On “Spurs”, The Story That Gave Us Todd Browning’s “Freaks”

If you watch the documentary extras on the DVD of Todd Browning’s Freaks you will find that one of the talking heads is our old buddy Todd Robbins. Todd is there of course because he is an expert on freak shows, but diehard Browning fans will be especially amused by his presence by dint of the fact that the story that film was based on was written by a man named…Tod Robbins (lacking only a “d” for “deformed”, “deranged” and “disgusting”).

We use the term “based on” loosely. “Spurs” is an illuminating story mostly because of what it says about Browning. Aside from the presence of an angry midget (is there anything more politically incorrect than an angry midget?), freaks really aren’t the emphasis of the story. All of that stuff — ALL of it — the pinheads, the armless/legless people, the Hilton Sisters — are the result of Browning’s own obsessions and predilections.

The 1923 tale is a lot cleaner/ sparer. It follows what I call “The Hop Frog Arc”. In the Edgar Allan Poe story “Hop Frog” the title character is an ugly hunchbacked dwarf employed as a court jester, scorned and laughed at by the beautiful nobility. His rage builds. Then he collapses the roof on them and burns them all to cinders in a fire. That is essentially the arc of both Freaks and “Spurs”, although in the film the angry party is a mob acting on behalf of the midget; in “Spurs”, the midget (along with his diabolical dog) are quite competent to take care of the revenge themselves. In “Spurs”, the greedy bride is not punished by being maimed and mutilated and made into a freak herself as in the film. She is essentially “piggy-backed” to death. (There is a nodding visual reference to it in the film). A cruel remark by the woman that she could carry her little husband the length of France inspires him to force her to do just that, allowing her little food or sleep, just carrying him around all day, every day like a pony, while he prods her along with his riding crop.  Somehow its not the most terrifying story in the world, although evil midgets and hell hounds are pretty scary. But one can certainly think of more horrible punishments — which is precisely what Todd Browning did.

At any rate, you can read the original tale here.

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