Freaks (1932) is a horror film about sideshow performers, directed and produced by Tod Browning and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with a cast mostly composed of actual carnival performers. The film was based on Tod Robbins' short story Spurs. Director Browning took the exceptional step of casting real people with deformities as the eponymous sideshow "freaks," rather than using costumes and makeup.
Browning had been a member of a traveling circus in his early years, and much of the film was drawn from his personal experiences. In the film, the physically deformed "freaks" are inherently trusting and honorable people, while the real monsters are two of the "normal" members of the circus who conspire to murder one of the performers to obtain his large inheritance.
The central story is of a self-serving trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) who seduces and eventually marries a sideshow midget, Hans (Harry Earles), after learning of his large inheritance. At their wedding reception, the other "freaks" resolve that they will accept Cleopatra in spite of her being a "normal" outsider, and hold an initiation ceremony, wherein they pass a massive goblet of wine around the table while chanting, "We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble gobble, gooble gobble! One of us! One of us!" The ceremony frightens the drunken Cleopatra, who accidentally reveals that she has been having an affair with Hercules (Henry Victor), the strong man; she mocks the freaks, tosses the wine in their faces and drives them away. Despite being humiliated, Hans remains with Cleopatra.
Shortly thereafter, Hans is taken ill (presumably from having too much to drink at the wedding feast, but actually from poison that Cleopatra slipped him) and Cleopatra begins slipping poison into Hans' medicine to kill him so that she can inherit his money and run away with Hercules. One of the circus performers overhears Cleopatra talking to Hercules about the murder plot, and tells the other freaks and Hans; in the film's climax, the freaks attack Cleopatra and Hercules with guns, knives, and various edged weapons, hideously mutilating them. Though Hercules is never seen again, the original ending of the film had the freaks castrating him - the audience sees him later singing in falsetto. The film concludes with a revelation of Cleopatra's fate: her tongue cut out, one eye gouged and legs hacked off, she has been reduced to performing in a sideshow as the squawking "human chicken".
Spliced throughout the main narrative are a variety of "slice of life" segments detailing the lives of the sideshow performers.
* The bearded woman, who loves the human skeleton, gives birth to their daughter.
* Violet, a conjoined twin whose sister Daisy is married to one of the circus clowns, herself becomes engaged to the owner of the circus. (Once, Daisy appears to react with romantic arousal when Violet is kissed by her suitor, implying that each sister can experience the other's physical sensations.)
* The Human Torso, played by Prince Randian, in the middle of a conversation, takes his own cigarette and lights it, using only his tongue. (In the original scene, he also rolls the cigarette, but the sequence does not appear in any commercial release.)
MGM had purchased the rights to Robbins' short story Spurs in the 1920s at Browning's urging. In June 1932, MGM production supervisor Irving Thalberg offered Browning the opportunity to direct Arsene Lupin with John Barrymore. Browning declined, preferring to develop Freaks, a project he had started as early as 1927. 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 midget and average sized person and the wedding feast. 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.
Freaks began filming in October 1931 and was completed in December. Following disastrous test screenings in January 1932 (one woman threatened to sue MGM, claiming the film had caused her to suffer a miscarriage), the studio cut the picture down from its original 90 minute running time to just over an hour. Much of the sequence of the freaks attacking Cleopatra as she lay under a tree was removed, as well as a gruesome sequence showing Hercules being castrated, a number of comedy sequences, and most of the film's original epilogue. A new prologue featuring a carnival barker was added, as was the new epilogue featuring the reconciliation of the tiny lovers. This shortened version -- now only 64 minutes long -- had its premiere at the Fox Criterion in Los Angeles on February 10, 1932.
Reaction to the film was so intense that the studio was forced to cut it from a length of approximately ninety minutes to just over an hour. Today, the parts that were removed from it are considered lost. Browning, famed at the time for his collaborations with Lon Chaney and for directing Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931) had trouble finding work afterward, and this in effect brought his career to an early close. Because its deformed cast was shocking to moviegoers of the time, the film was banned in the United Kingdom for 30 years. Beginning in the early 1960s, Freaks was rediscovered as a counterculture cult film; throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the film was regularly shown at midnight movie screenings at several movie theaters in the United States. In 1994, Freaks was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". It was ranked 15th on Bravo TV's list of the 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
Among the characters featured as "freaks" were Peter Robinson ("the living skeleton"); Olga Roderick ("the bearded lady"); Frances O'Connor and Martha Morris ("armless wonders"); and the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Among the microcephalics who appear in the film (and are referred to as "pinheads") were Zip and Pip (Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow) and Schlitzie, a male named Simon Metz who wore a dress mainly due to incontinence. Also featured were the intersexual 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 mis-credited as "Rardion"); Elizabeth Green the Stork Woman; and Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, who suffered from Virchow-Seckel syndrome or bird-headed dwarfism, and is most remembered for the scene where she dances on the table).
Wallace Ford - Phroso
Leila Hyams - Venus
Olga Baclanova - Cleopatra
Roscoe Ates - Roscoe
Henry Victor - Hercules
Kurt Fritz Schneider - Hans (as Harry Earles)
Hilda Emma Schneider - Frieda (as Daisy Earles)
Rose Dione - Madame Tetrallini
Daisy Hilton - Siamese Twin
Violet Hilton - Siamese Twin
Simon Metz - Pinhead (as Schlitzie)
Josephine Joseph - Half-Woman, Half-Man
Johnny Eckhardt - Half-Boy (as Johnny Eck)
Frances O'Connor - Armless Girl
Peter Robinson - Human Skeleton
Jane Barnell - Bearded Lady (as Olga Roderick)
Minnie Woolsey - Bird Girl (as Koo Koo)
Prince Randian - Human Torso
Martha Morris - Armless Girl
Elvira Snow - Pinhead (as Zip)
Jenny Lee Snow - Pinhead (as Pip)
Elizabeth Green - Stork Woman
Angelo Rossitto - Angeleno
Edward Brophy - Rollo Brother
Matt McHugh - Rollo Brother
Ernie Adams - Sideshow Patron
Jerry Austin - Dwarf
Louise Beavers - Maid
Sidney Bracey - Hans' Butler
Albert Conti - Landowner
Elly Annie Schneider - Dwarf (as Tiny Doll)
Edith - Turtle Girl
Delmo Fritz - Sword Swallower
Murray Kinnell - Freakshow Barker
Michael Visaroff - Jean, The Caretaker