The history of Hollywood is one of endless regurgitation: sequels, remakes, homages, flat-out ripoffs. Tod Browning's classic 1932 horror melodrama Freaks, however, stands alone as perhaps the only film ever made that literally could not be reimagined today. Oh, sure, we have the technology—nothing easier for a contemporary F/X team than to digitally erase half of a person's body or manufacture some alarming emaciation. (Just think of Sam Worthington's atrophied legs in Avatar.) I'm sure the original film could be duplicated frame by frame, if somebody were driven enough to perform the task. But it would be a hollow, meaningless effort, because the entire impact of Freaks derives from our knowledge that we're not seeing trickery. Browning, who had traveled with the circus as a young man and befriended numerous sideshow performers, cast his unprecedented picture with genuine… well, I guess I should refer to them as genetic anomalies, really, which only underscores how impossible the idea would be today. Their matter-of-fact presence before the camera is what gives the film its elemental power.
At the same time, their presence also gives the film an unavoidable skeeviness. There's no question whatsoever that the freaks (as I'll henceforth go ahead and call them so as not to bludgeon you with tortured sensitivity; the damn movie is called Freaks) are the movie's heroes, and that Browning's sympathy resides entirely with them. But it's still hard not to feel as if the movie functions at least to some extent as a more respectable sideshow venue, inviting us to gawk and marvel at people who, at least in some cases—I'm thinking particularly of the microcephalics—may not have fully understood that they were being filmed. Nowhere is this paradoxical sense of unapologetic splendor and step-right-up shame more evident than during the movie's legendary wedding feast, in which all of the freaks gather to celebrate the marriage of lovelorn dwarf Hans to the cruel, murderous, gold-digging “normal” Cleopatra. If you can watch this sequence without experiencing conflicting emotions, you worry me.
One of the dangers of this column is that presenting a charged scene out of context can fundamentally alter its meaning. This one, I now realize, may look more exploitative than it actually is, because we get only passing glimpses here of characters to whom the film has already introduced us at much greater length. Conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, for example, who do nothing at the feast but play clarinet in the background, have a running subplot in which each gets engaged. We also see plenty of Johnny Eck, the "Half-Boy"; he's most memorably seen pursuing a terrified Cleopatra in the climactic rainstorm, “running” amazingly quickly on his hands, but you also get a good sense of his winning personality in moments of repose. Even Schlitzie, the most prominent of the microcephalics, gets a dialogue scene elsewhere, though you can't understand a word he says. So when Browning cuts to them in reaction shots throughout the feast, he isn't necessarily goosing us—we already know them.
Sometimes, though, he is goosing us. There's clearly a distinction to be made between ordinary humans with one exceptional skill, like the sword swallower and the fire eater, and those people whose DNA went seriously awry; it's no coincidence that the latter get way, way more screen time throughout this sequence than do the former. One could argue that that's dramatically necessary, since the point is to (literally) freak Cleopatra out, to the point where she reveals her true colors, but it still feels as if Browning has an unseemly fascination with the most physically divergent members of his ensemble. He pays almost no attention to the bearded lady, for example (thereby reportedly pissing her off; she was apparently quite the diva), while lavishing numerous extended close-ups on Schlitzie and the other “pinheads,” who are by far the least self-aware people in the room. It's an effective tactic, crucial to the scene's galvanizing effect; the sense of eerie Otherness is overwhelming. All the same, there's a reason why nobody could shoot an identical scene today, and I'd probably oppose the idea myself.
Is it hypocritical, then, to say that I'm grateful that Freaks exists as is? Uncomfortable though this scene makes me, it packs an unforgettable wallop—not just because of its cavalcade of deformity, but because of the remarkable way that Browning straddles the silent and sound eras. His use of an introductory title card (the only one in the film) signals his intentions, and you can easily understand exactly what's happening with the sound turned off—indeed, even if you haven't seen the film, I probably don't need to tell you that the female dwarf, Frieda, was previously involved with Hans and knows perfectly well that his marriage to Cleo is a sham. (Granted, Russian actress Olga Baclanova, whose transition from the silents was more than a little bumpy, is so over-the-top in her contempt that even coma patients could get the drift.) Leave the sound on, however, and you'll realize how much its growing cacophony—peals of laughter far too raucous to credibly emanate from a group of this size, cranked to a volume that overwhelms the dialogue—contributes to the scene's impression of a world gone topsy-turvy.
Which brings us to the scene's signature chant, and the film's greatest cultural legacy. What's interesting is that, while there are three elements to the chant, people tend to remember only one or two of them. "One of us, one of us, one of us" reliably gets trotted out in situations involving an individual being forced to conform by the masses—I can recall seeing homages on both The Simpsons and South Park, and there are probably dozens of others out there. The creepy nonsense phrase “gooble gobble” was co-opted by the Ramones as “gabba gabba hey” (as introduced in “Pinhead,” a song directly inspired by Freaks). Until rewatching the scene this week, however, I'd forgotten that the freaks chant “we accept her” as frequently as the other two. That's crucial. “One of us” implies Borg-like absorption. “Gooble gooble” suggests insanity. "We accept her," on the other hand, undermines that apparent malevolence with a message of unconditional love—one made more poignant by the fact that it comes from a group of people who themselves have known very little acceptance from the outside world. It's the paradox of the entire scene in miniature, and it alleviates a lot of my misgivings. Whiff of exploitation or no, any movie that adores freaks as fervently as Freaks clearly does has to be okay.