Relationships between censorship and cinema, as well as with any other type of art, has always been very hostile; this is especially true in the US where the film industry represented since the very beginning a massive business and means through which occult persuasion was possible: politicians and intellectuals recognised immediately such qualities and potential.
From the 1930 a censorship code developed by the postmaster William Harrison Hays was proclaimed, by the name Hays Code. The code would force the authors of a film to abide by the many tight rules on the ethics of what they were trying to produce. Some of those rules were nearly ridiculous, like the ban of using religious pictures for parodies, or they were utterly unbearable for people of common sense, such as the ban of portraying interracial romantic relationships. In 1934 their application was so rigid to scare away any creative author, who was forced to move abroad or their films would have never been produced in the States. This legislation remained in use up until the 50’s when the competition with the tv pushed the film producers to fight for expanding their rights, even though the many rules were abolished only in 1967.
Below: William Hays and his code for censorship
This background makes even more important the artistic attempts realised by the best Hollywood directors of that period, despite the situation managed to realise some extraordinary masterpieces. It’s not possible to state for sure which film has been dismantled the most by censors, and that is because many of them have been long lost. Amongst the remained ones though, the record of hate received has certainly to be attributed to the horor film “Freaks”, one of its kind.
It was written and directed in 1931 by an ex circus performer, Tod Browning, who had jumped from circus to acting at the time of silent films. Eventually then he had become rather popular as a director of religious films starring Lon Chaney Sr., one of the most famous actors in the silent film scene, still considered to this day a model for his incredible ability to perform any role they would assign to him. “The Man of a Thousand Faces” of the 1957 was the Hollywood biographical film homage to his life and career. Unfortunately Chaney was dead by the time Browning started working on his project “Freaks”, otherwise he would have most likely been part of the cast.
Browning, born in 1880, had been involved with the circus since he was a little boy. Back then the main kind of attraction would involve freaks performances, people visibly deformed who would attract the audience for their unusual appearance. Such exhibitions were in perfect harmony with the mindset of the time and they did not shock anybody, even less the freaks themselves; instead they were allowed to become stars and make important revenues ( the Seven Sutherland Sisters in an example of people who became millionaires). As the time carried on, along with the progress, the mindset was changing and seeing freaks performing wasn’t as entertaining anymore and instead started to be considered immoral and discriminatory, so all the shows quickly faded away.
Below: Tod Browning with other artists on the set
In his film Browning dealt with the condition of being a freak in a brave way, probably even too much so for that time. Throughout the script of the film, the freaks were portrayed as completely normal people who were living their disability trying to adapt to them, while experiencing the same feelings anybody else would have felt. The real “monsters” in the film are the normal looking ones, insensitive and evil who treat the freaks as inferior or subhumans.
The problem was that Browning was a rather eccentric type of person and while writing the script he probably got carried away: his brilliant yet way too early idea was not understood by the audience of that time.
Below: artists from the film
First of all, to cast the actors, he went to actual circuses looking for real performers who were still running. He picked up the siamese twins Daisy e Violet Hilton, the “Human Torso” Prince Randian, the “armless wonder” Martha Morris e Frances O’Connor, the hermaphrodite Josephine Joseph, the legless man Johnny Eck, the microcephaly affected Simon “Schlitzie” Meck and others, including the dwarves Harry and Daisy Earles. Browning explained later on that everyone backstage was acting like a diva, arguing for the best dressing rooms and for the visibility of the titles, everyone ruthlessly criticising the acting of the others.
Below: In the video, the whole cast showcased
In a circus the dwarf Hans has a crush on the trapezist Cleopatra, played by the sensual Olga Baclanova, who formed friendships with all her colleagues on the set. The performer though hates him so she just fakes to share the same feelings so that she can then kill him and take his money. She teams with the strong Hercules, played by Henry Victor, and with him puts in place a few attempts to kill Hans with poison and made up accidents. The two criminals get discovered by the other freaks who then decide to seek revenge: Hercules will be castrate and from now on he will perform only as a singer, dressed up as a woman and with a white voice style. Cleopatra will be mutilated, removed of her legs and hands in order to become a freak herself, the “human duck”.
The MGM producers had started a very suggestive ad campaign (the idea was secret and no journalist had access to the set), for a film which was supposed to be a conventional horror such as the Dracula played by Bela Lugosi, film which had been directed the previous year by the same Browning with a great response from critics and audience. They nearly had a heart attack when they previewed the original version of Freaks proposed by the director.
It seems that amongst the audience, randomly selected for the first screening, many people felt sick to the extent of having to call for a doctor ( it is said that one pregnant woman miscarried due to the shock). They first tried to withdraw the film, disown it then, for not losing the profit that the commercial expectation had provoked, they broadcasted it but in an altered version (from 95 to 64 minutes), in which Hercules was not castrated anymore but simply his dead was hinted. As for Cleopatra her scene about being cut into pieces while she was stuck by a fallen tree was all gone.
These parts of the film were completely destroyed so it is not possible to watch them anymore
Below: the sweetened final
From the 60’s onwards, the perception of arts changed drastically and with it the film Freaks was rediscovered becoming a cult movie still played to this day in many film clubs.
Several American cities forbidden the projection of it, and it seems that in Cleveland such a ban is still running. In Germany it was possible to watch it only in 1945, in the UK from the 1954 and in Italy in 1983.
After the massive flop of Freaks, Browning was outlawed for some years by all the major Hollywood studio before being called back to direct 2nd order films. Nevertheless he managed to make a great success with the horror film “The Devil’s Doll” in 1936. He died in 1962 completely forgotten even for the many eccentric habits that had him isolated.
Almost all the freaks that he worked with in the film continued performing after that job, some of them even appearing on other films. Some of them built up their own families, and had children free from any disability; apart from a few exceptions, they all lived a rather long life.