Yours truly regrets his absence from these pages of late, but I was called away from my regular practice to attend a symposium in Vienna on whether The Human Centipede was indeed, as its director claims, “100% medically accurate.” Now, I don’t intend to go into great detail on that film here–as much for readers’ sensibilities as for the fact that I may still be suffering from jet lag–but you have to admire an effort that can garner reviews calling it everything from “a hitherto undreamt-of Everest-peak of offensiveness” to “a must-see for coprophiliacs and spanking enthusiasts.” What Centipede didn’t have, however, was theater owners refusing to show it, civic groups protesting it, or entire countries banning it. No, all these things happened nearly eight decades earlier, to what is still considered one of the strangest movies ever produced by a major studio. Our case today is director Tod Browning’s 1932 sideshow shocker Freaks.
After gaining notoriety in silent-era Hollywood thanks to the melodramatic “grotesques” he made at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with star Lon Chaney, Sr. (more about their curious collaboration here), Browning in 1931 was riding high as the director of Universal’s Dracula with Bela Lugosi. That vampire tale’s box office success led MGM executive Irving Thalberg to lure the filmmaker back to the studio with a multi-picture deal and creative freedom that would prove to be Browning’s undoing.
For his first project, Browning went to work on an idea he had proposed years earlier: bringing Tod Robbins’ short story Spurs, about a circus dwarf who falls for a beautiful, normal-sized trapeze artist–unaware she and her strongman lover are after his money–to the screen. The sawdust-filled setting appealed to Browning, who as a teen had literally run away from home to join a travelling carnival and felt a lifelong connection to the big top and its denizens. It also appealed–at first, anyway–to Thalberg, who was probably reminded of such earlier Browning/Chaney successes as The Unholy Three and The Unknown and was looking to gain a foothold on the nascent horror genre Universal was mining with Dracula and, later that year, Frankenstein. After reading an early script treatment from co-scripter Willis Goldbeck, the mogul reportedly put his head down on his desk and told the writer, “Well, it’s horrible.”
Meanwhile, Browning and his crew began a nationwide search for top sideshow and “dime museum” performers to populate the cast of his pet project (no make-up and hidden limbs à la Chaney this time!). The end result was a “who’s who”–or, if you want to be politically incorrect, a “what’s what”–of the midway. Along with the diminutive Harry Earles (co-star of The Unholy Three as well as its 1930 remake) as Hans the midget and his sister Daisy as Hans’ true love (!) Frieda, the roll call included little person Angelo Rossitto (the “Master” half of Master/Blaster in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome); “half-boy” Johnny Eck, born without legs, and armless girl Frances O’Connor; conjoined twins and vaudeville veterans Violet and Daisy Hilton (stars of an earlier case film, Chained for Life); “pinheads” Schlitze and Elvira and Jenny Snow; bearded lady Olga Roderick (who later disowned appearing in the movie); the indescribable Koo-Koo the Bird Girl; and “living torso” Prince Randian, among other “oddities.”
As for the film’s “normal” circus folk, Thalberg had planned to use some of MGM’s rising young stars. But Myrna Loy balked at playing the murderous aerialist Cleopatra after reading the “horrible” script, so the part went to Russian-born Olga Baclanova, with Henry Victor cast instead of Victor McLaglen as her muscular paramour Hercules. Likewise Jean Harlow, whose career was just taking off, declined the part of sympathetic seal trainer Venus, with Leila Hyams taking her place. Wallace Ford, as Phroso the clown, and “comical” stutterer Roscoe Ates rounded out the headliners. Once shooting began, these five actors were about the only cast members allowed to eat their meals inside the studio commissary, which banned most of the freaks after complaints from other film units. There are conflicting reports that writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, employed by MGM at the time, either enjoyed the unusual mealtime company or threw up after seeing them.
Opening with a sequence set in another circus, the movie relates in flashback style what happened to that sideshow’s main exhibit. The storyline stays fairly faithful to Robbins’ offbeat love triangle; Earles is infatuated with “peacock of the air” Baclanova, who hears about her small suitor’s fortune and plots with Victor to marry and slowly poison him (“Midgets,” she says, “are not very strong”). When Earles and his fellow curiosities learn of this, they take their revenge on the scheming pair one dark and stormy night and (SPOILER ALERT!) show them what it means to violate “the code of the freaks,” apparently killing Victor (although his original fate was decidedly different) and turning Baclanova into the mutilated and feathered (!) bird-woman the opening scene’s barker was talking about.”Offend one,” the pitchman says of the freaks,”and you offend them all.”
Throughout this luridly melodramatic plot, Browning offers sympathetic backstage looks at his company’s personal lives, from one of the Hilton Sisters kissing her new fiancè (and the other experiencing her twin’s bliss second-hand), to the birth of the bearded lady’s daughter (“and it’s got a beard!,” Phroso says admiringly), to Prince Randian putting a cigarette in his mouth, striking a match and lighting the smoke, all without benefit of arms and legs. These people are just as normal as anyone around them is the director’s view, and it is those prejudiced humans who would shun, offend and hurt them who are the real monsters. The best example of this is the famous “wedding feast” sequence, when the assembled misfits pass around a wine-filled loving cup and take turns drinking from it before presenting it to “happy” bride Cleopatra, all the while chanting “We accept her, one of us, gooble gobble, gooble gobble,” a cry anyone who’s heard the Ramones song “Pinhead” or seen Robert Altman’s The Player is familiar with. A repulsed Cleopatra throws the cup’s contents in their faces while calling them “filthy…slimy…freaks!”
Cleo’s reaction to her co-workers was, as it turned out, understated compared to those at the movie’s previews, where audience members walked–and sometimes ran–out of the theater, and an attendee later claimed her viewing experience resulted in a miscarriage and threatened to sue the studio. A nervous MGM forced Browning to cut a full half-hour of now-lost footage from its 90-minute running time (including a scene that suggested the vengeful freaks had castrated Hercules) and tack on an upbeat epilogue reuniting Hans and Frieda. When a revised Freaks finally got its general release in February, 1932, it was met with hostile critical responses (a Kansas City writer said “It took a weak mind to produce it and it takes a strong stomach to look at it”) and a very mixed box office performance, while an Atlanta film review board got the picture’s opening there cancelled, and the U.K. had the film’s exhibition banned outright (an edict that lasted for over 30 years).
The debacle effectively killed Browning’s career; He made only four more films before “retiring” in 1939. And MGM would eventually lease out the picture to B-producer Dwain Esper, who re-released it on ’40s exploitation twin bills with the new title Nature’s Mistakes. It wasn’t until a showing at the 1962 Venice Film Festival (about a month before Browning’s death) and the rise of the ’60s counterculture and ’70s midnight movie craze that Freaks was rehabilitated in the eyes of film buffs and scholars.
So, with all that in mind, how does Freaks rank as a movie? Well, once you get past the fact that Browning handled some scenes as if he was still making silent films, that Baclanova’s and the Earles’ accents make it hard to understand some of their lines, and that most of the sideshow performers were clearly not actors when it came to delivering dialogue, it’s a fascinating little thriller that draws you in as you watch these very special people attempt to live their lives as normally as they can…a premise that Browning, ironically, nearly derails with his final scenes of the freaks crawling and making their way through rain and mud to get to their adversaries. The comic moments–particularly Ates’ stammering–don’t work as well now as they might have 75+ years ago (Can someone please explain what Ford meant when a smitten Hyams tells him he’s “a pretty good kid” and he replies “You should have caught me before my operation”?). These flaws, however, don’t take away from one of the most uniquely unsettling cinematic experiences you’ll ever have. As a Detroit reviewer said of its collection of misfits and monstrosities, “It is reasonably certain that nothing like it ever will be attempted again.” Of course, that was well before MTV cast Jersey Shore.