Somehow MGM., a respectable Hollywood Studio, were responsible for some bizarre and sometimes controversial offerings in the horror movie genre.
The Missing Link explores Tod Browning's Freaks, a movie that was banned for many years until it found renewed appreciation during the Sixties.
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FREAKS (1932) Fairground Barker

Tod Browning and the special cast of Freaks (1932)(MGM.) 90mins. BW. US.
Credits: Dir: Tod Browning; Prod: Tod Browning & Irving J. Thalberg; Sc: Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Al Boasberg, Edgar Allan Woolf & John L. Balderston (uncredited); Ph: Merritt B. Gerstad; Ed: Basil Wrangell; Art: Cedric Gibbons; Dialogue: Al Boasberg.
From the story "Spurs" by Tod Robbins.
Cast: Wallace Ford (Phroso), Lelia Hyams (Venus), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Roscoe Ates (Roscoe), Henry Victor (Hercules), Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), Rose Dione (Madame Tetrallini), Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton (Siamese Twins), Edward Brophy, Matt MacHugh (The Rollo Bros.), Schlitze (herself), Johnny Eckhardt (half-boy), Frances O'Conner (Armless Girl), Peter Robinson (Human Skeleton), Olga Roderick (Bearded Lady), Koo Koo (herself), Prince Randian (Living Torso), Martha Morris (Armless Girl), Zip and Pip (Pinheads), Josephine and Joseph (half-woman, half-man), Angelo Rossitto (Angeleno), Elizabeth Green (Bird-girl), Michael Visaroff (Gamekeeper).

Freaks (1932)Through his intermediate Irving Thalberg, Tod Browning had convinced the head of Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios Louis B. Mayer, to take FREAKS as their entry to the flourishing horror genre. Although the studio had stayed away from the genre, there was no denying the public's hunger for horror films. The film was sped into production with the belief that Browning was the man to bring about a superior horror product.

As early as 1929 MGM. had announced that Tod Browning's next production was to be a "sideshow" picture after the studio had acquired the rights to Clarence A. "Tod" Robbins' short story "Spurs" in 1923 for $8000. The story had first appeared in a copy of "Munsey's Magazine" in 1917 and told of Jacques Corbe, a French circus midget who inherits a large estate and proposes marriage to the beautiful Jeanne Marie, a bareback rider. She actually loves her performing partner Simon Lafleur, but accepts the midget's proposal for the money. At the wedding feast Jeanne puts her husband on her shoulders and announces that he is small enough to carry from one end of France to the other. This humiliation prompts Jacques to force his wife to carry out her boast as punishment.

Clarence Robbins, who also penned the novel for Browning's earlier success The Unholy Three, emigrated to the French Riviera from New York and refused to leave during the Nazi occupation of France. Subsequently he spent the war inOlga Baclanova and Harry Earles in Freaks (1932) a concentration camp and died in 1949.

Browning contacted agents to scour the sideshows and circuses for his unique cast of characters (see Freaks of Nature article) while the central role was initially announced to be portrayed by Myrna Loy who was anxious to shake off her femme fatale image, but she hastily rejected the part after reading the script. The role of Cleopatra eventually fell to Olga Baclanova who Browning approached personally. Born in Russia during 1899, Olga entered the Moscow Art Theatre at 16 and arrived in America during 1926 with a stage production of "Carmen". In 1927 she was noticed by Mauritz Stiller who cast her in STREET OF SIN. She then appeared in Sternberg's THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK and Paul Leni's The Man who Laughs the following year, perfecting her performances of man-eating vamps.
In an interview Olga recalled her work on FREAKS,
"I liked the script and was taken to meet the rest of the cast, and asked not to faint. After being introduced to the collection of oddities,...I could not look. I just wanted to cry".
Gradually she became desensitised to their conditions and grew to enjoy their company.
Victor Mclagen was the first choice for the role of the strongman, but eventually Henry Victor was cast.
Jean Harlow was approached for the role of Venus, but the part fell to pretty Lelia Hyams. Born in 1905, Hyams was the only cast member to have the distinction of appearing in previous genre productions including The Wizard (1927), The Thirteenth Chair (1929), The Phantom of Paris (1931) with John Gilbert, and Island of Lost Souls (1932). She died in December of 1977.

Freaks (1932)Fairground Barker The fairground barker proclaims,
"We told you we had living, breathing monstrosities. You laughed at them, yet but for the accident of birth, you might be even as they are! They did not ask to be brought into the world, but into the world they came. Their code is law unto themselves. Offend one and you offend them all!"
Escorting his audience towards the edge of an open pit where "something" squats at the bottom, he continues,
"She was once a beautiful woman. She was known as the Peacock of the Air."
The film dissolves to Cleopatra, (Olga Baclanova), a beautiful trapeze artist performing her act at the circus. Watching longingly from below is Hans, (Harry Earles), the midget who has to condescend to replacing her dropped cape on her shoulders when her act is over. When it becomes known that Hans has inherited a great deal of money, Cleopatra and her lover Hercules the Strongman, (Henry Victor), conspire to take the money for themselves. Cleopatra agrees to Hans' marriage proposal and then proceeds to poison him to death.
At their wedding feast (filmed silent with a soundtrack added later), the freaks assemble to congratulate the couple, but when noone is looking Cleopatra slips a phial of poison into Hans' champagne. Meanwhile the freaks welcome Cleopatra as One of Us "One of us" as they pour a magnum of champagne into a "loving cup" which is passed amongst the gathering. The original script called for the freaks to drool into the chalice as it was passed along. The inebriated Cleopatra is driven to disgust and throws the champagne over the freaks proclaiming "You dirty, slimy freaks!". Baclanova Hercules chases the freaks away and then further humiliates Hans by carrying him on her shoulders like a doll.
Wallace Ford and Lelia Hyams in Freaks (1932)The next day Hans is getting weaker from his "medicine", but that night the freaks amass for an attack. During a thunderstorm and to the eerie accompianment of an ocarina, the freaks brandish their knives as they close in for the kill.
The scene fades back to the Carnival Barker who continues,
"How she got that way will never be known. Believe it or not, there she is...!"
The camera pans down to reveal the Cleopatra in the pit, looking like an oversized fowl, butchered beyond recognition.

Interestingly, the chicken-suit used for Baclanova's final scene was originally made  for Browning's 1928 Lon Chaney vehicle West of Zanzibar. The sequence in which it was used by Chaney was cut from the film, but a few stills exist to prove the fact.

Production for FREAKS began during October of 1931 on a schedule of 32 days and a budget of $290,469. Some trouble errupted when many of the patrons of the studio canteen were sickened by the presence of some of the more deformed grotesques. Meanwhile producer Harry Rapf organised a delegation to confront Thalberg and Mayer to stop production, but director Jack Conway, then working on TARZAN THE APE MAN at the same studio, vetoed the formal protest trusting Thalberg's sixth sense regarding what the public wanted. As a compromise only Harry Earles, his sister Daisy and the Hilton sisters were allowed in the studio canteen.
Shooting was completed in mid-December, $10,000 over the allocated budget bringing the total toPrince Randian and Johnny Eck part of the special cast of Freaks (1932) $310,607. The initial preview was a complete disaster, Louis B. Mayer's jaw dropped and he hastily ordered Browning and Thalberg to revise the footage and take out as many of the repulsive elements as possible. Browning shot an extra four days of retakes while Thalberg concentrated on the ruthless editing that was at hand. Ultimately the film was submitted twice to the New York State censors and was only granted a license after a total of 30 minutes was cut. Shots of the barker's prologue speech were trimmed while the scene of the tree that falls on Cleopatra's legs in the forest before the feaks move in was removed. Also gone from the original was a scene of Hercules singing soprano after the freaks had assumably castrated him. A "happy-ending" was added showing Hans and Frieda re-united.

The re-worked version was completed on 29th January and was released in Los Angeles during February 1932. Despite the lack of a coherent script and with acting abilities below par, Browning manages to transfer the compassion that he felt for the freaks to the screen, depicting them as very human beings trapped in their inhuman bodies. However this would remain as controversial as the day of its release. Manufactured badges displaying some of the cast were given out in selected theatres, but the public stayed away in droves not prepared to endure "real horrors". The critics were equally unenthusiastic. The New Yorker called FREAKS "a little gem, but at the same time, a perverse one. There isn't anything wholesome about it...its morbidity lies beyond the boundaries of anything like dear, simple sex."
Meanwhile Time magazine saw fit to spoil the climax of the film by running a picture showing Baclanova in her grotesque chicken-like costume.
The Motion Picture Herald also prompted Hollywood to "stem this rising tide of goose-flesh melodrama."
Although Canada and Europe saw the film, Britain banned it entirely.

The ramifications of the film's failure even reached Cecil B. DeMille who cut a sequence from THE SIGN OF THE CROSS depicting dwarfs battling Amazons for the enjoyment of the Roman crowd. With the disapproval of the public and the continuing demands of the Hays office for Hollywood to clean up their act, it seemed that the horror cycle was to end as quickly as it had begun.
In a vain attempt to gain a more appreciative audience MGM added a poorly written scroll as a prologue to FREAKS declaring that history itself was abound with deformed misfits including Goliath, Frankenstein, Tom Thumb and Kaiser Wilhelm, however the studio failed to notice that most of those listed were fictitious. This prologue presently begins all prints available.

Net loss for the film was recorded as $16,000 and Louis B. Mayer seemed to punish Tod Browning by assigning him to routine films until he could fire him. Interestingly, Tod Browning's next film was FAST WORKERS (1933), a drama starring John Gilbert as a construction worker, another whose career was threatened by the movie mogul after an altercation errupted when Mayer commented disparagingly about Greta Garbo. By all accounts Gilbert smacked Mayer on the jaw.

Olga Baclanova in the duck suit from Freaks (1932)Louis B. Mayer considered FREAKS to be an embarrassment and he was prepared to bury it in MGM's vaults when a lucrative offer turned up from exploitation producer Dwain Esper known for such roadshow attractions as Maniac (1934), HOW TO DRESS IN FRONT OF YOUR HUSBAND (1937), and the immortal MARIHUANA: WEED WITH ROOTS IN HELL (1937). Esper offered to lease the film for 25 years for $5000 plus royalties. Mayer agreed and handed over the official release, Browning's original cut and the revision shots. Esper then combined the film and reportedly added another reel of oddities footage from different sources. He took the film on the road as an "adults only" attraction under various exploitive titles that included NATURE'S MISTAKES, FORBIDDEN LOVE and THE MONSTER SHOW. In 1947 Esper released a legitamate reissue to a succession of mainstream cinemas with little impact. Ten years later the rights reverted back to MGM. where the film lay dormant for five years before  being screened to a receptive audience at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. The Sixties saw the film play successfully throughout Europe and finally in Britain after a forty year ban. FREAKS became a cult  favourite in France and was revived in art-houses and colleges the length and breadth of America. During the late Eighties the film was released on the home video market and only recently appeared on video in the UK.
The founder of the Church Of Satan in San Francisco, Anton LaVey, purchased the rights to FREAKS and re-released it in the familiar 64mins form, cut from the never released 90mins version.

Of the cast only the half-boy Johnny Eck and Angelo Rossitto maintained any affection for the film and its director. The public's reaction to the film spelt the virtual end of Browning's career even though most of his previous films had also consisted of a collusion of the normal and the abnormal. Yet Freaks emphasised the role-reversal, both physically and mentally, to such an extent that it failed to gain massive acceptance until thirty years later.

In spite of this FREAKS remains unique as a sub-genre of one.

For details on the lives of Browning's special cast of FREAKS read our article
Freaks of Nature
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