(MGM.) 90mins. BW. US.
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 in 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.
The fairground barker proclaims,
Interestingly, the chicken-suit used for Baclanova's final scene was originally made for Browning's 1928 Lon Chaney vehicle West of Zanzibar.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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
DVD available click here