The Midget’s Lament: Tod Browning’s Freaks, or the Birth of Cinema from the Spirit of the Fair

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The midget Hans (Harry Earles, left) is ridiculed by the trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova, right).
The midget Hans (Harry Earles, left) is ridiculed by the trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova, right).

Every once in while movies give a new direction to pop culture by starting a new epoch. Take A Clockwork Orange (1971), which influenced the punk movement by providing a new dress and language code for youth culture. Moreover, a hip-hop culture without Scarface (1983) would be hard to imagine. The movie I am going to discuss in this article is not only such an epoch-making movie but also the maker of a new medium known as ‘cinema.’

Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) marks the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. History books tell us that the cinema culture evolved from the fair culture. Fairs used to make money with so-called freak shows. Shows which presented deformed, mutilated, or handicapped ‘freaks of nature’ as an attraction for an audience willing to pay. With the emergence of the cinematograph in the late 19th century, there was a new business opportunity for fair operators. As the history of Warner Bros. illustrates, there was a smooth transition from the presentation of films at fairs to the major Hollywood studio system.

Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) marks the ending of the fair freak show by throwing back a glimpse through the new medium of the cinema. By this process, the new medium catches on the spirit of the fair culture that consists of showing abnormities and celebrating differentness. This single film opens up the new era of the cinema.

The story of Freaks is quickly told. Hans (Harry Earles), a midget at the circus and the leader of the side-show, falls in love with the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Cleopatra takes advantage of him, ridicules him, and plans to poison him after their marriage to inherit his fortune. The freaks find out about her plan, and Hans decides to punish her by making her one of them.

The roughness of the film’s pictures is unusual for the modern spectator, because Tod Browning used real abnormal people like midgets, limbless people, or hermaphrodites as actors in this tragic play. In doing so, he somehow buried the primitive culture of exploiting the weakest of society for business by making them the heroes and the ‘good’ fighting the ‘evil’ embodied in the person of Cleopatra who looks normal on the outside but is rotten within.

This major act of subversion resulted in a refinement of culture that won’t allow us, a mere 83 years later, to enjoy such freak shows. Nevertheless, the pleasure of abnormality and differentness remains a human feature which is satisfied by movies today, but in a more sophisticated and less immoral way.