In 1930 MGM Studios announced that Tod Browning, the man behind the blockbuster Universal horror film Dracula, would be directing a sideshow picture loosely based on the Tod Robbins short story ‘Spurs’. The film was intended to be MGM’s big launch into the horror genre. Few realized the controversy that Freaks would soon stir up.
Browning was born Charles Albert Browning, Jr. in Kansas on July 12, 1880. He was fascinated by the circus and carnival life, and at the age of 16 he ran away from home to join the circus.
Changing his name to ‘Tod’, Browning toured with several sideshows and carnivals. He was a clown for the Ringling Bros. Circus but was primarily a talker, and performed the bally for the Wild Man of Borneo. In almost a precursor to his future Dracula fame he also performed a live burial act and was billed as “The Living Corpse”.
To say that the subject matter of the film Freaks and director Browning were compatible is a gross understatement.
The basic plot of Freaks was conventional melodrama. A husband discovers that his wife is trying to kill him so she can steal his money and run off with her lover. However to this simple formula the unusual backdrop of a circus sideshow was added, the husband was a midget, the wife a Russian acrobat and lover a cruel circus strongman named Hercules.
Did I mention the cast of human marvels, self-identified circus freaks and human oddities? Quite literally, almost every major sideshow star of the 1930’s had a part in the filming of Freaks. The cast included Harry Earles and Daisy Earles, sibling midgets who played lovers. Daisy and Violet Hilton, the famous conjoined twins, were also featured in a romantic sub plot and Schlitze, Zip and Pip – the adorable pinheads – charmed their way through many scenes. Johnny Eck ‘The Half-Boy’ and Frances O’Conner the ‘Living Venus De Milo’ both showcased their limbless prowess as did another armless wonder, Martha Morris, and the completely limbless Prince Randian. The cast was rounded out by dwarf Angelo
Rossitto, the ‘Living Skeleton ‘Peter Robinson, bearded Olga Roderick, the bizarre bird women Koo Koo and Elizabeth Green and Josephine-Joseph the ‘Half-woman, Half-man’. Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the unique casting was the fact that these sideshow marvels were not hired as mere background. Each and every one of them were given screen time to showcase their unique skills and characteristics.
When the cast began to appear at MGM, opposition to the production grew to alarming proportions. Louis B. Mayer, executive president, who had originally request a film ‘more horrific than Dracula’, became firmly against allowing the project to continue and many of his executives tried to organize a petition to halt the film. Eventually, their arguments focused on the commissary, where regular staff and stars of MGM found it impossible to dine with the cast of Freaks. Within a few days all cast members were banned from the commissary, with the exception of the Hilton sisters and Harry and Daisy Earles.
The film was shot in 36 days on a modest budget of 300,000. The initial screening was a total disaster. The executives were shocked and nauseated by what they saw and Browning was ordered to redo parts of the film. Most notably the ending was changed. Originally, the film concluded with the lecherous Heracles singing soprano after the sideshow marvels presumably castrate him in the spirit of retribution. That ending is now considered lost.
Even with the changes, the film received so much bad press and created such ill will that MGM was forced to withdraw it from circulation. MGM suffered a loss on the film of more than $164,000.
MGM considered the film to be a total embarrassment and were prepared lock it way in their vaults until a lucrative offer appeared from exploitation producer Dwain Esper. Esper offered to lease the film for 25 years for $5000 plus royalties and MGM agreed. Esper got a hold of the official release, the original cut and unused footage. He then re-cut the film, added oddity footage from different sources and took the film on the road as an adult’s only attraction under the title The Monster Show. In 1947 Esper released a legitimate reissue to mainstream cinemas, but the film failed to find its audience for a second time. When the film reverted back to MGM ten years later, the film remained in the vaults for a number of years before being screened as a pet project to a receptive audience at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival.
The 60’s saw the film become successful throughout Europe and in Britain. Interestingly, Britain had banned the film some forty years earlier. The film became a cult classic in France and was revived by colleges and art-house cinemas.
Finally, in what is likely the most interesting development, in the 1980’s the founder of the Church Of Satan in San Francisco, and former carnival worker, Anton LaVey briefly purchased the video rights to Freaks and the church remastered and re-released the film in the the familiar 64 minute format most people are familiar with. The film actually contains some 90 minutes of material stock.
The public reaction to Freaks during its initial release essentially ended Browning’s career as a sought after director. While most of his previous films had consisted of normal and abnormal characters, Freaks emphasized a role-reversal. Browning managed to capture the compassion that he felt for the cast to the screen and turned an exploitation horror film into a very real and touching commentary on human beings. Browning essentially turned the ‘monsters’ of the film into the heroes. It only took the general public more than 30 years to agree with his conclusion.