Disturbing and peculiar masterpiece of carnival-sideshow-man-turned-director Tod Browning, based on the short story by best-selling pulp writer Tod Robbins about a cruel circus midget who marries a beautiful bareback rider who turns out to be in love with someone else, then tortures her cruelly as punishment for her failure to requite his love. Oddly enough, MGM completely reversed the story to make the beautiful woman a trapeze artist who plots to murder her midget husband. (After all the studio's stars refused to play it, the part was taken by Russian beauty Olga Baclanova, who had been a star at the Moscow Art Theatre but was now a fading siren of the silent era.) The midget was played by the popular Harry Earles, who had worked with Browning in his previous hit, THE UNHOLY THREE. The complicated soap opera involves the loves and hatreds of the strong man, the clown, the seal trainer, a pair of Siamese twins, and a hermaphrodite, all hungry for sex but frustrated by their own grotesque bodies. The most famous scene of the movie involves a drunken wedding feast for Baclanova and Earles, after which the beauty turns on the sideshow people and calls them "dirty, slimy freaks!" After they're finished with her, she becomes... one of them. Willis Goldbeck wrote the first script, which was amended and reshaped by Leon Gordon, Edgar Allan Woolf and Al Boasberg. The cast includes the armless and legless Prince Randian, the Stork Woman (Betty Green), five pinheads (Zip, Pip, Jennie Lynn, Elvira Snow and the transvestite Schlitze), bearded lady Olga Roderick, and the famous Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who had to file suit to free themselves from a slave contract held by their guardian and manager. The midgets included Daisy Earles (sister of Harry) and Angelo Rossitto, who would go on to more than a hundred film roles. The film was a financial disaster after being censored heavily (30 minutes were removed in New York) and panned by moralistic critics, and all but two of the freaks disavowed it (Rossitto and Johnny Eck). It essentially ended Browning's years as an A-list Hollywood director.
In writing about film, one tries to avoid labeling any film as "unique." However, there has never been, there will likely never be, a film quite like Tod Browning's Freaks (1932). Set in a European freak show, cast with authentic human oddities from throughout North America, Freaks presents a side of circus life seldom witnessed on film. But what is more fascinating, these diminutive, misshapen and misunderstood carny denizens play out a diabolical fable of lust, murder and an unspeakably shocking revenge. Although many cities and viewers responded to the "freaks" with sheer disgust and moral outrage, Browning is completely sympathetic to them, and allows them to share the same emotions (love, lust, jealousy) and perform the same deeds (sexual banter, murder, marriage) as their glamorous counterparts.
Harry Earles (The Unholy Three ) stars as Hans, a circus midget who has a crush on the beautiful acrobat, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). When Cleo and her brutish lover, the strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), discover Hans has inherited a fortune, Cleo marries Hans, and she and Hercules enact a plot to slowly poison Hans to death. But Cleo and Hercules fail to heed the code of self-preservation that binds the circus performers, and grossly underestimate the extent to which the "freaks" will go to protect one of their own.
After a disastrous preview screening, production head Irving Thalberg demanded that Freaks be thoroughly recut. Approximately 30 minutes were removed from the film -- without Browning's involvement. Contrary to popular belief, Thalberg did not recut Freaks to make it less of a horror movie. He made it more of a horror movie, by emphasizing the violence of the vengeful misfits and removing scenes that attempted to humanize them in the audience's eyes. Regardless of how one perceives Freaks -- as a cruel horror story; a poignant metaphor for the human condition; or a wicked attack upon a shallow culture that celebrates physical perfection (i.e. Hollywood) -- it is one of the very few films that, once seen, can never be forgotten.
Producer/Director: Tod Browning
Screenplay: Al Boasberg, Leon Gordon, Edgar Allan Woolf, Willis Goldbeck, based on the short story "Spurs" by Tod Robbins
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad, Film Editing: Basil Wrangell
Cast: Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Roscoe Ates (Roscoe), Harry Earles (Hans), Henry Victor (Hercules), Daisy Earles (Frieda), Rose Dione (Madame Tetrallini), Frances O'Connor (Frances the Turtle Girl).
BW-65m. Closed captioning.
* Dwarf John George appeared in Browning's The Unknown , The Road to Mandalay  and both versions of Outside the Law [1920, 1930]. But--for reasons unknown--he does not appear in Freaks, even though a role was specifically written for him in the screenplay.
* The role of Cleopatra, the femme fatale, was originally offered to Myrna Loy, while Jean Harlow was at one time slated to portray Venus, the beautiful animal trainer. Harlow had appeared in Browning's previous film, Iron Man (1931) at Universal.
* Harry and Daisy Earles (who play an engaged couple in Freaks) were actually brother and sister. Along with sisters Grace and Tiny, they performed as "The Doll family." Harry (whose real name was Kurt Schneider) emigrated to the U.S. from Germany circa 1915. They adopted the last name Earles because it was the name of a man for whom they worked shortly after their arrival in the U.S. After making Freaks, they performed in the Ringling Brothers Circus. They occasionally appeared in other films, such as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Harry died in 1985. Daisy (birth name - Hilda Schneider) died in 1980.
* According to the screenplay, the correct spelling of the circus folk's ceremonial chant is "Gouble Gobble."
* The first preview screening of Freaks was held in early January 1932. Audience response was overwhelmingly negative, and it was reported that one person ran screaming from the auditorium.
* One woman, after seeing Freaks, wrote a letter to Browning at MGM, exclaiming that "You must have the mental equipment of a freak yourself to devise such a picture." Another viewer complained, "To put such creatures in a picture and before the public is unthinkable."
* A Nashville, Tennessee, woman wrote a letter to Photoplay magazine, "I had a friend who threatened to sue the theater that showed Freaks for bringing such a picture to the place. For me, I thank the theater heartily, for it shows us that there are others who are much worse off than we."
* Although Thalberg decided to recut the picture immediately after the disastrous test screening, he could not cancel the world premiere on January 28 at the 3,000-seat Fox Theatre in San Diego. This is the only venue at which the uncut Freaks is known to have played. Ironically, the unexpurgated Freaks was a major box-office success. Crowds lined up around the block to see the picture, which broke the theatre's house record. By the end of the run, word had spread that Freaks was about to be butchered, and the theatre advertised, "Your last opportunity to see Freaks in its uncensored form!"
* Only a handful of reviews of the uncut Freaks survive. One calls it "rather gruesomely dramatized for the edification (or education) of those morbid persons who enjoy gazing upon unfortunate, misshapen, cruelly deformed humanity." Not all the reviews were negative. The San Diego Sun wrote, "'Freaks.' The word makes the ordinary type of people shocked. However, in this brand-new type of production, a new side of their lives is given...Without a doubt, this is a wonderful picture."
* Once Thalberg decided to re-edit Freaks, the release date was pushed back from January 30 to February 20, 1932. Its running time was shortened from 90 minutes to 60.
* Freaks was a pet project of Browning's. As early as 1927 there are newspaper reports of his enthusiasm for the property. By 1931, he had convinced production head Irving Thalberg that the film was going to be a smash. A studio newsletter sent to exhibitors observed, "Get the boss started on the subject of Tod Browning's Freaks and he'll keep it up for hours. We don't remember when he has been more enthusiastic about anything than he is right now about this one."
* The "Duck Woman" costume seen at the end of the film was actually designed for Lon Chaney to wear in Browning's 1928 film West of Zanzibar. When that scene was cut from the film, the costume was stored in a prop warehouse for four years, until Browning could devise a new use for it. The studio's advertising guides encouraged theatres to decorate their marquees and lobbies in the manner of carnival sideshows. They also splashed the theatre-fronts with banners that piqued the prurient curiosity of passers-by, with questions such as, "Do Siamese Twins make love? Can a full-grown woman truly love a midget? Do the pin-heads think? What sex is the half-woman half-man?"
* The public response to Freaks was wildly varied. Some cities had sellout crowds (Minneapolis, Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston, St. Paul, Omaha), while others fell far below their weekly averages (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago).
* Freaks did not play in New York until July 8, 1932 (at the Rialto Theatre), five months after its first commercial release.
* Although there was no ratings system in America at the time, most theatres required that only viewers age 18 and older be allowed to view the film.
* In Great Britain, Freaks was banned for 30 years, a rather intolerant view of a film that essentially preaches against society's intolerance
* Freaks sent shock waves through the MPPDA (the industry censor board that was quickly gaining power, and would eventually evolve into today's MPAA ratings board). Jason S. Joy wrote to the organizations figurehead, Will Hays, expressing concern about the blossoming horror movie genre, mentioning Freaks specifically. "Is this the beginning of a cycle which ought to be retarded or killed?" The MPPDA had managed to stop the growth of teenage gang films in April 1931 by imposing an informal ban upon them... and might have easily done the same thing to the horror film. The Hays office also imposed restrictions on comedies shortly after complaints about The Dentist (1932)
* The industry watchdog publication Harrison's Reports devoted numerous articles to Freaks. One said, "Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital." Their official review of the film said, "It is not fit to be shown anywhere," yet the critic admittedly had not seen the film. Yet another article urged theatre-owners to use the film as a political weapon. "Book the picture on a Monday, or Tuesday, or any other slow week day. Announce that on that day your theatre will remain closed because you are unwilling to become an instrument of demoralization among the people of your community by showing such a picture. Show the picture on that night to invited guests consisting of the most prominent persons of your town -- ministers, priests, rabbis, the Chief of Police, Mayor, alderman, the heads of all civic and fraternal organizations. After they see the picture, make a speech to them, or have a good speaker make it for you, pointing out the kind of pictures they are producing at Hollywood and are forcing you to show."
* Freaks was pulled from the theater in the middle of its Atlanta run, and replaced with a more innocuous depiction of sideshow life, Polly of the Circus (1932).
* When MGM closed its books on Freaks after its initial theatrical run, it was tallied as a financial loss of $164,000.
* The two-and-a-half minute title scroll that opens some prints of the film -- which provides historical information on "freaks" through the ages -- was not part of the original theatrical release. This text was added by exploitation film distributor Dwain Esper, who licensed the film from MGM in 1948. This device was typically employed by "exploiteers" to put an educational spin on their films and thereby justify the presence of sex, violence, drug use and other displays of vice typically absent from the screen. Esper rereleased the film at independent theatres, promoting it with sensational ad campaigns. To get extra mileage from the film, he also released it under the titles, "Nature's Mistakes" and "Forbidden Love."
* After Dwain Esper exhibited Freaks on the grind-house circuit, the film fell into obscurity. It was resurrected for the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, where it was suddenly proclaimed a neglected classic. Film archivist and repertory programmer Raymond Rohauer obtained the rights and marketed it as a cult film.
* When Freaks was made, Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton had already survived severe child abuse and established themselves as highly-publicized and-paid entertainers. In 1951 they starred in their own murder mystery film Chained for Life. In the 1940s and '50s, their business ventures met with little success. Their careers as professional entertainers ended when a shady promoter brought them to a Charlotte, North Carolina, drive-in in 1962, then abandoned them after the show. Daisy and Violet found jobs at a local supermarket and worked there until their deaths by natural causes at age 60.
* Schlitzie Metz (credited in the film as Schlitze) was reputed to be the sole surviving descendent of the Aztec race, but she was, in fact, a he. According to Daniel Mannix's book Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others, he wore a dress "because it was easier to take care of his toilet needs if he wore skirts... Schlitzie was in show business for thirty years and then his manager -- or to be more explicit about it, his owner -- died. The side show wanted to keep Schlitzie, but the state insisted on putting him in an institution... [sideshow operator] Sam Alexander... went to see him and found poor Schlitzie literally dying of loneliness. The attendees in the mental institution were far too busy to pay any attention to him and Schlitzie was pining away. Alexander managed to persuade the authorities to release Schlitzie to him, and once again Schlitzie was happily on the road. He lived to be eighty, dying in California."
* In 1971, a 68-year-old tattooed dwarf named Colonel Montague Addison wrote a letter to Films in Review condemning Freaks: "Our reaction to Tod Browning's exploitation of us is every bit as indignant over stereotyping as that of the blacks today. I avoided seeing Freaks for years on the advice of my freak friends. When I finally did see it my worst fears were realized. While pretending sympathy and understanding for a defenseless minority group, Freaks actually exploits and degrades us, in a manner that is hokey as well as offensive."
* Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra) recalled an experience that, years later, reminded her of the project. "I went with my husband to the circus when the circus was here much later, and they say, 'the midgets are downstairs,' and I go down and they shout 'Baclanova! Baclanova!' And they were just the same as when I make the picture."
* The story of Johnny Eck, the half-boy, has a less satisfying conclusion. He was invited to appear in Browning's 1936 film The Devil-Doll, but Eck and his manager argued over the terms. Their partnership ended and Eck did not appear in the film. He later wrote in his unpublished autobiography, "Many nights I would cry, lying awake in the dark, thinking of how really wonderful and exciting [it would be] to be working in front of the cameras on all the different giant sound stages. I got to know each member of the film crew. I was accepted not as a Monster Freak -- but as one of them -- not twenty inches tall, but a miniature super-man! Best of all, I was special to director Tod Browning and his assistant Errol Taggart. I would ride many times along side of these great men on a big camera dolly while they were shooting scenes. Now it was all over." Eck withdrew from the public eye after he was savagely beaten by burglars who invaded his home in the early 1980s. He died a recluse in 1991.
* Freaks is based on the short story "Spurs," written by Clarence Aaron "Tod" Robbins, who was the author of The Unholy Three, also made into a film by Browning. "Spurs" was originally published in Munsey's Magazine in February 1923.
* According to one source, Browning was introduced to the story by Cedric Gibbons, the head of the MGM Art Department. He was supposedly boyhood friends with Robbins and convinced the studio to purchase film rights for the sum of $8,000. Another source claims that the diminutive actor Harry Earles gave Browning a copy of the story during the production of The Unholy Three in 1925, in hopes that he could star in the adaptation.
* Robbins's story has essentially the same plot but a radically different ending. In it, Jacques Courbé, "the Dwarf of Copo's Circus" avenges himself upon the beautiful bareback rider Jeanne Marie by riding her like a horse across Europe, goading her with sharp spurs attached to his ankles. The strong man, Simon Lafleur, is attacked by Courbé's wolf dog.
* In order to populate the story with authentic sideshow performers, studio agents were dispatched with movie cameras across North America to photograph the most striking human curiosities they could find. During the filming, all the "freaks" and their managers were lodged in a boarding house in Culver City and carted to and from the studio each day.
* Several complaints were filed by MGM personnel who objected to the presence of the "freaks" in the studio commissary. Samuel Marx, head of the Story Department, recalled with peculiar pride, "Suddenly we who were sitting in the commissary having lunch would find Zip the What-Is-It? sitting at the next table, or the Siamese twins, who were linked together. And half the studio would empty out when they would walk in because the appetites went out. And so, Harry Rapf, who was a great moral figure, got a bunch of us together and we went in and complained to Irving [Thalberg] about Freaks. And he laughed at that. He said, 'You know, we're making all kinds of movies. Forget it. I'm going to make the picture. Tod Browning's a fine director. He knows what he's doing.' And the picture was made." But the lunchroom protests didn't end. As a result, a makeshift table was constructed and the cast of Freaks (with the exception of Harry and Daisy Earles, Violet and Daisy Hilton, and the more "normal" cast-members) were forced to eat their meals outdoors.
* Born in Moscow in 1896, Olga Baclanova trained as a teenager at the Moscow Art Theatre. While the company was on tour on New York, she defected and moved to Hollywood. Her best known early role was as the femme fatale in Paul Leni's thriller The Man Who Laughs (1928). Usually billed simply as "Baclanova," the actress later recalled the day when she was first introduced to the supporting cast, "[Browning] shows me little by little and I could not look, I wanted to faint. I wanted to cry when I saw them. They have such nice faces... they are so poor, you know... [Browning] takes me and say, you know, 'Be brave, and don't faint like the first time I show you. You have to work with them.'... It was very, very difficult first time. Every night I felt that I am sick. Because I couldn't look at them. And then I was so sorry for them. That I just couldn't... it hurt me like a human being."
* Film editor Basil Wrangell had a less sympathetic reaction to the sideshow performers, "It was bad enough to see them during the day when you'd go down on the set or have to go by their eating quarters, but when you had to look at it on the moviola for eighteen hours a day, it was enough to make you crawl up the walls."
* Johnny Eck, the half-boy, remembered his screen test was taken by MGM's scouting unit while he was on tour in Canada, and he shared the screen with the world's largest rat. He recalled being treated well by the crew, "The technicians, the sound men, the electricians, and the prop department, and everybody... was my friend... We got along beautifully."
* Browning recalled that it was often difficult to communicate with some of the sideshow performers who were mentally impaired, such as Schlitze Metz, Elvira Snow and Jenny Lee Snow, "They were not easy to work with...They are like little children, and sometimes took hours for them to understand what was wanted. When they weren't working they would retire to a corner of the set." In another interview, he stated, "They had to be humoured like children. Once in a while they became upset, angry, and would try to vent their rage in biting the person nearest to them. I was bitten once. But considering everything, we had little trouble."
* The stress of working with untrained actors, however, proved difficult for Browning, "It got to the point where I had nightmares. I mean it. I scarcely could sleep at all. There was one terrible dream in which I was trying to shoot a difficult scene. Every time I started, Johnny Eck, the half-boy, and one of the pinheads would start bringing a cow in backwards through a door. I'd tell them to stop but the next take they'd do it all over again. Three times that night I got up and smoked a cigarette but when I went back to bed I'd pick up the dream again."
* While Olga Roderick, the bearded lady, later regretted appearing in the film, most of the cast considered the making of Freaks a pleasurable experience. The cast presented Browning with a gift upon the completion of filming: a gold locket in the shape of a tiny book. On each of its golden pages were engraved the names of the sideshow performers who were about to be immortalized.
* Freaks was produced on a 36-day shooting schedule beginning November 6, 1931, and was completed on a budget of $316,000.
* According to the screenplay, the scene in which Madame Tetrallini introduces the wandering land-owner to the performers frolicking in the woods ran quite a bit longer. It included additional dialogue that endeavored to humanize the so-called freaks. She tells him they are "always in hot, stuffy tents -- strange eyes always staring at them -- never allowed to forget what they are." Duval responds sympathetically (clearly the stand-in for the viewing audience), "When I go to the circus again, Madame, I'll remember," to which she adds, "I know, M'sieu -- you will remember seeing them playing -- playing like children... Among all the thousands who come to stare -- to laugh -- to shudder -- you will be one who understands."
* The film as it exists today does not make it clear, but the seemingly normal characters of Venus and Phroso have their own afflictions (and are, therefore "freaks" themselves). She is sex-starved and he is impotent (making them indeed an odd couple). In one scene she tells Phroso angrily, "Sleep isn't all a girl needs... I'm tired of sitting around like a sap. I'm going to look for a couple of sailors -- see the town -- and have some fun." This scene never made it past the script-censors. It was rewritten (without Browning's involvement) to have Venus dream of, "having good times -- going places, doing things... falling in love -- getting married -- having kids."
* Much of the film's sexual humor was stripped away in the recut version. One scene showed Roscoe (who performed as a transvestite) removing the padding from his bra as he changes costumes. Another showed a trained seal amorously following the "Seal Woman" as she makes her way to her wagon. When Hans catches Cleo kissing Hercules, she cruelly says, "Don't worry, my little precious -- there's more than you can ever use."
* Numerous other bits of dialogue were removed that depicted the "normal" humans as disgusting creatures and the "freaks" as gentle and sympathetic (destroying the social critique of intolerance Browning was attempting to construct). While the circus awaits word on Hans's declining health, one of the Rollo Brothers coldly remarks, "You'd think the world was coming to an end -- just because a mangy freak's got a hangover." In another scene, Madame Tetrallini responds to the Rollos' taunts by defending the humanity of her "children," "Augh, you cochons -- you beasts... They are better than you -- all of them -- you two dogs!"
* After the "freaks" exact their vengeance upon Cleopatra and Hercules, the film showed Phroso and Venus, now married, visiting Tetrallini's Freaks and Music Hall (no longer a traveling circus) three years later. There, they learn that Hans and Frieda have moved to Australia, married and have had a child. While visiting their old friends, Phroso and Venus are surprised to learn that Cleopatra and Hercules now work for Mme. Tetrallini. The beautiful acrobat is now the Duck Woman, and Hercules is a soloist (singing in the high tenor of a castrato). The film was to end as Hercules begins a soft romantic song... and from across the building comes his lover's reply, "Quack quack."
* The reunion of Hans and Frieda, seen at the end of most prints, was not part of Browning's original cut, but was added during the re-editing to give the film a happier ending.
"What can be the purpose of a film of this sort is beyond guessing, for it is the sort of thing that, once seen, lurks in the dark places of the mind, cropping up every so often with a direful persistence... The main theme of the sadistically cruel plot savors nearly of perversion, certainly of abnormality." Boston Herald
"Strong men and strong women can't stand this one and a child won't sleep for a week after an eyeful of this chamber of horrors." The Chicago Daily News
"It is only fair to state before writing my opinion of Freaks, that it is the only film in four years of reviewing that I have seen under protest... I cannot believe such a show will entertain any but the morbidly curious, or those poor souls with jaded appetites who are even looking for a new thrill... expectant mothers should be expressly warned not to see it if they value their peace of mind." Louisville Times
"Moving, harsh, poetic and genuinely tender. It triumphs at once over your nausea; it also triumphs very quickly over your sense of what is curious. To enable people to look at grossly deformed human beings without feeling either sickened or even intrigued is the sort of thing that can be done only by art." Penelope Gilliatt, London Observer (1962, after the 30-year ban on the film was lifted)
Cult Movie Stars by Danny Peary and Cult Movies by Danny Peary
An Illustrated History of the Horror Film by Carlos Clarens
The Horror People by John Brosnan
Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning by David J. Skal & Elias Savada
Magill's Survey of Cinema
Shock (ed. Stefan Jaworzyn)
The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror by David J. Skal
Midnight Movies by J. Hoberman & Jonathan Rosenbaum