Director Tod Browning’s legendary Freaks premièred 20 February 1932, at 90 minutes. Sadly, it was cut to just 64 minutes for the general release, since many scenes were deemed too shocking for public consumption. The original version is lost.
Freaks is based upon horror and mystery author Tod Robbins’s short story “Spurs,” published February 1923 in Munsey’s Magazine. “Spurs” is set in a travelling French circus, where dwarf Jacques falls in love with bareback rider Jeanne Marie.
Jeanne marries him to get his inheritance. She truly loves her partner Simon, and plans to marry him after she offs Jacques. By the wedding feast, Jeanne gets drunk and insults Jacques, calling him a little ape whom she could carry on her shoulders.
A year later, Jacques is retired and living on an estate with Jeanne. She escapes to Simon’s doorstep and begs him to protect her from Jacques, who’s forcing her to make good on her threat to carry him the width of France on her shoulders.
Jacques then appears on a wolfhound, with a sword, and takes his revenge.
Browning convinced MGM to buy the rights, and began working on a screen adaptation in 1927. In June 1931, wonder boy Irving Thalberg gave permission for him to direct. The final script (by primary writers Willis Goldbeck and Elliott Clawson) bore little resemblance to the source material, outside of the basic premise and the wedding feast.
Prolific character actor Victor McLaglen was considered for the role of strongman Hercules; Myrna Loy was cast as evil trapeze artist Cleopatra; and Jean Harlow was chosen as sympathetic “normal” performer Venus. Ultimately, Thalberg decided not to cast any big stars.
Given when Browning began planning this film, plus his long history of collaboration with Lon Chaney, Sr., it’s a given Lon would’ve been in this film had he lived. It’s so painful to think about all the great early sound horror films Lon should’ve left his mark on!
The film opens with a circus barker introducing the most horrifying monstrosity of all time, formerly a beautiful trapeze artist. A woman screams when she sees this creature, whose reveal is saved for the end of the film.
We then enter flashback mode.
Engaged dwarves Hans and Frieda (real-life siblings Harry and Daisy Earles) watch trapeze artist Cleopatra performing. Hans is quite transfixed, so much so Frieda questions if he still loves her. He insists he does, but he quickly begins getting more and more flirtatious and personal with Cleopatra.
Hans asks Cleopatra if she’s laughing at him, and she says no. Many people don’t realize he’s a man, with the same feelings they have.
Before long, Hans and Cleopatra are having a less and less secret affair, and the entire circus is laughing at them. Frieda is humiliated, and confides in Venus for help and comfort.
Cleopatra’s affair with Hercules also becomes less and less secret, to everyone but Hans. When Frieda confronts Hans, he apologizes for not telling her sooner. She wouldn’t care if Cleopatra made him happy, but he only thinks he’s happy.
Frieda delivers the powerful line, “To me, you’re a man, but to her, you’re only something to laugh at.”
Cleopatra and Hercules plot to murder Hans after Frieda mentions his large inheritance.
Other sideshow performers we meet are:
Conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton
Madame Tetrallini, who takes care of the freaks
Half Boy Johnny Eck (sacral agenesis)
Armless Frances O’Connor
Human Skeleton Peter Robinson
Pinheads (microcephalics) Schlitze (a man in real life), Elvira Snow, and Jenny Lee Snow
Bird Girl Elizabeth Green (a large nose and thin bone structure giving a stork-like appearance)
Half-Woman Half-Man Josephine Joseph
Stuttering clown Rosco (Daisy’s husband)
Kind-hearted clown Phroso (Venus’s love interest)
Bearded lady Olga Roderick (the Human Skeleton’s wife)
Dwarf Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto) and his armless wife (Martha Morris)
Sword swallower Delmo Fritz
The Rollo Brothers, Edward Brophy and Matt McHugh
Living Torso, Prince Randian (tetra-amelia; married and the father of four kids in real life)
Koo-Koo the Bird Girl
By the wedding feast, Cleopatra poisons Hans’s wine. When the freaks famously chant, “Gooba-gobble, gooba-gobble, we accept her, one of us,” Cleopatra snaps. During her tirade, she reveals she’s been having an affair with Hercules.
Hans is humiliated, and realizes he’s been played for a fool. He pretends to apologize to Cleopatra and to take her poisoned medicine, while plotting revenge.
During a night thunderstorm, the freaks carry out payback.
Audiences were horrified, and many reviewers expressed revulsion and outrage. It took a $164,000 loss, and Browning had difficulty finding work afterwards. Freaks was the only MGM film pulled from release before finishing its planned run, and it was banned in the U.K. for 30 years.
Today, it’s a cult classic, and garners much more positive reviews.
In that era, a sideshow was just about the only place these people could find work and protection. Mainstream society wouldn’t accept them, and the alternative was life in an institution.
The freaks in this film are the ones with humanity, kindness, decency, loyalty, and morality. It’s the “normal” people who are the villains, with deformed hearts and souls.