Tod Browning: the film-maker who brought the carnival to Hollywood
The cast of Freaks. Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy
A new retrospective offers another chance to appreciate the daring and often deranged films made by a director who was once the centre of a moral panic
When a kid threatens to run away and join the circus, perhaps upon being forced to eat broccoli or go to bed, they’re fantasizing about more than just independence. The traveling carnival offered an alternative way of life that appealed specifically to those uninvested in the politenesses of the grownup world. No one can make a carny shower, wear a tie or go to church. This liberation from the strictures of civilized society was a must for an ethically spotty line of work reliant on a mix of trickery, hucksterism, prurience and morbid fascination, a low art form that attracted a certain kind of scuzzy personality. The tents of the sideshow provided a home to thieves, oddballs, creeps, chiselers, dope fiends, conmen, women of ill repute, leches, lushes and any other species of degenerate in need of a paycheck. If vaudevillians were the rock stars of the pre-cinema era, then circus folk were van-dweller punks cutting a swath of blithe misbehavior from gig to gig.