Freaks (1932 film)
Freaks is a 1932 American pre-Code horror film produced and directed by Tod Browning, and starring Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova and Roscoe Ates. It follows a trapeze artist who joins a group of carnival sideshow performers with a plan to seduce and murder a dwarf in the troupe to gain his inheritance, but her plot proves to have dangerous consequences. The film is based on elements from the short story "Spurs" by Tod Robbins.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Tod Browning|
|Produced by||Tod Browning|
Harry Rapf (uncredited)
Irving Thalberg (uncredited)
|Screenplay by||Willis Goldbeck|
by Tod Robbins
|Cinematography||Merritt B. Gerstad|
|Edited by||Basil Wrangell|
Filmed in Los Angeles in the fall of 1931, Freaks was given test screenings in January 1932 which received harsh reaction from audiences, who found the film too grotesque. In response to this, the 90-minute feature was significantly cut, and additional alternate footage was incorporated to help increase the running time. The final abridged cut of the film, released in February 1932, ran only 64 minutes. The original version no longer exists.
Despite the cuts made to the film, Freaks still garnered notice due to the fact that its eponymous characters were portrayed by people who worked as sideshow performers and had real disabilities. Additional cast members include dwarf siblings Harry and Daisy Earles, Johnny Eck who had sacral agenenis, the conjoined twin sisters Daisy and Violet Hilton, and Schlitzie. Because of its controversial content, the film was banned in the United Kingdom for over 30 years.
Though it received critical backlash and was a box-office failure, Freaks was subject to public and critical reappraisal in the 1960s, and was screened at the 1962 Venice Film Festival. It was also shown frequently throughout the United States as a midnight movie. It has been described as standing alone in a subgenre of one. In 1994, Freaks was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry, which preserves films that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
A conniving trapeze artist named Cleopatra seduces a carnival sideshow dwarf named Hans after learning of his large inheritance. Cleopatra conspires with circus strongman Hercules to kill Hans and inherit his wealth. Meanwhile, other romances flourish among the sideshow performers: the Bearded Lady, who is in love with the Human Skeleton, gives birth to their daughter. The news is spread among the friends by the Stork Woman. Additionally, Violet, a conjoined twin whose sister Daisy is married to Roscoe, the stuttering circus clown, becomes engaged to the circus's owner.
Hans, enamored of Cleopatra, ultimately marries her. At their wedding, Cleopatra begins poisoning Hans' wine but drunkenly kisses Hercules in front of Hans, revealing her affair. Oblivious, 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 loving cup around the table while chanting, "We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us. Gooba-gobble, gooba-gobble." Cleopatra's mean-spirited amusement at this ceremony turns to fear and anger after Hercules jokes that the rest of the entertainers plan to turn her into one of them. She mocks them, tosses the wine in their faces and drives them away before berating Hans and drunkenly parading him around on her shoulders like a child. The humiliated Hans realizes that he has been played for a fool and rejects Cleopatra's attempts to apologize, but then he falls ill from the poison.
While bedridden, Hans pretends to apologize to Cleopatra and also pretends to take the poisoned medicine that she is giving him, but he secretly plots with the other entertainers to strike back at Cleopatra and Hercules. In the film's climax, Hans confronts Cleopatra with three of the entertainers as backup thugs. However, Hans' circus wagon is overturned in a storm, giving Cleopatra the chance to escape into the forest, closely pursued by them. At the same time Hercules goes to kill seal trainer Venus for knowing about the plot. Venus's boyfriend, Phroso, attempts to stop Hercules but is nearly killed before the rest of them intervene and injure Hercules, saving Phroso. They all pursue an injured Hercules.
Some time later, Cleopatra has been made into a grotesque, squawking "human chicken" on display for carnival patrons; her tongue has been removed, one eye has been gouged out, the flesh of her hands has been melted and deformed to look like duck feet, her legs have been cut off, and what is left of her torso has been permanently tarred and feathered. Meanwhile, Hans, now living in a mansion off his inheritance, is visited by several of his sideshow peers, and reunited with Frieda.
- Wallace Ford as Phroso
- Leila Hyams as Venus
- Olga Baclanova as Cleopatra
- Rosco Ates as Roscoe
- Henry Victor as Hercules
- Harry Earles as Hans
- Daisy Earles as Frieda
- Rose Dione as Madame Tetrallini
- Daisy and Violet Hilton as the Siamese twins
- 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
- Angelo Rossitto as Angeleno
- Edward Brophy and Matt McHugh as the Rollo Brothers
Film critic Melvin Matthews has interpreted Freaks within the context of the Great Depression, writing that it "is essentially a story of the little people (average Americans) versus the big people (the rich and businessmen). The film makes it clear that the big people, personified by Cleopatra and Hercules, scorn the Freaks. Such a disdainful attitude was reflected in the real-life social outlook of some business tycoons during the Depression." Scholars John White and Sabine Haenni similarly identify Freaks as an example of an "outsider film."
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had purchased the rights to Robbins' short story "Spurs" in the 1920s at Browning's urging for a reported $8,000. A film adaptation of the story was Browning's dream project, and the studio agreed to hire him to direct based on his past success at Universal Pictures with Dracula (1931) and for his collaborations with Lon Chaney.
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; Browning had worked with a traveling carnival prior to becoming a filmmaker. 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 dwarf and an average-sized woman and their wedding feast. Both Thalberg and Harry Rapf served as uncredited co-producers on the film.
Victor McLaglen was considered for the role of Hercules, while 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. Instead, Russian actress Olga Baclanova was cast as Cleopatra, based on her success in a Los Angeles-produced stage production of The Silent Witness. Harry Earles, a dwarf who had appeared in The Ugly Three, was cast as Hans, the carnival sideshow performer who Cleopatra attempts to murder for his estate. Earles' real-life sister, Daisy, portrayed his dwarf love interest, Frieda.
Among the supporting 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 microcephalic characters who appear in the film (and are referred to as "pinheads" throughout) were Zip and Pip (Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow) and Schlitzie, a male named Simon Metz who wore a dress, mainly due to suffering from incontinence, it has been claimed, though this is disputed.
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 miscredited 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 began principal photography on November 9, 1931, with a 24-day shooting schedule. At the time of the production's beginning, the film had a budget of approximately $209,000, though it would eventually expand to over $300,000. Baclanova recalled her time first meeting her co-stars on the set:
Tod Browning, I loved him. He say, "I want to make a picture with you, Olga Baclanova... Now I show you with whom you are going to play. But don't faint." I say, "Why should I faint?" So he takes me and shows me all the freaks there. First I meet the midget and he adores me because we speak German and he's from Germany. Then he shows me the girl that's like an orangutan; then a man who has a head but no legs, no nothing, just a head and a body like an egg. Then he shows me a boy who walks on his hands because he was born without feet. He shows me little by little and I could not look. I wanted to cry when I saw them. They have such nice faces, but it is so terrible... Now, after we start the picture, I like them all so much.
During the shoot, the film had already begun to draw disgusted reactions, resulting in MGM segregating the film's cast and crew to a separate cafeteria so that "people could get to eat in the commissary without throwing up." Filming was completed on December 16, 1931, and Browning began retakes on December 23.
In January 1932, MGM held test screenings of the film which proved disastrous: Art director Merrill Pye recalled that "Halfway through the preview, a lot of people got up and ran out. They didn't walk out. They ran out." One woman who attended the screening threatened to sue MGM, claiming the film had caused her to suffer a miscarriage. Due to the extremely unfavorable response, the studio cut the picture down from its original 90-minute running time to just over an hour. Much of the sequence of the circus entertainers attacking Cleopatra as she lies under a tree was removed, as well as a sequence showing Hercules being castrated, a number of comedy sequences, and most of the film's original epilogue, which included Hercules singing in a falsetto (a reference to his castration). These excised sequences are considered lost. In order to pad the running time after these cuts, a new prologue featuring a carnival barker was added, as was the alternate epilogue featuring the reconciliation of the dwarf lovers.
The truncated version—now only 64 minutes long—had its premiere at the Fox Criterion in Los Angeles on February 12, 1932. It subsequently opened in New York City that summer, premiering on July 8, 1932. Regionally, the film attracted controversy upon its theatrical release, and was pulled from screenings in Atlanta. In the United Kingdom, the film was banned by the British censors, and remained as so for over thirty years before being passed with an X rating in August 1963.
Freaks was a box-office bomb, recording a total loss of $164,000. It grossed $289,000 in the United States, and $52,000 internationally. Though not a financial success, the film had greater earnings in smaller cities such as Cincinnati, Boston, and Saint Paul than it did in larger metropolitan cities such as Los Angeles or Chicago.
Despite the extensive cuts, the film was still negatively received by audiences, and remained an object of extreme controversy. MGM attempted to address criticisms of exploitation by promoting the film as one compassionate toward its subjects, with tagline such as "What about abnormal people? They have their lives, too!" At the time of its release, the film was regarded by numerous critics as marking the end of Browning's career. Freaks became the only MGM film ever to be pulled from release before completing its domestic engagements, and it was pulled from distribution after its New York engagements concluded in the summer of 1932. Disillusioned by the backlash the film received, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer sold the distribution rights to Dwain Esper for a 25-year period for $50,000.
A number of reviews were not only highly critical of the film, but expressed outrage and revulsion. Harrison's Reports wrote that "Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital." In The Kansas City Star, John C. Moffitt wrote, "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 Hollywood Reporter called the film an "outrageous onslaught upon the feelings, the senses, the brains and the stomachs of an audience." Variety also published an unfavorable review, writing that the film was "sumptuously produced, admirably directed, and no cost was spared, but Metro heads failed to realize that even with a different sort of offering the story is still important. Here the story is not sufficiently strong to get and hold the interest, partly because interest cannot easily be gained for too fantastic a romance." The review went on to state that the story "does not thrill and at the same time does not please, since it is impossible for the normal man or woman to sympathize with the aspiring midget. And only in such a case will the story appeal."
While a significant number of reviews were unfavorable, the film was well-received by some: The New York Times called it "excellent at times and horrible, in the strict meaning of the word, at others" as well as "a picture not to be easily forgotten." The New York Herald Tribune wrote that it was "obviously an unhealthy and generally disagreeable work," but that "in some strange way, the picture is not only exciting, but even occasionally touching." Columnist Louella Parsons wrote an enthusiastic report on the film, noting that "for pure sensationalism, Freaks tops any pictures yet produced... In Freaks there are monstrosities such as never before have been known. If you are normal go and see them for yourself, if not, well, use your own judgment."
John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote a positive review, calling it "a little gem" that "stands in a class by itself, and probably won't be forgotten in a hurry by those who see it." He found its "perfectly plausible story" a key to the effectiveness of its horror, writing that "It's a chilling notion to imagine these weird beings, with their own lives and vanities and passions, all allied in a bitter enmity against us." Addressing the controversial subject matter, Mosher stated: "if the poor things themselves can be displayed in the basement of Madison Square Garden, pictures of them might as well be shown in the Rialto. They may hereafter even be regarded in the flesh with a new dread bordering on respect."
- Modern assessment
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Freaks holds an approval rating of 94%, based on 53 reviews, and an average rating of 8.48/10. Its consensus reads, " "Time has been kind to this horror legend: Freaks manages to frighten, shock, and even touch viewers in ways that contemporary viewers missed."
Beginning in the early 1960s, Freaks was rediscovered as a counterculture cult film. It was screened at the 1962 Venice Film Festival, and shortly after was shown for the first time in the United Kingdom. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the film was regularly shown at midnight movie screenings in the United States. It also enjoyed a critical reappraisal in France during this period.
In 1994, Freaks was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, which preserves "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" films. Film scholars John White and Sabine Haenni cite Freaks as one of the 50 most important American films ever made.
The freaks' climactic revenge was ranked 15th on Bravo TV's list of the 100 Scariest Movie Moments. It is listed in the film reference book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, which says "No mere plot summary can do justice to this alarming yet profound movie, which truly must be seen to be believed. It is a supreme oddity (freak?) of world cinema considered by many to be the most remarkable film in the career of a director whose credits include the original version of Dracula (1931)."
- Sources regarding the budget of Freaks vary: According to film scholar Gregory William Mank, the final budget, down to cents, was $310,607.37. However, Louis B. Mayer biographer Scott Eyer notes a $316,000 budget for the film. A report from Variety in October 1947 lists a higher budget, claiming $350,000.
- "Circus Freaks Invade Field of Film Work". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California. February 7, 1932. p. 49 – via Newspapers.com.
- "FREAKS (12)". British Board of Film Classification. August 13, 2001. Retrieved July 19, 2013.
- Mank 2005, p. 127.
- Eyman 2005, p. 152.
- "Metro's 'Freaks' Going Out As Exploitation Special In First Outside Sale". Variety. October 1947. p. 5.
- Smith, Mark Chalon (October 30, 1995). "Grotesquerie Is Merely a Sideshow in 'Freaks'". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California. Archived from the original on March 25, 2017.
- Matthews 2009, p. 58.
- White & Haenni 2009, p. 37.
- Mank 2005, p. 124.
- Mank 2005, p. 123.
- Smith 2012, p. 86.
- White & Haenni 2009, p. 36.
- Mank 2005, pp. 123–125.
- ""Freaks" Now At Liberty Is Most Unusual Motion Picture Ever Produced For Screen". The Sedalia Democrat. Sedalia, Missouri. February 21, 1932. p. 12 – via Newspapers.com.
- Matthews 2009, p. 54.
- Bombaci 2006, p. 101.
- Mank 2005, p. 118.
- Mank 2005, p. 125.
- Smith 2012, p. 93.
- Matthews 2009, p. 53.
- Faraci, Devn (October 3, 2014). "The Unseen Freaks". Birth.Movies.Death. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Archived from the original on December 7, 2015.
- Matthews 2009, pp. 53–55.
- "Odd Story Booked at Criterion". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California. February 5, 1932. p. 6 – via Newspapers.com.
- "Freaks". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Los Angeles, California: American Film Institute. Archived from the original on November 9, 2019.
- Smith 2012, p. 94.
- Matthews 2009, p. 59.
- Matthews 1932, p. 57.
- Smith 2012, pp. 94–96.
- Matthews 2009, p. 57.
- Smith 2012, pp. 94–95.
- Vieira 2003, p. 49.
- Matthews 2009, pp. 57–58.
- Matthews 2009, pp. 56–58.
- Smith 2012, p. 209.
- Miller, Frank. "The Critic's Corner - Freaks". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved November 22, 2014.
- "Film Reviews". Variety: 16. July 12, 1932.
- "Freaks". The New York Times. New York City, New York. July 9, 1932. Archived from the original on October 7, 2014. Retrieved June 21, 2015.
- Matthews 2009, p. 56.
- Mosher, John C. (July 16, 1932). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corporation: 45–46.
- "Freaks (1932)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved July 13, 2019.
- Gonzalez, Ed (August 2, 2004). "DVD Review: Freaks". Slant Magazine. Archived from the original on March 30, 2019.
- Smith 2012, p. 113.
- "Complete National Film Registry Listing - National Film Preservation Board". The Library of Congress. Retrieved January 15, 2017.
- "Mission - National Film Preservation Board". Library of Congress. Retrieved January 15, 2017.
- White & Haenni 2009, pp. 36–37.
- "100 Scariest Movie Moments (Series) - TV Tropes". tvtropes.org. Retrieved January 15, 2017.
- Scheider 2013.
- Bombaci, Nancy (2006). Freaks in Late Modernist American Culture: Nathanael West, Djuna Barnes, Tod Browning, and Carson McCullers. New York: Peter Lang. ISBN 978-0-820-47832-6.
- Eyman, Scott (2005). Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-743-20481-1.
- Mank, Gregory William (2005). Women in Horror Films, 1940s. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-2335-4.
- Matthews, Melvin E, Jr. (2009). Fear Itself: Horror on Screen and in Reality During the Depression and World War II. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-786-44313-0.
- Scheider, Steven Jay (2013). 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Murdoch Books Pty Limited. p. 99. ISBN 978-0-7641-6613-6.
- Smith, Angela (2012). Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema. New York City, New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-52785-9.
- Vieira, Mark A. (2003). Hollywood Horror: From Gothic to Cosmic. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-4535-5.
- White, John; Haenni, Sabine, eds. (2009). Fifty Key American Films. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-1-135-97932-4.
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- Freaks at the American Film Institute Catalog
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- Freaks on IMDb
- Freaks at Rotten Tomatoes
- Freaks at the TCM Movie Database
- "Beyond 'Freaks': Kookoo the Bird Girl" - Interview with Sarah Houbolt, Paralympian and circus performer