Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Tod Browning|
|Produced by||Tod Browning|
|Written by||Tod Robbins|
|Cinematography||Merritt B. Gerstad|
|Editing by||Basil Wrangell|
|Release date(s)||February 20, 1932|
|Running time||Original cut
Freaks is a 1932 American Pre-Code horror film about sideshow performers, directed and produced by Tod Browning and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with a cast mostly composed of actual carnival (funfair) performers. The film was based on Tod Robbins' 1923 short fiction story "Spurs". Director Browning took the exceptional step of casting real people with deformities as the eponymous sideshow "freaks," rather than using costumes and makeup.
Browning had been a member of a traveling circus in his early years, and much of the film was drawn from his personal experiences. In the film, the physically deformed "freaks" are inherently trusting and honorable people, while the real monsters are two of the "normal" members of the circus who conspire to murder one of the performers to obtain his large inheritance.
The central story is of a self-serving trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who seduces and eventually marries a sideshow midget, Hans (Harry Earles), after learning of his large inheritance. At their wedding reception, the other "freaks" resolve that they will accept Cleopatra in spite of her being a "normal" outsider, and hold an initiation ceremony, wherein they pass a massive goblet of wine around the table while chanting, "We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!" The ceremony frightens the drunken Cleopatra, who accidentally reveals that she has been having an affair with Hercules (Henry Victor), the strong man; she mocks the freaks, tosses the wine in their faces, and drives them away. Despite being humiliated, Hans remains with Cleopatra.
Shortly thereafter, Hans is taken ill. Cleopatra has poisoned his wine at the wedding, and continues slipping poison into Hans' medicine so that she can inherit his money and run away with Hercules. Venus (Leila Hyams), another circus performer, overhears Cleopatra and Hercules discussing the murder plot and tells Hans and the other freaks. In the film's climax, the freaks attack Cleopatra and Hercules with guns, knives, and various sharp-edged weapons, hideously mutilating them during a bad storm. Though Hercules is never seen again, the original ending of the film had the freaks castrating him; the audience sees him later singing in falsetto. The film concludes with a revelation of Cleopatra's fate; she has become a grotesque, squawking "human duck". The flesh of her hands has been melted and deformed to look like duck feet and her lower half has been permanently tarred and feathered.
In an ending MGM threw in later for a "happier ending", Hans is living a millionaire's life in a huge house. Venus and her clown boyfriend Phroso (Wallace Ford) come with Frieda to visit, and Frieda comforts Hans when he begins to cry.
- The bearded woman, who loves the human skeleton, gives birth to their daughter.
- Violet, a conjoined twin whose sister Daisy is married to one of the circus clowns, herself becomes engaged to the owner of the circus. Daisy appears to react with romantic arousal when Violet is kissed by her suitor, and a closed-eyed Violet knows when Daisy's shoulder has been touched, implying that each sister can experience the other's physical sensations.
- Daisy and Violet Hilton were real-life conjoined twins.
- The Human Torso (Prince Randian), in the middle of a conversation, lights his own cigarette, using only his mouth. In the original scene, he also rolls the cigarette.
Cast (in credits order)
- Wallace Ford as Phroso
- Leila Hyams as Venus
- Olga Baclanova as Cleopatra
- Roscoe Ates as Roscoe
- Henry Victor as Hercules
- Harry Earles as Hans
- Daisy Earles as Frieda
- Rose Dione as Madame Tetrallini
- Daisy Hilton as Siamese Twin
- Violet Hilton as Siamese Twin
- Schlitzie as Himself
- Josephine Joseph as Half Woman-Half Man
- Johnny Eck as Half Boy
- Frances O'Connor as Armless Girl
- Peter Robinson as Human Skeleton
- Olga Roderick as Bearded Lady
- Koo Koo as Herself
- Prince Randian as The Living Torso
- Martha Morris as Angeleno's Armless Wife
- Elvira Snow as Pinhead Pip
- Jenny Lee Snow as Pinhead Zip
- Elizabeth Green as Bird Girl
- Delmo Fritz as Sword Swallower
- Angelo Rossitto as Angeleno
- Edward Brophy and Matt McHugh as the Rollo Brothers.
MGM had purchased the rights to Robbins' short story, Spurs, in the 1920s at Browning's urging. In June 1932, MGM production supervisor, Irving Thalberg, offered Browning the opportunity to direct Arsène Lupin with John Barrymore. Browning declined, preferring to develop Freaks, a project he had started as early as 1927. Screenwriters Willis Goldbeck and Elliott Clawson were assigned to the project at Browning's request. Leon Gordon, Edgar Allan Woolf, Al Boasberg and an uncredited Charles MacArthur would also contribute to the script. The script was shaped over five months. Little of the original story was retained beyond the marriage between a midget and an average-sized woman and their wedding feast. Victor McLaglen was considered for the role of Hercules, whilst Myrna Loy was initially slated to star as Cleopatra, with Jean Harlow as Venus. Ultimately, Thalberg decided not to cast any major stars in the picture.
Freaks began filming in October 1931 and was completed in December. Following disastrous test screenings in January 1932 (one woman threatened to sue MGM, claiming the film had caused her to suffer a miscarriage), the studio cut the picture down from its original 90-minute running time to just over an hour. Much of the sequence of the freaks attacking Cleopatra, as she lay under a tree, was removed, as well as a gruesome sequence showing Hercules being castrated, a number of comedy sequences, and most of the film's original epilogue. A new prologue featuring a carnival barker was added, as was the new epilogue featuring the reconciliation of the tiny lovers. This shortened version—now only 64 minutes long—had its premiere at the Fox Criterion in Los Angeles on February 20, 1932.
Despite the extensive cuts, the film was still negatively received by audiences, and remained an object of extreme controversy. Today, the parts that were removed are considered lost. Browning, famed at the time for his collaborations with Lon Chaney and for directing Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931), had trouble finding work afterward, and this effectively brought his career to an early close. Because its deformed cast was shocking to moviegoers of the time, the film was banned in the United Kingdom for 30 years. Beginning in the early 1960s, Freaks was rediscovered as a counterculture cult film, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the film was regularly shown at midnight movie screenings at several movie theaters in the United States. In 1994, Freaks was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". It was ranked 15th on Bravo TV's list of the 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
- American Film Institute lists
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
- "Gobble gobble, Gobble gobble. We accept her. One of us, one of us." - Nominated
Among the characters featured as "freaks" were Peter Robinson ("the human skeleton"); Olga Roderick ("the bearded lady"); Frances O'Connor and Martha Morris ("armless wonders"); and the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Among the microcephalics who appear in the film (and are referred to as "pinheads") were Zip and Pip (Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow) and Schlitzie, a male named Simon Metz who wore a dress mainly due to incontinence, a disputed claim. Also featured were the intersexual Josephine Joseph, with her left/right divided gender; Johnny Eck, the legless man; the completely limbless Prince Randian (also known as The Human Torso, and mis-credited as "Rardion"); Elizabeth Green the Stork Woman; and Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, who had Virchow-Seckel syndrome or bird-headed dwarfism, and is most remembered for the scene wherein she dances on the table.
- "Freaks". The New York Times. 1932.
- Mark Chalon Smith (1995-10-30). "Grotesquerie Is Merely a Sideshow in 'Freaks'". The Los Angeles Times.
- Don Sumner. "Horror Movie Freak". Google Books.
- Skal, David J.; Elias Savada (September/October 1995). "Offend One And You Offend Them All: The Making of Tod Browning's Freaks". Filmfax. pp. 42–9, 78–9.
- Jeff Stafford. "Freaks". TCM.
- Case Study: Freaks, Students' British Board of Film Classification page
- Patterson, John (2007-03-02). "The weirdo element". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-03-05.
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