The loving cup scene which serves as the focal point for this analysis is available on-line.
In Marriage, a History, Stephanie Coontz argues that the one thing that marriage provides that we cannot get any other way is in-laws.1 We marry into our partner’s family and increase the network of relatives on whom we can rely. Some families even welcome non-biological, non-married relatives into their circles of kinship. Often called families of choice,2 these kinship relationships are as strong as or sometimes even stronger than the network of relationships one obtains through one’s biological in-laws.
Although circus people have traditionally lived on the margins of society, those who were sideshow performers were on the margins of the marginated. Browning shows them as a closed society who are rightfully suspicious of the outside world. When Cleopatra marries Hans, she realizes that the one of the implications of a legal marriage is that she will inherit Hans’ money once she becomes his widow. What she does not fully appreciate are the benefits and responsibilities of become part of his larger kinship circle of choice.
Cleopatra’s acceptance into Hans’ family of choice was not simply theoretical. At the wedding banquet, a ceremony involving the loving cup is performed to honor and bind Cleopatra with the family of circus performers.3 At the beginning of the loving cup scene, one of Hans’ friends announces that “we will make her one of us.” At that point, Josephine Joseph, the half man half woman, begins a chant that is picked up by all of Hans’ friends, “We accept her one of us.”
Tod Browning moves the camera around the table giving a close up of each smiling individual chanting his/her acceptance of the new relative. Periodically, Browning cuts to Hans’ friend who is preparing the loving cup filled with champaign. Even Cleopatra is enjoying the drunken revelry until, about 0:30, her lover Hercules laughingly comments that “They are going to make you one of them my big hunk.” The significance of the loving cup and Cleopatra’s acceptance into the family of circus performers is simply a joke to him; something for ridicule and laughter.
But the significance of the moment is not lost on Cleopatra. She did not love Hans. She only loved his money. While Cleopatra was willing to enter into a sham marriage, she was horrified by the heartfelt acceptance of the sideshow performers. She could not accept the acceptance she was so warmly offered.
As Hans’ friend walked down the table passing the loving cup from individual to individual, Browning cut to close-ups of Cleopatra looking more and more horrified as the loving cup moved nearer and nearer to her. A little more than 1:15 into the scene, she literally begins to back away from the table.
At 1:25, Hans’ friend is ready to present the loving cup to Cleopatra. Filmed using a medium shot from the opposite end of the table from where Cleopatra is standing, Browning is able to use the mise en scene to comment on Cleopatra’s moral character. The angle of the shot makes Hans’ friend appear to be much taller and broader than is Cleopatra who is diminished in front of him. It is he, the freak, who epitomizes the values of charity, acceptance, honesty, and love which are valued in society.
When Cleopatra is handed the loving cup, she has a choice to drink or not to drink; to accept her in-laws and become one of the freaks or to deny their offering of love. At the climactic moment of the film, Cleopatra rejects the loving cup and spits out, “No! Stop it! Freaks! Freaks! Freaks! Get out of here!” As she throws the contents of the loving cup on Hans’ friend, she rejects the strong bonds of kinship and seals her fate. At this point, we know that Cleopatra will not be successful in her plot to get Hans’ money.
Given that the falling action in Freaks culminates with Hans’ friends taking their revenge on Cleopatra, it might be hard to see the moral superiority of the circus performers. By filming Hans’ friends in virtual silence as they slink through the shadows, Browning almost demonizes those characters with whom he has been most sympathetic throughout the film. Yet, the revenge is taken against one who is slowly poisoning Hans with the help of her lover.
Although Hercules is killed, it is almost an act of self defense. Reasonable force was used against him to prevent Hercules from murdering someone else. We do not learn Cleopatra’s fate at the time when the falling action ends, but we are confident that she did not survive her ordeal in the rain.
Because Freaks uses a frame to tell its story, the movie begins and ends with a man from the carnival telling his audience the story of one of the current sideshow performers. It is not until after the denouement in which Hans and the woman he jilted for Cleopatra are reunited that we learn Cleopatra’s fate. In the final moments of the film, we are able to look at the freak about whom the story was being told. If we define survival as not having been killed, at this moment we learn that Cleopatra survived when Hans’ friends took their revenge. Although she was still living, she did not survive as circus performer who had captured Hans’ heart. The revenge of the freaks was to literally mak her “one of us;” not as a valued kin but as a literal freak who shared with them the derision of a larger society.
Ironically, it is not the significance of the marriage bond that is the most important element in determining Cleopatra’s ultimate demise. The legal contract into which she entered with Hans is something that she freely flaunted. It was her inability to enter into the kinship relationship with Hans’ non-biological family that caused her ultimate downfall. She was repulsed by the freaks who were arguably her moral superior. Tat was her tragic flaw.
–Steven L. Berg, PhD
1Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Viking, 2005. Print.
2Although families of choice are often associated with lesbian/gay families, it covers other types of relationships as well. As Constance N. Dahlin and Rebecca Hawkins explain, “this term also applies in other instances. Some examples include unmarried couples who cohabitate, people with deceased relatives who live with friends, and people who are estranged from biologic relatives and choose to live with significant others.” (“Supporting Alternative Families.” Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing 5.4 (2001): 123-124. Academic Search Complete Web. 29 January 2012.) In their article, Dahlin and Hawkins describe the importance of recognizing family of choice in working with dying patients. Other studies confirm the importance of family of choice in a variety of settings.
3The importance of ceremony has been well documented. My work with ceremony has primarily focused on civil religion as described by Bellah, Robert N. “Civil Religion in America.” Robert N. Bellah. nd. np. 29 January 2012. Reprinted from Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96.1 (1967): 1-21.