Freaks

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Freaks
FreaksPoster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Tod Browning
Produced by Tod Browning
Written by Tod Robbins
Starring Wallace Ford
Leila Hyams
Olga Baclanova
Roscoe Ates
Cinematography Merritt B. Gerstad
Editing by Basil Wrangell
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • February 20, 1932 (1932-02-20)
Running time 90 minutes (Original cut)
64 minutes[1] (Released cut)
Country United States
Language English
German
French
Budget $316,000[2]

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 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.[3][4]

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.

Plot[edit]

The film opens with a sideshow barker drawing customers to visit the sideshow. A woman looks into a box to view a hidden occupant and screams. The barker explains that the horror in the box was once a beautiful and talented trapeze artist. The central story is of this conniving trapeze artist Cleopatra, who seduces and marries sideshow midget Hans after learning of his large inheritance. At their wedding reception, the other "freaks" announce that they accept Cleopatra in spite of her being a "normal" outsider; they hold an initiation ceremony in which 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, the strong man. She mocks the freaks, tosses the wine in their faces, and drives them away. Despite being humiliated, Hans remains with Cleopatra.

Hans soon becomes ill. Cleopatra had poisoned his wedding wine, and she continues to slip poison into his medicine, planning to inherit his money and run away with Hercules. Another circus performer, Venus, overhears the conspiring couple discussing the murder plot and tells Hans and the other freaks. In the film's climax, the freaks attack the evil pair during a storm, wielding guns, knives, and other sharp-edged weapons. Hercules is not seen again (although the film's original ending had the freaks castrating him; the audience sees him later singing in falsetto). As for Cleopatra, 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.This is the freak at which the woman screamed in the opening scene.

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 visit, bringing Frieda, to whom Hans had been engaged before meeting Cleopatra. Hans refuses to see them, but they force their way past his servant. Frieda assures Hans that she knows he tried to stop the others from exacting revenge. Phroso and Venus leave them alone, and Frieda comforts Hans when he starts to cry.

Additional features[edit]

Spliced throughout the main narrative are a variety of "slice of life" segments detailing the lives of the sideshow performers.

  • The Bearded Woman, who loves the human skeleton, gives birth to their daughter. The news is spread among the freak friends by The Stork Woman (Elizabeth Green).
  • Violet, a conjoined twin whose sister Daisy is married to one of the circus clowns, becomes engaged to the circus' owner. The sisters appear able to experience each other's physical sensations: Daisy appears to react with romantic arousal when Violet's fiance' kisses her, and a closed-eyed Violet knows when Daisy's shoulder has been touched. The sisters were played by real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton.
  • In the middle of a conversation, The Human Torso (Prince Randian) lights his own cigarette, using only his mouth. In the original scene, he also rolls the cigarette.

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

Promotional poster

MGM had purchased the rights to Robbins' short story, Spurs, in the 1920s at Browning's urging. In June 1931, 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),[5] 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.[6]

Reception[edit]

Despite the extensive cuts, the film was still negatively received by audiences, recording a loss of $164,000,[2] and remained an object of extreme controversy.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.

On film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Freaks holds a 93% "fresh" rating.[10]

American Film Institute lists

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 intersex 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.

Cultural influences[edit]

Frank Zappa used images from the film on the sleeve of his album Tinseltown Rebellion, as it was a source of inspiration to him in his dichotomic vision of freaks versus hippies.

The Ramones' song "Pinhead" was inspired by a screening of the film by the band.

The film was parodied in the season premiere of the 25th season of The Simpsons, "Treehouse of Horror XXIV".

South Park episode "Butters' Very Own Episode" spoofed the film.

The famous line "We accept her, one of us." was referenced in Bernando Bertolucci's The Dreamers, with the scene from the original movie alternating as the characters in The Dreamers said it. Characters in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013 film) reference the famous "One of us." chant from the film.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "FREAKS (12)". British Board of Film Classification. 2001-08-13. Retrieved 2013-07-19. 
  2. ^ a b Scott Eyman, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, Robson, 2005 p 152
  3. ^ "Freaks". The New York Times. 1932. 
  4. ^ Mark Chalon Smith (1995-10-30). "Grotesquerie Is Merely a Sideshow in 'Freaks'". The Los Angeles Times. 
  5. ^ Don Sumner. "Horror Movie Freak". Google Books. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ Jeff Stafford. "Freaks". TCM. 
  8. ^ Case Study: Freaks, Students' British Board of Film Classification page
  9. ^ Patterson, John (2007-03-02). "The weirdo element". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-03-05. 
  10. ^ Freaks at Rotten Tomatoes

External links[edit]