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Freaks(1932)

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teaser Freaks (1932)

SYNOPSIS

A carnival barker tells his audience the story behind the sideshow attraction they have come to see. Once a beautiful trapeze artist, Cleopatra weds sideshow midget Hans to get her hands on his inheritance. She and her lover, the strong man Hercules, plot to poison Hans, but when the other sideshow attractions realize their plan, they take revenge for one of their own kind.

Director: Tod Browning
Producer: Irving Thalberg, Tod Browning, Harry Rapf
Screenplay: Al Boasberg, Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Charles MacArthur, Edgar Allan Woolf
Based on the short story "Spurs" by Tod RobbinsCinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Editing: Basil Wrangell
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Merrill Pye
Cast: Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Roscoe Ates (Roscoe), Henry Victor (Hercules), Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), Daisy and Violet Hilton (Siamese Twins), Josephine Joseph (Half Woman-Half Man), Johnny Eck (Half Boy), Prince Randian (The Living Torso), Angelo Rossitto (Angeleno), Edward Brophy (Rollo Brother), Matt McHugh (Rollo Brother), Burgess Meredith (Carny Caller)
BW-64m. Closed Captioning.

Why FREAKS is EssentialFreaks is considered Tod Browning's masterpiece, both for its simple, compassionate scenes depicting the sideshow performers in their daily lives and for delirious scenes like the wedding banquet, in which the performers dance and chant while welcoming Cleopatra into their society.

In many ways, Freaks is the culmination of a sub-genre critics have called "disability drama," pioneered by Browning in such Lon Chaney vehicles as The Unholy Three (1925), The Road to Mandalay (1926) and The Unknown (1927).

Browning's film is a masterpiece of audience manipulation, years ahead of itself in presenting characters who are both sympathetic and terrifying. Early scenes showing the performers going about their lives create a tremendous empathy that gradually overpowers any revulsion audiences feel toward their physical conditions. There are even moments of gentle, very human humor. In some cases, the performers are presented as innocents functioning perfectly within a world they have built for themselves. Yet the final revenge scenes twist those feelings, displaying the monstrous behavior of which they are capable in response to a threat from someone outside their group. It's a searing portrait of the humanity within all of us at its best and its worst.

Freaks had a strong influence on the late Surrealists, who were particularly intrigued by the scenes depicting the carnival performers living normally and the delirious revenge scenes at the end. Writer-artist Leonora Carrington featured such characters in her work and film director Luis Bunuel modeled parts of the dinner scene in his 1961 Viridiana on the wedding banquet in Browning's film.

With its box-office failure, Freaks signaled the end of Browning's reign as one of Hollywood's top directors. His career never recovered and he found it increasingly difficult to get personal projects approved by the studio heads.

Freaks captures the lives of the disabled in a period long before laws required accommodations for their conditions and when "mainstreaming" was an alien concept. The carnival performers on screen were the real thing, many of them living as virtual slaves owned by managers and sideshow owners. Only a year earlier, Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton had sued their manager to win their freedom from his total, almost abusive control of their lives and receive their fair share of past earnings. As such, the film provides a document of the lives of the disabled and attitudes toward them in less enlightened times.

by Frank Miller

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teaser Freaks (1932)

F. Scott Fitzgerald was under contract at MGM during part of the time that Freaks was being shot. When Daisy and Violet Hilton sat at his table in the Commissary, he had to leave the room to throw up. He incorporated a version of that incident later that year in his short story "Crazy Sunday."

One project cancelled as a result of the film's failure was a follow-up Browning had hoped to direct starring Johnny Eck and his fraternal twin Robert, with Johnny as a mad scientist's creation. Instead, he appeared in small roles in three of MGM's Tarzan films. He then signed a contract to perform at the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, where he was billed as "The Most Remarkable Man Alive." He would later tour with a magician and run his own orchestra before settling in Baltimore, where he ran a penny arcade and a children's train ride while also working as a screen painter. With the revival of interest in Freaks his image has become popular on posters, in illustrations and on t-shirts.

The financial failure of Freaks put director Tod Browning's career on the skids. Nor did it help that the director, whose perfectionism and lack of concern for work crews had already made him unpopular, tried unsuccessfully to blame the film's problems on editor Basil Wrangell. It was three years before he received another directing credit, for Mark of the Vampire (1935), a remake of his now-lost silent film London After Midnight (1927). After uncredited work on another horror film, The Devil-Doll (1936), he ended his career with the murder mystery Miracles for Sale (1939).

Olga Baclanova's role as Cleopatra was one of a series of femme fatale parts during the early sound era that eventually ended her days as a star. She returned to the stage, where she starred for over a decade before retiring. In later years, her role in Freaks made her a cult star, earning her interviews with genre historians like Richard Lamparski.

After making Freaks, Harry and Daisy Earles gave up filmmaking to focus on work in the circus. They returned to features briefly for roles in The Wizard of Oz (1939), with Daisy as a Munchkin villager and Harry as a member of the Lollipop Guild. Daisy also appears very briefly in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).

Daisy and Violet Hilton made only one other film, Chained for Life (1951), an exploitation film designed to explore the more titillating aspects of their condition while also drawing on elements of their personal lives.

Schlitze, the leader of the pinheads, played minor roles in a few more films, including the exploitation feature Tomorrow's Children (1934), in which he played a criminal subjected to forced sterilization. He was adopted by animal trainer George Surtees in 1935, but when Surtees died in 1965, the man's daughter had Schlitze committed to a mental hospital, where he suffered bouts of depression until discovered by Bill Unks, the sword swallower. Unks arranged for his release to return to the carnival circuit under Canadian promoter Sam Alexander. Schlitze eventually retired to Los Angeles.

Of all the sideshow performers, 2', 11" Angelo Rossitto had the most extensive film career. He was already a silent screen veteran, having been discovered by John Barrymore for a role in The Beloved Rogue (1927), when he made Freaks. He would go on to steady, if underpaid work, in a variety of films for the next 55 years. Among his most notable roles were the pygmy in The Sign of the Cross (1932), a gnome in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Bela Lugosi's assistant in The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and the Master in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). He also worked as a stunt double for Shirley Temple. He and Billy Barty founded Little People of America in 1957.

After World War II MGM sold distribution rights for Freaks to exploitation king Dwain Esper, who exhibited the film under the title Forbidden Love. At some venues, Esper would follow the film with nudist camp footage.

With the revival of interest in Freaks in the '60s, Schlitze's image became popular on posters and t-shirts. Bill Griffith would later credit him as one of the inspirations for his underground comics character Zippy the Pinhead.

The film was remade twice. As She Freak (1967) it starred Claire Brennen as a greedy waitress who marries a carnival owner whose death leaves her in charge of the show. When she treats the sideshow performers poorly, they rebel and mutilate her. Similar plot elements turn up in Freakshow (2007), with Rebekah Kochan as a female gangster who marries a circus's elderly owner so she can kill him and take over the show.

Freaks was one of many pre-Code films (meaning films released before strict enforcement of the Production Code) used to bolster arguments for increased censorship. It had the bad fortune to open in Washington, D.C., just before Senator Smith W. Brookhart (R-Iowa) launched a campaign for federal film censorship. Moralists complained not just about the depiction of the deformed, but about the double-entendre dialogue between the two human couples, Cleopatra and Hercules, and Phroso and Venus.

The wedding banquet scene in Freaks is referenced in "There's No Disgrace Like Home," a 1990 episode of The Simpsons.

Freaks's influence on other films has been considerable - everything from Edmund Goulding's Nightmare Alley (1947) to Federico Fellini's La Strada (1954) to Jack Cardiff's The Mutations (1974). Even the punk rock group, The Ramones, lifted their rallying cry of "gabba-gabba-hey" from the bizarre wedding sequence in Freaks where the sideshow oddities chant a strange toast to the newlyweds Hans and Cleopatra. Robert Altman plays homage to it in a scene from The Player (1992) when cop Lyle Lovett chants the phrase "One of us, one of us" over and over to his superior officer Whoopi Goldberg.

by Frank Miller

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teaser Freaks (1932)

When Johnny Eck was hired for Freaks, his manager simply told him he was going to work in a circus that started its tour in California. He didn't realize he was in a movie until he reported for work at MGM.

Eck's condition was a result of Sacral Agenesis, an abnormal fetal development of the lower spine. He actually had legs, but they were small and unusable. He usually kept them disguised under his costume.

In Tod Robbins's original story, Cleopatra and Hercules were partners in a bareback riding act.

At one point, according to New York Herald-Tribune critic Richard Watts, Jr., Tod Browning was considering Robbins's story as a vehicle for Lon Chaney. In that version he would have cut the wedding and had Harry Earles, as the story's little person, avenge himself for insults from Chaney's character by forcing the full-sized human to carry him around Europe on his back.

Phroso the clown was named for Lon Chaney's magician character in West of Zanzibar (1928).

The wedding banquet scene resembles a story MGM publicity writers placed under Chaney's name in Motion Picture Classic. Titled "The Most Grotesque Moment of My Life," it described a visit from half-a-dozen deformed men and women who declared Chaney their honorary king in gratitude for his portrayal of human monsters on screen. At the time the article appeared, Willis Goldbeck, who contributed to the Freaks screenplay, was working in the MGM publicity department.

Although Schlitze, the leader of the pinheads, wears a dress and plays his role as a woman, he was, in fact, a man. His managers simply found putting him in dresses made it easier for him to go to the bathroom. He so thoroughly identified with his acquired gender that the thought of a new dress and other fineries, particularly hats, sent him into throes of ecstasy.

Made at a cost of $316,000, Freaks lost $164,000 at the box office.

In an attempt to recoup some of MGM's losses, production head Irving G. Thalberg reissued the film in 1933 with a new title, Nature's Mistakes, and an exploitative ad campaign asking such questions as "Do Siamese Twins Make Love?" and "What Sex is the Half-Man-Half-Woman?" The reissue did not include the MGM logo.

Freaks remained largely unseen in the U.S. for years, though there were occasional European revivals. The resurgence of interest in the film started in 1962, when it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. In the '70s and '80s, it was a popular film on the midnight movie circuit, eventually developing a cult following.

Memorable Quotes from FREAKS

"In ancient times, anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil." -- opening title for 1933 reissue of Freaks

"They're not children; they're monsters." -- Michael Visaroff, as Jean, reacting to the pinheads

"Why should they laugh at you?"
"Most big people do. They don't realize that I'm a man with the same feelings they have." -- Olga Baclanova, as Cleopatra, and Harry Earles, as Hans

"To me -- you're a man." -- Daisy Earles, as Frieda, to Harry Earles

"They're going to make you one of them, my peacock!" - Henry Victor, as Hercules, to Baclanova, as Cleopatra, at the wedding

"We accept you, one of us! Gobble Gobble!" -- The Freaks' chant at the wedding dinner

"Dirty -- slimy -- freaks! Make me one of you, will you?" -- Baclanova

"I'm not going to have my wife laying in bed half the day with one of your hangovers." -- Roscoe Ates, as Roscoe, to Daisy Hilton, as Siamese Twin

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teaser Freaks (1932)

Harry Earles, who had played the crook dressed as a baby in Browning's 1925 The Unholy Three, suggested the director make an adaptation of "Spurs," a 1923 short story by Clarence Aaron "Tod" Robbins, who had written the 1925 film's screenplay. The sideshow-set story was a natural for Browning, who had run off with the circus at an early age and befriended many of the carnival performers. He had drawn on that background throughout his filmmaking career, directing silent pictures with circus backgrounds and often casting Lon Chaney in roles that created the same mixture of compassion and disgust Browning had witnessed in sideshow audiences. On Earles's recommendation, Browning got MGM to purchase the rights for $8,000.

After the success of Dracula (1931) at Universal Pictures, Browning started a new contract at MGM. The studio offered him a chance to direct the mystery Arsene Lupin (1932), the first film to team John and Lionel Barrymore, but instead he proposed bringing Robbins's story to the screen. Only production head Irving Thalberg, who had championed the director's career earlier at Universal, was even willing to consider the project. He insisted Browning find the humanity within the story before he would commit the studio to it.

At Browning's request, Thalberg assigned Willis Goldbeck and Elliott Clawson to the screenplay, though from Goldbeck's recollections, neither was aware of the other's work. In fact, Goldbeck would later say he had never even been told about Robbins's story. Eventually, Leon Gordon, Edgar Allan Woolf, Al Boasberg and Charles MacArthur contributed to the screenplay, though no writers were actually credited.

The main change made to Robbins's story was in the ending. Originally, Jacques (who would become Hans in the film to better fit the German-born Earles) retires to a farm with his wife and, to punish her for her insults at the wedding banquet, forces her to carry him around the country roads for the rest of her life. In the five months it took to assemble the screenplay, Browning and the writers also added a normal, happy couple (Phroso the clown and Venus the seal trainer) to balance Hans's unhappy marriage to Cleopatra and various incidents designed to humanize the sideshow performers.

Browning cast Earles in the lead and his sister, Daisy, as his jilted love interest in Freaks. Their sister Tiny Doll also has a small role.

Browning insisted that the sideshow attractions featured in the film have other talents. As a result, he cast seasoned vaudeville performers Daisy and Violet Hilton, who were real-life Siamese Twins.

Casting director Ben Piazza spent almost a month on the East Coast scouting sideshow performers for Freaks. Among those cast were Johnny Eck, whose body seemed to end just below the rib cage; British Guiana native Prince Randian, who had neither arms nor legs; Koo Koo the bird girl from Mars, whose rapid aging was the result of progeria; Austrian hermaphrodite Josephine/Joseph and a troupe of microcephalics performing as "pinheads."

Browning wanted to cast Myrna Loy as Cleopatra and Jean Harlow as Venus, but Thalberg nixed the idea. Instead, Cleopatra was played by Olga Baclanova, a former member of the Moscow Art Theatre who had declined to return to the Soviet Union at the end of their 1925 U.S. tour. She had been building a name for herself in late silent films at Paramount, particularly Paul Leni's The Man Who Laughs and Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York (both 1928). Leila Hyams, a contract player typed as beautiful but good women, won the role of Venus.

In addition to Earles, cast members who had worked with Browning previously included Michael Visaroff, the innkeeper from Dracula, as the groundskeeper who lets the circus stay on his land, and Rose Dione, the barkeeper in West of Zanzibar (1928), as the sideshow performers' den mother.

by Frank Miller

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teaser Freaks (1932)

Filming began on Freaks on November 9, 1931. For the most part, the shooting proceeded smoothly. Rather than visiting the set to gape at the cast, most MGM employees avoided it as much as possible.

The film was shot on sets built for Greta Garbo's Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931).

Most of the sideshow performers were put up at the Castle Apartments next to the MGM lot during filming.

Once studio head Louis B. Mayer saw the sideshow entertainers whom Browning had cast, he was horrified and tried to have the picture shut down. It took all of Irving G. Thalberg's persuasive skills to keep it going.

One concession Thalberg had to make to keep the film in production was over eating arrangements. Led by Harry Rapf, studio executives had complained about having to look at the performers during lunch breaks, so a special tent was set up for their meals to keep them out of the MGM Commissary. Only the little people and Daisy and Violet Hilton were allowed to eat in public.

According to Johnny Eck, the sideshow performers started "going Hollywood" during filming. Several of them began wearing sunglasses in public, and some demanded special treatment on the set. They also argued over who was most important to the film.

The performer with the worst reputation for prima donna behavior was Olga Roderick, the bearded lady. Despite Browning's orders to leave her hair natural, she showed up on her first day of shooting with hair and beard dyed jet black and a marcelled hairdo.

Prince Randian, billed as "The Human Torso," loved to play practical jokes. He would hide in dark corners until somebody walked by, then unleash an ear-shattering scream.

On the lot, one of the most beloved of the sideshow performers was Schlitze, the most prominently featured "pinhead." His fans on the lot included Norma Shearer, but when he asked to meet his favorite star, Jackie Cooper, the child actor was highly disturbed by this. Schlitze was so enamored of the filmmaking process, he even came to the set on days he wasn't called.

Browning took a particular liking to Johnny Eck, nicknaming him "Mr. Johnny" and giving him rides on the camera dolly.

The film's January 1932 preview in San Diego was a disaster. People didn't just walk out. They ran. A pregnant woman threatened to sue MGM, claiming the film had induced a miscarriage. As a result of the poor reception, Thalberg had almost half an hour cut out of the film. In particularly, he cut most of the details of the sideshow performers' attack on Hercules and Cleopatra. He also cut some of the comic relief and an elaborate epilogue for which the art department had built the two-story, lighted faade for a London "freak show." Instead he shot a prologue with a sideshow barker introducing the story and a new epilogue featuring the reunion of Hans and Frieda. Louise Beavers originally played their maid in that sequence, but her scenes were deleted. The cut footage is now considered lost.

Freaks' premiere runs in Chicago and Los Angeles were miserable failures. No exhibitor in San Francisco would show it, and it was banned in many areas. By contrast, it was a big hit in Cincinnati, Boston, Cleveland, Houston and Omaha.

MGM responded to criticism of the film with a series of ads congratulating itself for daring to humanize deformity. Calling the film "A LANDMARK IN SCREEN DARING!" ads asked "'Do we dare tell the real truth on the screen? Do we dare hold up the mirror to nature in all its grim reality?'"

MGM held back Freaks's New York premiere for months, wanting it to play in other areas before exposing it to the national press. After mixed reviews there, the studio pulled the film from release.

by Frank Miller

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Freaks (1932)

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 [1925]) 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.

by Bret Wood

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Freaks (1932)

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 Courb, "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 Courb'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. (see photo)

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.

DELETED SCENES:

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.

Sources:
Cult MOvie Stars by Danny Peary
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

Compiled by Bret Wood

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Freaks (1932)

Dwarf John George appeared in Browning's The Unknown [1927], The Road to Mandalay [1926] 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.

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 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.

Sources:
Cult MOvie Stars by Danny Peary
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

Compiled by Bret Wood

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Freaks (1932)

"The difficulty is in telling whether it should be shown at the Rialto... or in, say, the Medical Centre... Its first audience apparently could not decide, although there was a good bit of applause."
The New York Times

"It is either too horrible or not horrible enough, according to the viewpoint."
Variety

"It is my impression that Freaks is, in its quite repulsive fashion, a dramatic and powerful motion picture. It is obviously an unhealthy and generally disagreeable work, not only in its story and characterization, but also in its gay directorial touches. Mr. Browning can make even freaks more unpleasant than they would be ordinarily. Yet, in some strange way, the picture is not only exciting, but even occasionally touching... Mr. Browning has always been an expert in pathological morbidity, but after seeing Freaks, his other pictures seem but whimsical nursery tales."
Richard Watts, Jr., New York Herald Tribune

"It is a most unusual production, made at the time when the horror cycle appeared to be in full sway, and as a picture of this type it was produced with expert hands. But the nature of its theme makes its chances problematical. First, the fact that the ugly human monstrosities in this picture are that way in reality, whereas in other films the audience knew it was all make-believe seems to induce a different and not pleasant reaction."
The Film Daily

"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 quite unfair to the production to brand it as gruesome. If the picture has met adverse comment in any community that reaction can be traced back to the type of exploitation used ahead of its showing."
Motion Picture Herald

"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)

"I was not prepared for the raucous horror, the splendid ambiguities, and the safely distanced but very real cruelties of Freaks."
Vincent Canby, The New York Times (1970)

Compiled by Bret Wood

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teaser Freaks (1932)

Who would have thought that a prestigious studio like MGM, the home of Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and the singing duo of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, would produce a movie set in a carnival sideshow featuring real pinheads, Siamese twins, a bearded lady, and other human oddities? What were they thinking? Believe it or not, Freaks (1932), was originally commissioned by MGM's enterprising mogul, Irving Thalberg, who usually favored adaptations of tasteful literary classics like Camille or David Copperfield. As a favor to Tod Browning, who had previously directed such successful Lon Chaney films for the studio as The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1927), Thalberg offered the director a lavish mystery thriller, Arsene Lupin, the tale of a master thief. However, Browning was more enthusiastic about filming "Spurs," a short story by Tod Robbins about a midget who takes revenge on a beautiful circus bareback rider. Despite some reservations, Thalberg put a team of writers to work on the project with the intention of creating a horrific tale to surpass the success of Browning's Dracula (1931) for Universal, a rival studio.

In the early stages of production on Freaks, Thalberg considered Myrna Loy for the part of the evil trapeze artist, Cleopatra, and Jean Harlow as Venus, the kindly seal trainer who's in love with the circus clown, Phroso. But the mogul must have changed his mind after seriously considering the subject matter because these roles eventually went to Moscow Art Theatre star Olga Baclanova and MGM contract player Leila Hyams, respectively. Casting the circus freaks proved to be more challenging with the exception of Harry Earles, the diminutive star of The Unholy Three. He had always been Browning's first choice for the role of Hans, the midget whose romantic infatuation with Cleopatra sets the stage for a grotesque tragedy. And Harry's sister, Daisy Earles, agreed to play her brother's on-screen fiancee, Frieda. For the rest, casting director Ben Piazza solicited photographs and screen tests from freak-show talent across America and beyond. Johnny Eck, the "half boy" whose body ends at his rib cage, was discovered in a Montreal sideshow. Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton were recruited from the vaudeville circuit. Other discoveries included Prince Randion, an armless, legless native of British Guiana who could shave himself and roll his own cigarettes; Schlitze and her entourage of fellow pinheads; Josephine/Joseph, the Austrian hermaphrodite; Pete Robinson, a sixty-five pound "human skeleton"; Angelo Rossitto, a dwarf (who out of all the "freaks" went on to enjoy a long career in films).

When Freaks began filming on the MGM lot, Thalberg took extra precautions to discourage gawkers and to keep the more unusual cast members out of sight. Only the Siamese twins and the midgets were allowed to eat in the studio commissary while the rest of the carnies were fed at an outdoor mess hall. Nevertheless, Johnny Eck later complained that some of his co-stars let Hollywood go to their heads and "started wearing sunglasses and acting funny." Schlitze, the most sociable of all the pinheads, probably enjoyed the experience the most. According to David J. Skal and Elias Savada in Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning (Anchor Books), Schlitze "was actually male, but for simplicity of hygiene wore a sack-like dress and was described publicly as a woman." "Here was a triumph of personality if I ever saw one," wrote film journalist Faith Service, who called Schlitze "the pet and favorite of the M-G-M lot," finding a fan even in Norma Shearer. "She made a great to-do over new dresses, tricks of magic, gay hats, bits of string, the sword swallower, games of tag and Tod Browning." Service noted "One of her special likes was for Jackie Cooper, much to that small trouper's terror. He did not reciprocate the affection."

By the time Freaks was finally unveiled for a public preview, it had already gone through numerous changes. For one thing, the studio insisted on a macabre ending and rejected Browning's more melancholy fadeout, which sympathized with the plight of these much-maligned social outcasts. But after the horrified response to the preview screening of Freaks, the studio drastically cut the film from a length of around ninety minutes to just over an hour. According to the authors of Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, "The truncated version jettisoned the horrifying details of the mud-dripping freaks swarming over the tree-pinned Olga Baclanova and pouring into a circus wagon to castrate her lover. Several comic scenes were eliminated, including one of the turtle-girl being amorously pursued by a seal. A rambling epilogue set in a second-story London dime museum called Tetrallini's Freaks and Music Hall...was completely discarded, save for the final shot of Cleopatra quacking; a new prologue was added, featuring a spieling barker....who introduces the "most amazing, the most astonishing human monstrosity of all time." And finally, a second epilogue, evidently intended as a happy....ending, depicted the reconciliation of the midget lovers in Hans' palatial estate, approvingly played by Phroso and Venus."

When this new version of Freaks finally went into national release, it was not only savaged by most critics (The New York Times suggested that it should be screened at a medical center instead of a theatre) but also attacked by civic groups and the spokeswoman for the National Association of Women who pointed to it as a further example of Hollywood's collapsing moral standards. Undeterred, Thalberg, who actually felt it was an important film, continued to champion Freaks and later re-released it with a more sensationalistic ad campaign; the title was changed to Nature's Mistakes and the poster featured provocative captions like "Do Siamese Twins Make Love?" and "What Sex is the Half-Man-Half-Woman?" Still, it failed to find an appreciative audience, yet today Freaks is considered one of the most fascinating and unusual films ever produced by a major Hollywood studio. And its influence on other films has been considerable - everything from Edmund Goulding's Nightmare Alley (1947) to Federico Fellini's La Strada (1954) to Jack Cardiff's The Mutations (1973). Even the punk rock group, The Ramones, lifted their rallying cry of "gabba-gabba-hey" from the bizarre wedding sequence in Freaks where the sideshow oddities chant a strange toast to the newlyweds Hans and Cleopatra.

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), Francis O'Connor (Frances the Turtle Girl).
BW-65m. Closed captioning.

By Jeff Stafford

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Freaks (1932)

"Their code is a law unto themselves. Offend one and you offend them all."

"She was once a beautiful woman... a royal prince shot himself for love of her. She was known as the peacock of the air."

"She's the most beautiful big woman I have ever seen."

"I am Madame Tetrallini, these children are in my circus... So you see, Monsieur, when I get a chance I like to take them into the sunshine and let them play like children... that is what most of them are... children."

"There she goes, taking them out to exercise. Nurse to a lot of mangy freaks!"

"Have a cigar, Joseph."
"You dropped your lipstick, Josephine."
"Don't get her sore or he'll bust you in the nose."

"I think sh-he, sh-he likes you... but he don't."

"You're not so hard to look at. Give yourself a tumble, you'll make the grade. Your break is coming."

"Say, you're a pretty good kid."
"You're darn right I am. You should've caught me before my operation."

"Ah ph-hooey, you're always using that for an ex... for an excu....for an alibi."

"Our card, lady."
"What for?" "A couple of rubbers from Berlin!"

"You've got to cut out getting drunk every night, too."
"Is that so?"
"Yeah. I'm not going to have my wife laying in bed half the day with your hangover."

"Let her try it. Let her try doing anything to one of us."
"That's right. She don't know us, but she'll find out."

"Oh, Schlitzie, what a pretty dress. Oh how beautiful you look tonight! You're just a man's woman, know what I mean?"

"Cleo's gone on a diet!"

"Freaks are not strong. He could get sick. It could be done. Done...slowly."

"Oh my little green eyed monster. My husband is jealous!"

"We'll make her one of us! A loving cup! A loving cup! We accept her one of us. We accept her one of us. Gouble gobble, gouble gobble. We accept her, we accept her. Gouble gobble, gouble gobble. One of us, one of us..."

"They're going to make you one of them, my peacock!"

"You dirty, slimy freaks! Freaks! Freaks! Get out of here!"

"What are you, a man, or a baby?!"

"My people are decent circus folks. Not dirty rats what would kill a freak to get his money!"

"Tonight."
"They will be ready."

"How she got that way will never be known."

Compiled by Bret Wood

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teaser Freaks (1932)

Awards and Honors

Freaks was voted a place on the National Film Registry in 1994.

THE CRITICS' CORNER - FREAKS

"Freaks is sumptuously produced, admirably directed, and no cost was spared. But Metro failed to realize that even with a different sort of offering the story still is important. Here it is not sufficiently strong to get and hold the interest, partly because interest cannot easily be gained for a too fantastic romance."
- Variety

"There is no excuse for this picture. It took a weak mind to produce it and it takes a strong stomach to look at it. The reason it was made was to make money....In Freaks the movies make their great step toward national censorship. If they get it, they will have no one to blame but themselves."
- John C. Moffitt, Kansas City Star

"It is obviously an unhealthy and generally disagreeable work, not only in its story and characterization, but also in its gay directorial touches. Mr. Browning can even make freaks more unpleasant than they would be ordinarily. Yet, in some strange way, the picture is not only exciting, but even occasionally touching."
- Richard Watts, Jr., New York Herald Tribune

"It is the sort of thing that, once seen, lurks in the dark places of the mind, cropping up every so often with a dourful persistence."
- The Boston Herald

"...it's still a shocker. Though this circus story, directed by Tod Browning, is superficially sympathetic to the maimed and the mindless that it features, it uses images of physical deformity for their enormous potential of horror, and at the end, when the pinheads and the armless and legless creatures scurry about to revenge themselves on a normal woman (Olga Baclanova), the film becomes a true nightmare. If this film were a silent it might be harder to shake off, but the naive, sentimental talk helps us keep our distance."
- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies

"It is a story concerned with the life and loves of circus freaks and because of the human abnormalities involved its unwholesome shockery creates morbid audience reactions. It is a skillfully presented production but of a character which in consideration of the susceptibilities of mass audiences should be avoided."
- Martin Quigley, Decency in Motion Pictures

"There is little to be said about Freaks, Tod Browning's celebrated film, except that it does not merit the reputation for cruelty accorded it by the litany of belated surrealists. On the contrary, what I found touching was the human being's prodigious capacity for adaptation. Seeing the armless man light a cigarette by using only his mouth leaves us breathless with admiration. This story shows the infinite ingenuity and the greatness of man. But enough moralizing. Freaks is a very honest film that can be seen with more pleasure than horror."
- Jean Douchet, Cahiers du Cinema

"....bizarre and fascinating..."
- Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide

"...enjoyed a greater reputation than it deserved because it was unseen for thirty years owing to a censor's ban. Now it seems interesting but unsatisfactory, a curious aberration of the Irving Thalberg regime at MGM.
- Leslie Halliwell, The Filmgoer's Companion

"...While watching the freaks, viewers will feel not only fear, curiosity, and pity but also warmth, respect, and amazement....Browning's point is that people needn't pay to see them just because they're different - with the exception of the pinheads, they are talented show people. They can "act" in front of the camera, and some, like the Hilton Siamese Twins, even display a quirky sense of humor....It is because of the freaks that the film has had so much trouble with censors, but there is no film from the period that has more sexual innuendo."
- Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic

"Although using real freaks, Browning's treatment is never voyeuristic or condescending, but sympathetic in such a way that after a few minutes we almost cease to perceive them as in any way abnormal. There is a strong, black humour that, remarkably, lacks cruelty, and a real sense of terror in the awful revenge the wronged freaks exact."
- Geoff Andrews, Time Out

"Who are the 'freaks' of the film's title then? It's anyone who fails to recognize the humanity in the film's deformed lot."
- Ed Gonzales, Slant Magazine

Compiled by Frank Miller

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