Freaks and Tweaks: Moral Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood

29 August 2016

In 1929, film met sound for the very first time. In 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code, a series of “moral guidelines” regulating and censoring sexual, profane or anti-establishment content, was strictly implemented in Hollywood. The five years between constituted a brief honeymoon period during which filmmakers were able to depict a whole manner of unsightly and ungodly situations for the audience to both see and hear.

Films produced during this period, called ‘Pre-Code Hollywood’, were often full of sex, violence, blasphemy and other things deemed morally untenable by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), such as Black people with speaking roles and women doing whatever they liked (see Baby Face, 1933).

One such film, produced and distributed during the Pre-Code era but thereafter heavily censored, was Tod Browning’s Freaks, from which this column takes its title (now one of those tropes so often reproduced and parodied; so prevalent in pop culture that we often forget it has an origin).

The MPAA’s primary problem with Freaks, which was re-cut to two-thirds of its original runtime to appease the network after calamitous test-screenings but remained extremely controversial, was not that it had sexual content (which it did) or was gratuitously violent (which it was) – but that it so defiantly rebuked established standards of physical and moral conformity.

The full, uncensored version of Freaks, charged (amongst other things) with causing a poor, god-fearing young woman at a test screening to miscarry, is near impossible to find. It possibly doesn’t exist anywhere on a single reel (bits and pieces of cut scenes can be found on the internet), although it’s rumoured that a prestigious American film school has a copy in its archives. Unfortunately for this columnist, the surviving 64-minute print must suffice for discussion.

Freaks takes place entirely within the distorted reality behind the scenes of a circus. Its central drama concerns beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra’s seduction of one of the sideshow performers, a dwarf named Hans, already engaged to Frieda (played by his real-life sister; they and two other siblings performed at the time under the name ‘The Dancing Dolls’), with the intent of murdering him for his large inheritance. The sideshow performers, who have “a code of ethics” among themselves, welcome her trustingly into their troupe but on discovering her deception, plan and execute horrific revenge.

“Believe it or not,” the opening scroll reads, “in ancient times, anything that deviated from the normal was considered… representative of evil.” Clearly, the makers of this film were unduly optimistic about what distinguished the “ancient” past from the 1930s.

The moral of Freaks is a simple one, and one repeated in hundreds of films since. ‘It’s what’s on the inside that counts’ – or ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, or ‘being different doesn’t make you inferior’ – but it was foreign to the Hollywood of the ’30s, at least insofar as it involved suggesting that “slimy freaks” could have the moral high ground over ‘normal’ human beings (particularly beautiful ones).

Venus, the naïve and beautiful seal wrangler, and Phroso the clown are notable exceptions to Browning’s apparent rule that in this film, the “freaks” are the “decent folk” and require protection from the “barbs of normal people”. Venus and Phroso (the unlikely romance between whom constitutes a fair chunk of secondary plot) chat to the sideshow performers as to anyone, enjoy their company, defend them from the film’s antagonists and – their primary function, I would assume – act as an authenticating force for ’30s audiences. These two fairly average, good-hearted, beautiful people esteem these “freaks” – and so might you! Put simply, as in the opening scroll, “but for the accident of birth, you might be even as they are”. Venus and Phroso, when Cleopatra and her co-conspirator and lover, Hercules’ plot is exposed, align themselves with the freaks over “their own kind”.

The original script reads that Venus “hadn’t known there was a thing in the world as low as Hercules,” but once she realises what the two have been plotting “she knows that Cleo is even lower”. Not once is it alluded to that Venus might have counted any of the sideshow performers among these “low” things.

Throughout the tragic and violent goings-on are some genuinely funny moments, not at the expense of the sideshow performers but to their credit, giving the impression that Browning really did want to convince audiences of their full humanity rather than simply capitalise on shock value. Conjoined twins Daisy and Violet, being called out by Daisy’s stuttering fiancé for flirting with Phroso the clown, start to walk off.

“Oh no you don’t!” The fiancé tells Daisy, “She’s gonna stay right here!”

“No, she isn’t,” quips Violet. “I’ve got to go.”

There are scenes strewn throughout the film, not crucial to the plot, that exist simply as an illustration of the performers’ lives; the bearded woman gives birth to a baby and her friends gather around in congratulations; the conjoined twins each find love and quarrel with the other’s husband; the “human torso”, who has neither arms nor legs, rolls and lights a cigarette using only his mouth while he jokes with another performer. This film devotes almost a third of its time to subplots intended simply to humanise its characters.

Freaks is certainly not an easy film to forget, a characteristic shared by many films of cult status. It’s certainly disturbing (although hilariously, a New York Times review at the time called the final reveal, in which we see that Cleopatra has herself become a “freak”, her limbs gone, extremities flattened to fins, an eye missing, her torso tarred and feathered and her only capacity to quack like a duck)1, was called “profoundly anti-climactic”. But its primary claim to a cult legacy is the detail it affords the lives of people so often (literally) sidelined, gasped at or reviled. A slight squint through the tragedy and horror of Freaks plainly reveals its true message: real freaks come in all kinds of packaging.

1: The scene depicting the actual violence done to Cleopatra was, of course, censored following test screenings, as was a notorious scene in which the sideshow performers castrate Hercules. After the climax in which the freaks catch Cleopatra trying to poison Hans, they each produce a weapon; the last image before a fade to black is her scream as they surround her. As it happens, the disturbing image of Cleopatra as the duck-woman is perhaps more effective without the explanatory scene and the lack of gruesome violence done by the performers onscreen was probably more likely to paint them in a positive light.

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