the most “unfortunate” condition of all, Prince Randian. Sometimes referred to as “The Human Torso,” Prince Randian was a lifelong circus performer who was born without arms and legs. While in real life he was sometimes carried by an assistant, in the film he is mostly seen moving around under his own power by rocking on his stomach.
In my favorite scene in Freaks, Randian is having a conversation with another circus performer, Rollo. As Rollo starts to talk about the crowd’s reaction to his new act, we see Randian use his mouth to pull a cigarette out of a pack. Then, still holding the cigarette in his mouth, he takes a box of matches, nudges it open, pulls out a match, closes the box, then lights the match. Finally, he carefully sets the match on top of the box, lights the cigarette, and blows out the match.
For a non-disabled person, this is a routine act, but it’s sort of miraculous to see a man with no arms or legs do it. Part of the intrinsic interest of Freaks is this documentary aspect, the prospect of seeing people with disabilities work around their difficulties to do things others do. Yet what separates Freaks from a garden-variety exploitation movie is that Randian does it without breaking a sweat, like it’s as normal for him as for anyone else. It’s clear that he’s been lighting his own cigarettes for most of his life, and after using his ingenuity to formulate a routine in order to do so, lighting a cigarette is no big deal for him.
Also important here is Rollo’s reaction to Randian. Or, more precisely, his non-reaction — just as Randian’s been lighting cigarettes for years, so Rollo would have seen him doing it many times. Freaks almost never leaves the world of the circus performers, which allows the audience to learn their way of life from the inside out. Because of this, once the climactic act of revenge comes, the audience is able to experience it through the prism of the performers’ code of ethics — as the film says, “if you offend one, you offend them all.”