In his autobiography, Moving Pictures, the playwright Budd Schulberg described film director Tod Browning during the filming of Freaks (1932):

There was a certain gleam in the way Tod Browning went about making this picture that made us think of him as Count Dracula on Stage Ten. Those freaks were all over the set and it sent shivers through us to look at them. But he enjoyed it too much. The marathon dance was in vogue then and we went a few times to the Santa Monica pier to watch the young zombies drag themselves around the floor in a slow-motion dance macabre. Even more appalling than the victims on the dance floor were the regulars, affluent sadists in the front row seats every night, cheering on their favourites who kept fainting and occasionally throwing up from exhaustion. One of the most dedicated of the regulars was Tod Browning, who never missed a night and who got that same manic gleam in his eyes as when he was directing Freaks1.

Quite apart from its hypocrisy (what was Schulberg’s own motivation in going to the dance marathon ‘a few times’?) Schulberg’s description plays to the popular opinion, held by many in Hollywood at the time, that Browning was something of a ghoul. To an extent, this view of him still persists today, as does another myth: that he was unable to adapt to the coming of sound in the 1930s. In this article I hope to dispel the latter and – at least – modify the former: while there is no doubt that Browning, as a director, was ‘morbid-minded’2, he was also, as his lesser known film, Fast Workers (1933) shows, a keen social commentator of the Depression era. It is true that by 1932 Browning had become an affluent man, leading him to proclaim at one point that he was ‘richer than the president’3, but Browning’s background as a working-class boy in Kentucky, his subsequent flight from a Baptist upbringing into the world of the circus, and his alcoholism that led to personal tragedy, made him, I believe, into an artist with a social conscience. Freaks, his masterpiece, can be read as an allegory of an underclass of the ‘unfit’ exploited by an upper class that claims genetic superiority.

Tod Browning on the set of Freaks (1932)

One of Browning’s most cherished projects – never to be realised – was an adaptation of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Horace McCoy’s hardboiled story about a dance marathon in the Depression. It might have surpassed Freaks as his signature film – if the studio brass had let him make it. But this caustic novel was too near the knuckle in Hollywood’s golden age. It was not to be filmed until 1968 (by Sydney Pollack), when revolution was in the air; but by then the distance of time had muted the story, made its appeal existential rather than political. This was also the decade that Freaks became rediscovered by a new generation of film-goers; its cast of real-life circus freaks seen as heroes by the counterculture audience.

But the true significance of Freaks – and of Browning’s integrity as an artist challenging dominant ideologies of his time – can only be fully appreciated when considered in the context of the eugenics movement of the era and its impact on the consciousness of those it victimised: namely the lower classes, immigrants, minorities, and people with mental and physical disabilities.

By 1932 – the year of Freaks – the movement had reached the peak of its popularity (if one can bear to use such a word in reference to eugenics). In New York that year was held the 3rd International Eugenics Conference, an event intended to legitimise the movement through the dissemination of research. One of the surviving exhibits from the conference presents a ‘freak show’ of patients from Letchworth Village, a mental facility in New York State. Amongst the patients on display are microcephalics – ‘pinheads’ – like Schlitze in Freaks. Indeed, it is almost impossible to look at the exhibit without thinking of Browning’s roster of physically unusual actors. But whereas the Letchworth Village freak show is callous in its presentation and description of the physically deformed (as ‘cretins’, ‘dwarfs’ and ‘mongols’)4, Browning’s film demands a ‘more engaged and potentially sensitive mode of viewing in the audience’5, challenging eugenics ideology and revealing its inherent fascism.

Tod Browning on the set of Freaks (1932)

The Eugenics Movement and Class Consciousness

There can be little doubt that the Eugenics movement was part of the dominant ideology of the 1920s and 1930s. By 1921 thirty American states had adopted legislation calling for compulsory sterilisation of individuals classed as genetically unfit; in 1924 that legislation was made to include mental patients according to Virginia law. It is estimated that 60,000 people had been sterilised by the mid-1970s.6

The Eugenics Records Office (the movement’s mouthpiece and propaganda machine) found that the genetically unfit came from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds; solutions offered were immigration restrictions, racial segregation, marriage restriction and as stated, sterilisation.7 It should come as no surprise that the ERO’s research methodology was subsequently revealed as highly flawed. As Garland E. Allen of Washington University has commented on the movement:

It placed the cause of human social problems (such as pauperism, feeble-mindedness, alcoholism, rebelliousness, nomadism, criminality and prostitution) in the defective germ plasm of individuals and ethnic groups, and not in the structure of society itself. Eugenics used the cover of science to blame the victims for their own problems.8

Eugenics as a pseudo-science originated as a response to the spectre of rampant population growth in the United States in the early 20th century. Pasteurisation, improved sanitation, antiseptics, vaccination and mechanisation in food farming and processing which increased the supply of food – all helped dramatically to decrease infant and childhood mortality, resulting in a growth in family size, especially among the urban poor.9 This coincided with a declining birth-rate among the wealthy and a period of labour unrest following the rapid growth of American industry and the development of mechanisation. Those in power felt that the working class was not only organising against them but also out-reproducing them.10 President Roosevelt is said to have complained that the American middle class was committing ‘racial suicide’ by not having enough children.11

The eugenicists and their wealthy supporters shared a mutual antipathy for political radicalism and class struggle, and they were alarmed by the increasing strength of militant labour unions and the rise of socialism in the United States. Migrants from southern Europe, especially Italians, brought with them a tradition of organised labour and were seen as trouble-makers.12 Eugenicists purported to have data showing that the problem was in their genes, leading to the Immigration Act of 1924 halting what until then had been the greatest era of U.S immigration. This was sanctioned by another president, Coolidge, who famously commented “America must remain American”.13

The definition of ‘American’, according to the eugenicists of the era, is rather predictable: they envisaged a society that perpetuated white male middle class and upper-class power.14 The Eugenics movement, considered in terms of hegemony, served to convince all that the white middle and upper classes were genetically superior to the rest of society who were stratified by varying degrees of genetic inferiority: whites were more intelligent than blacks, native-born Americans more intelligent than immigrants, northern Europeans more intelligent than southern Europeans and so on – a social order based on breeding.

Furthermore, by blaming social ills (criminality, delinquency, deviancy) on heredity, eugenicists were able to justify the elimination of certain undesirable individuals from society; until 1942 thirteen states had laws specifically permitting sterilisation of criminals.15 If the number of criminals and ‘imbeciles’ could be reduced through sterilisation, the eugenicists argued, it would save the state millions of dollars a year. The words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., himself a student of eugenics, underline the fascism of such legal rulings: It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.’16

Underlying the argument for the sterilisation of criminals and the ‘feeble-minded’ was the desire to save tax dollars. By the 1920s, large-scale public welfare programmes were replacing local charity in caring for the poor and the handicapped. Eugenicists considered these people a burden to society and were quick to calculate the costs of maintaining the ‘socially inadequate’ in public institutions.17 Eugenics, therefore, promised to attack social problems at their roots – whilst at the same time-saving money for the American taxpayer.

Eugenics and Popular Culture

Eugenic propaganda was heavily promoted in popular culture in the 1920s and 1930s; there is little doubt that Tod Browning would have been aware of the movement – and almost certainly would have found its values anathema. The Eugenics Record Office propagandised eugenics through the Church, the education system and the mass media – using film to indoctrinate audiences with a eugenic way of thinking in much the same way as did the Third Reich in Germany. One of the earliest eugenics films in America was The Black Stork (1917) – released shortly after Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) – advocating the euthanasia of ‘defective’ babies. And as late as 1934 a film such as Tomorrow’s Children could assert involuntary sterilisation as legal and morally acceptable (although popular support for the eugenics cause had by then started to wane following its appropriation by the Nazis).18 As an avid film-goer at the time of The Black Stork, Browning very probably saw the film; in Freaks he makes the birth of a ‘defective’ baby (the product of miscegenation) a cause for celebration: a complete subversion of The Black Stork’s ideological message.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

A further staple of popular culture that interested the eugenicists – and one as close to Browning’s heart as the movies – was the circus ‘freak show’, which reached its greatest popularity during the eugenics era. The performers of these shows were seen by the eugenicists not simply as curiosities but as examples of degenerate heredity. Field workers would visit shows such as the one in Coney Island to collect evidence that would support their theories of inherited characteristics. In her book Sideshow U.S.A, Rachel Adams discusses the attraction of the circus freak show to working class and immigrant audiences anxious about their own potential to assimilate. ‘In theory, if not in practice,’ writes Adams, ‘their own differences would fade into irrelevance when confronted by the spectacle of absolute alterity on the sideshow platform’.19 The extreme racial and geographical Otherness of the freaks on display would provide circus-goers with the ‘reassuring confirmation of their own status as white Americans’.20 As an antidote to the circus freak show, those same white Americans would take part in ‘Fitter Family Contests’ at state fairs, where a team of medical ‘doctors’ would award the family with the highest grade of eugenic health a silver trophy; as expected, winners were invariably Caucasian with western and north European heritage.

In schools, too, eugenics ideology was propagandised in science lessons and biology textbooks. Social hygiene classes used films to coerce students into adopting the eugenics point of view. According to Steve Selden, writing for the Eugenics Archive, ‘the movement had the support of leaders in academia, and education theorists such as Edward Thorndike and Leta Hollingworth popularised eugenics to generations of prospective classroom teachers’.21 After 1914, courses on eugenics were being offered at some of America’s leading universities including Cornell, Harvard, Columbia and Brown. Eugenics caseworkers, including high school and college students, were engaged by the ERO to collect eugenic data from the population, targeting members of ‘degenerate’ families.

Eugenic ideology, then, was, by the time of Freaks, deeply embedded in American popular culture; much more so than is generally realised (or admitted) today. In 1939, the ERO was closed; the fate of the movement sealed by knowledge of the horrors of the Nazi application of eugenics. It is now a part of American history that many would perhaps prefer to forget. However, at the time, the effect of such an ideology on the consciousness of the mass population was to create in many Americans a deep-seated inferiority complex; one based largely on physical appearance.

It is this inferiority complex – its equation of physical beauty with moral worth – and its sense of the abject – to which Freaks speaks.

Eugenics, the inferiority complex and the rise of cosmetic surgery

In her article, The Democratisation of Beauty, Christine Rosen discusses the cultural fascination with physical beauty and how cosmetic surgery became, in the 1920s and 1930s, a medical response to ‘modern notions of beauty and perfectability’.22 She details how eugenicists, criminologists and phrenologists accepted the notion that outward physical beauty ranked internal worth, using particular aesthetic standards (such as the slope of the nose and the shape of the head) as justification for ranking people of different ethnic and racial groups. By the 1920s and 1930s, Americans had made the link between physical appearance (beauty as the indication of material success, health and moral worth) and mental health; the demand for surgical attention became more insistent as people sought permanent self-esteem. As Rosen states, ‘the greatest boon to modern cosmetic surgery was the inferiority complex’.23

The film magazines of the 1920 and 1930s – the heyday of the Hollywood stars, Hollywood glamour and Hollywood fashion – are replete with advertisements which prey on this inferiority complex (what David J. Skal has described as ‘disfigurement anxiety’). In his book The Monster Show, Skal gives samples of advertisements from fan magazines around the time of The Phantom of The Opera (1925). Two, in particular, speak of anxieties borne of ethnic and racial difference: ‘how to obtain the perfect looking nose’ promises to correct ‘ill-shaped noses quickly, painlessly and permanently’; while the second is even more leading: ‘Peel off your skin’ it urges, ‘if you don’t like it, and have a beautiful new skin.’ A third advertisement featuring make-up endorsed by Phantom star Mary Philbin illustrates how the inferiority complex was used to feed into an audience’s aspirations in the 1920s.24 If ‘beauty is a valuable commodity that is unfairly distributed’25, as Christine Rosen asserts, then by using the same brand of lipstick as Mary Philbin, one might at least share some of the star’s beauty:  eugenics ideology fostered an inferiority complex that could be eliminated by cosmetic surgery; Hollywood stars provided a model of physical beauty to which people might aspire.

Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

‘The belief that we can change our appearance is liberating’ writes Rosen, ‘and feeds into the long-standing American belief in individual transformation and re-invention of self. Cosmetic surgery is a modern democratic solution in that it endorses the free market, personal fulfilment and individual autonomy’.26 However Rosen goes on to discuss the potential harms to self and society of a culture obsessed with cosmetic surgery: that it is acceptable to be satisfied by the external markers of success; that the pursuit of such markers is, in and of itself, a useful and psychologically healthy goal for people; a lifelong process of moral education is less useful than the appearance of success, health and beauty.27

And Browning’s conclusion in Freaks is precisely that: that the outwardly beautiful are inwardly greedy and rotten, while the outwardly ‘freakish’ are blessed with inner nobility. Eugenics-era ideology is turned on its head.


End notes.

  1. Schulberg, Budd (1981) Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince, Stein and Day, p314.
  2. A description Browning also attributed to ‘ninety percent of the people’. See Skal, David J. (1993) The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, Plexus, London, p127.
  3. Skal reports that Browning’s salary at MGM in the late 1920s was ‘twice that earned by the president of the United States’. See Skal, The Monster Show, p78.
  4. See
  5. Adams, Rachel, (2001) Sideshow USA, The University of Chicago, London, p68.
  6. See, Lombardo, Paul, ‘Eugenic Sterilization Laws’,
  7. See ‘Eugenics Goals and Education’
  8. Allen, Garland E. (2002) ‘The Ideology of Elimination: American and German Eugenics, 1900-1945’ in Francis R. Nicosia and Jonathan Huener, eds. Medicine and Medical Ethics in Nazi Germany, Berghahn Books, New York, p30.
  9. See ‘Birth and Population Control’,
  10. See Allen, Garland E., ‘Social Origins of Eugenics’,
  11. See
  12. See Allen, ‘Social Origins of Eugenics’.
  13. See Lombardo, Paul, ‘Eugenic Laws Restricting Immigration’,
  14. See ‘Eugenics Goals and Education’,
  15. See Lombardo, ‘Eugenic Sterilization Laws’.
  16. American jurist (1841 – 1935) who wrote the majority opinion in the Buck vs. Bell case that upheld the involuntary sterilisation of a woman who was claimed to be of below average intelligence.
  17. See Allen, ‘The Ideology of Elimination: American and German Eugenics, 1900-1945’ p30.
  18. Those interested in knowing more about these films and many related mostly silent-era films on eugenics, euthanasia, and social hygiene, see Pernick, Martin S (1996), ‘The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of ‘Defective’ Babies’ in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915, Oxford University Press, London.
  19. Adams, p31.
  20. ibid.
  21. Seldon, Steve, ‘Eugenics Popularisation’,
  22. Rosen, Christine (2004), ‘The Democratization of Beauty’ in The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, no.5, Spring 2004, p21.
  23. Rosen, p22.
  24. See Skal, The Monster Show, p72.
  25. Rosen, p19.
  26. ibid.
  27. Rosen, p21.