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Before ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ There Was Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’

Before 'American Horror Story: Freak Show' There Was Tod Browning's 'Freaks'

With 38 Emmy nominations and eight wins under its belt, the FX anthology series “American Horror Story,” is widely considered, by critics and industry professionals alike, to be the cable television equivalent to a “prestige picture” reminiscent of the time period film historians now refer to as “The Golden Age.”

READ MORE: Watch: ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ Trailer Peeks At Angela Bassett’s Extra Cleavage

Eighty some-odd years ago, however, horror and prestige were considered mutually exclusive. Each studio had a particular brand of films that it would produce. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the studio of the stars, producing expensive, award-winning films such as “Grand Hotel,” “Gone With the Wind” and “The Thin Man.” Monster movies such as “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” and “The Mummy” (as well as each film’s corresponding spinoffs) were produced by Universal.

Given the significance of genre during The Golden Age, MGM caught audiences, critics and members of the film industry off-guard in 1932 with the release of the horror drama “Freaks.”

Directed by American horror film pioneer Tod Browning, “Freaks” takes audiences behind-the-scenes of a traveling sideshow. The plot — rather what remains of the plot, since the original 90-minute version of the film was cut down to 64 minutes for the release and the original no longer exists — centers on a beautiful but selfish trapeze artist who conspires with her secret lover, the strongman, to kill her wealthy dwarf-husband.

Story, however, is perhaps the least compelling component of the film. The reason generation-upon-generation of cinephiles have continued to seek out this film is because of the quiet, domestic, behind-the-scenes moments scattered throughout the film; moments that possess a distinct anthropological quality to them. Using a technique that resembles verité, “Freaks” captures each member of the troupe outside the performance venue, save for the trapeze artist and the strongman — both of whom are crooked characters who ultimately pay dearly for their selfishness.

Over the past few weeks, FX has released an abundance of promotional clips and stills that seem to suggest that certain characters in “American Horror Story: Freak Show” are in fact reincarnations of characters from Browning’s film. Outlined below are the most striking examples we have noticed thus far. Whether or not the series has chosen to adopt Browning’s cinematic and narrative deference toward freaks, however, remains to be seen as the season unfolds.

The European Side Show Owner

Played by actress Rose Dione, Madame Tetralini, who appears in center of the photo above, not only functions as the owner of the sideshow in Browning’s “Freaks,” but also — perhaps more importantly — serves as a maternal figure for certain members of the troupe, namely the mentally disabled microcephalics. The photo shown above is taken from a scene where Madame Tetralini goes so far as to call the so-called freaks her children.
Jessica Lange’s character, Elsa Mars, can be described as Madame Tetralini’s “American Horror Story: Freak Show” doppelgänger. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly earlier this month, Lange described Elsa, who is a German-born cabaret performer, as a rather complicated individual. “My character is very manipulative. She understands what’s needed and she provides it,” Lange told Entertainment Weekly. “However the thing I want to be very clear,” she continued, “[is] that Elsa really loves these people. She truly cares for them in her own selfish narcissistic way. It’s not just exploitation.”

The Conjoined Twins

Billed as Siamese Twins, real-life conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, who were joined at the hips and buttocks, appear as themselves in “Freaks.” Although the Hilton sisters spent the majority of their lives performing in sideshows and vaudeville together, their storyline in “Freaks,” which centers on Daisy’s upcoming marriage to another member of the troupe who Violet doesn’t particularly relish, specifically draws attention to the fact that despite their physical connection to one another, the sisters are, in fact, two entirely different people.

Unlike “Freaks,” the Hilton sisters’ counterparts in “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” Bette and Dot Tattler, are both played by actress Sarah Paulson. Bette and Dot’s personalities differ just as much as Violet and Daisy, if not more, as indicated by Paulson’s rather cryptic yet also vaguely sinister comment to Entertainment Weekly about how the difference between Bette and Dot is “not as simple as nice and evil.”

The Bearded Lady

Although facial hair is a trademark of masculinity and therefore considered unsightly when visible on a woman’s face, the Bearded Lady in “Freaks, ” played by real-life bearded sideshow performer Jane Barnell a.k.a. Lady Olga, manages to transcend her physicality through the narrative of her onscreen character, which defines her in relation to her identity as an expectant mother rather than a human oddity.
Played by actress Kathy BatesEthel Darling appears to be both a physical and spiritual descendent of Browning’s Bearded Lady. Aside from her career as a sideshow performer, Ethel, like Lady Olga, is a mother; although in Ethel’s case, she is in the process of transitioning out of the child-rearing phase, as her lobster-handed son Jimmy, played by Evan Peters, has already grown up.

The Strongman

Played by actor Henry Victor, the strongman character Hercules functions as one of two villains in the “Freaks” narrative. Despite demonstrating great feats of strength in front of audiences, no amount of physical prowess is able to save him from being blinded by his own vanity, as well as his sexual and financial greed; all of which are major personal flaws that ultimately catapult him toward a horrific demise at the conclusion of the film.

“American Horror Story: Freak Show” strongman Dell Toledo appears just as oafish and self-centered as his “Freaks” antecedent, Hercules. According to Entertainment Weekly’s preview, Dell is Ethel’s ex-husband and Jimmy’s father. Following a prolonged absence, he re-enters Ethel and Jimmy’s lives during the season’s premiere episode, with a new wife in tow and a selfish mandate to take charge.

The Microcephalic

It’s nearly impossible to understand what the mild-mannered microcephalic Schlitzie is saying during his scenes in “Freaks.” The film, however, is quite patient, periodically stopping to observe and listen to what Schlitzie and the other microcephalics — or pinheads as they used to be called — have to say. The scene in the woods with Madame Tetralini, as well as a tender conversation that takes place between Schlitzie and Wallace Ford’s Phroso the Clown character, both demonstrate the film’s intrinsic tolerance for all its subjects peculiarities.

“American Horror Story: Freak Show” will turn back the clock on one of its own characters from a previous season — namely, Pepper, a microcephalic character who played a major role in the story for “American Horror Story: Asylum.” Besides pleasing fans of the show and the character, the decision to bring back Pepper and re-introduce her to fans in a new context that precedes her incarceration in Briarcliff contains echoes of the patience that characterizes Browning’s “Freaks.” Said observation might also be wishful thinking.

The Dwarf

Real-life female dwarf sideshow performer Daisy Earles stars in “Freaks” as Frieda, a name that is not-so-coincidentally Daisy’s actual birth name. As the photo above suggests, Frieda is a rather despondent character, helplessly forced to watch Hans, another dwarf she performs with and who also happens to be the love of her life, swoon over another woman, a “normal-size” woman. In spite of her misery, Frieda retains composure for the most part, managing to keep her head held high throughout the film — providing eventual comfort to Hans at the end of the film, following the maiming of his formerly “normal-size” wife, an incident for which he blames himself.

Besides the photo shown above, next to nothing has been revealed about the recurring roles of Ma Petite, who is being played by real-life dwarf Joyti Amge, described by the Guiness Book of World Records as the world’s smallest woman.

Based on the new trailer, which provides the first look at actual footage from the season, it appears as though characters resembling Johnny Eck the “Half-Boy” and Elizabeth Green the “Stork Woman” may also make an appearance in the show.

READ MORE: ‘American Horror Story’ Launches Costume Contest for ‘Freak’ Fan Fashions

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