Freaks is Not a Dirty Word
The year is 1931: the country was in the grips of the Great Depression, unemployment was at an all time high, and a general feeling of malaise had washed over Americans like day-old bath water. Some overly moralistic souls believed that this was our comeuppance for the wild and decadent time had by all during the roaring 20s, but that was simply because the ebb and flow of global economics was beyond their limited understanding. Contrary to the rest of the known world, 1931 was a banner year for Universal pictures. The studio was in the midst of its first profitable year ever. The success of the studio was due to the performance of a single extraordinary picture... Dracula. Not wanting to be left out of what was perceived to be the coming horror film windfall, and with rumors that Universal had already secured the rights to film Frankenstein, Metro Goldwyn-Mayer contacted Draculas director Tod Browning with a lucrative offer to do the ultimate horror picture. Upon offering Browning complete creative control, MGMs executive in charge of production Irving Thalberg told the director, Give me something horrible. Browning delivered in spades.
Drawing on his childhood experience in show business, (Browning really did run away to join the circus), as well as inspiration from the Tod Robbins short story Spurs, Browning scripted an eerie revenge tale, centering around a scheming trapeze artist who pretends to fall in love with a midget in order to murder him for his money. Set in a circus sideshow that was to feature real life human curiosities Freaks promised to be one of the most innovative movies ever shot.
The story goes that when Irving Thalberg read the script for this new project, he buried his head in his hands and bemoaned, I asked for something horrible... and I got it. But a deal was a deal and the contract was signed, so like it or not Freaks had gotten the green light. Besides, this movie would cost hardly anything to make; Thalberg planned on recycling the sets from Brownings silent circus picture, The Unknown and if it could bring in Dracula sized box office, who cared what was in it?
Browning immediately set to work by pouring over the talent rosters of every circus sideshow and exhibition he could find. He had one absolute policy. No artificial or man-made acts could be used. Browning wanted stark realism and felt this could only be achieved by using what he called natural freaks. Before long, much to the dismay of studio head Louis B. Mayer, a parade of pinheads, bearded ladies, half-boys, and human skeletons all converged on MGM studios. Little did Mayer realize that the casting of the freaks would be the least problematic element of pre-production. MGM had under contract the lovely up and coming actress Myrna Loy, and slated her to play the amazonian antagonist Cleopatra, but she was so genuinely horrified by the script that she begged to be let out of it. Jean Harlow was the first choice to play Venus, the kindly seal-trainer, but she too would have no part of Freaks. As star after star turned down the offered parts, it became all too clear that Freaks would not be what was then called a prestige picture. Undaunted, Tod Browning finally found his villainess in the form of Olga Baclanova, a semi-retired silent screen star from Moscow. Leila Hyams, who would later star in 1932s The Island of Lost Souls, would play Venus.
As for the movies title characters, Browning settled on a true cornucopia of human anomalies. There was Harry and Daisy Earles playing the diminutive protagonist couple, Hans and Freda; Zippy and Schlitzie, billed as missing links or pinheads due to their overly small craniums and diminished intellectual capacity; Johnny Eck the half-boy, who was missing from the belt-line down; Peter Robinson the Human Skeleton; Frances OConnor, the Armless Wonder who could pour beer and crochet with her toes; Prince Randian the Living Torso, so named because he was missing both his arms and his legs; Daisy and Violet Hilton, the conjoined twins; Angelo Rosito, a dwarf; Koo Koo the bird girl, named after her avian-like facial features and costume;, Elizabeth Green the Stork Girl, a similar act to Koo Koo; Olga Roderick the Bearded Lady and Josephine Joseph, the hermaphroditic half man, half woman, split vertically.
Freaks began shooting in October of 1931, and right away it was evident that this picture would be... different. The first indication of this happened on the first day of shooting during the lunch break when the freaks descended on the studio commissary. To say that they caused a stir amongst the other actors would be a dreadful understatement. The author F. Scott Fitzgerald after a night of drunken excess was reported to have left the commissary in the middle of lunch to vomit upon seeing the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton discussing their meal with each other, holding a single menu between them. Given the number of complaints from studio staff and actors, the freaks were banished to an outdoor picnic area near the shooting stages. Ironically, one of the only exceptions to this decree from Louis B. Mayers office, besides Harry and Daisy Earles, was Daisy and Violet Hilton. Having previously acted and played music (piano and saxophone) in vaudeville, they had the right to eat with the other actors.
While the movies star attractions were having their dining arrangements reevaluated, the director was having problems of his own. Browning excelled in the environment of silent films where he could call out a constant stream of instructions to his stars. In 1929, with the advent of sound, this luxury was lost to directors and a new, more explanatory style was needed. The switch over to sound had never sat well with Browning. Upon a close examination of Dracula, Brownings first talkie, the viewer can see Browning straining to hold on to his silent film roots, as a variety of dialogue-free scenes permeate the film. By the time Freaks was shooting, Browning had decided, consciously or not, to wage war on talking pictures by making a film where half the cast was virtually unintelligible. Even the most famous scene in Freaks, the wedding feast, was shot with a silent film camera, and the soundtrack added in post-production. And what a soundtrack! In another salvo against talking pictures, Browning recorded a track unlike any in film history. Imagine a table full of over a dozen sideshow circus performers of varying intellectual capacity, and comfort with the English language banging on a table chanting Gooble gobble... gooble... gobble.
In spite of interference from studio executives who wanted to see the picture shut down, Tod Browning completed shooting of Freaks in 36 days. The chore of editing the film fell to Basil Wrangell who often lamented his fate by saying, Having to look at these things for 18 hours a day is enough to make you wanna crawl up a wall. After much promotion and polishing, Freaks premiered at New Yorks Rialto Theater in January 1932. MGM had charged Tod Browning with making them the ultimate horror picture, but the result was not what the studio had planned. At the New York premiere a woman ran screaming from the theater. Another woman is said to have sued the studio because she miscarried while watching Freaks. In an attempt to ride the wave of the sort of publicity that one could not buy, MGM had a nurse on duty at the Rialto, but the message was already coming in from the public and critics alike: Freaks had gone too far.
The images presented were too real, and the ending too horrifying. Many womens and religious groups felt that Freaks was a new low in Hollywood. As a result, Freaks had committed the one unpardonable sin in Hollywood: it failed to make money. The film was banned in many countries and MGM pulled it from distribution after a very short engagement. After one more attempt at making a studio picture, Tod Browning retired form the movie business and moved into a comfortable, albeit reclusive existence in Malibu. Freaks had killed his career. He would never direct again.
Freaks was locked away in the MGM film vault never to be seen again... or so the studio thought. It would be three decades in coming but Freaks would finally find its audience. In the art house theaters of New York City, college campus screenings, and the counter culture spreading across America in the 1960s, Freaks was rediscovered by a whole new generation of moviegoers, and this one was ready for it.
The simple poignant story about abnormal individuals with good hearts and a real sense of community resonated with people struggling to find their own niche in a country that they felt had left them wanting. Being a freak was now a good thing, and still is. In retrospect, people look back on Freaks as being a compassionate film, showing these people as being just like the rest of us. It is this that allows us to truly relate to the freaks in the film. Who amongst us does not have something about themselves they would rather have different? And yet in spite of that we are decent, loving people just like they are. Much has been said about Freaks both positive and negative over the last seventy years, but no matter what, you will never see anything like it, because Freaks more than any other film holds up a mirror to humanity and forces us to confront the secret ugliness that exists within all of us. In that way, perhaps Tod Browning really did deliver on his promise of making the ultimate horror film.
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