The first remarkable fact about Freaks is MGM produced the feature. The studio had noticed horror films were doing amazing business and popular with audiences. However, it seems almost beyond comprehension they, whose policy was to deliver high-class, high quality dramas and boasted “more stars than there are in the heavens”, released this mad film. Freaks was also made before the Hays Code really took effect in the motion picture industry. There’s no way it would have got out after the mid-1930s.
Tod Browning’s film was based on a short story called Spurs which he’d purchased in the 1920s with MGM’s money. Browning made a fine career in the silent era often in collaboration with “the man of a thousand faces” Lon Chaney. By the early 1930s, with Chaney dead, Browning produced the iconic Dracula for Universal. Now wanting to get in on the horror act MGM hired Browning to deliver a movie.
Browning – so the story goes – ran away with the circus as a teenager, where he created an act known as “the Living Corpse”. One can only imagine the looks on studio executives faces as the director previewed his magnum opus. .
Irving G. Thalberg, the boy wonder of the studio system, is said to have been appalled when he saw the picture despite ordering the screenwriters to write something ‘horrible’. And thank God he chose not to put Myrna Loy or Jean Harlow onto the production.
There’s also the story alcoholic writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, then working at MGM as a screenwriter, getting over a wicked hangover and being confronted with conjoined twins in the studio canteen. He ran to the toilets and threw up.
The original running length of 90 minutes was cut down to just over an hour with all sorts of scenes taken out by a disgusted MGM. It premiered in San Diego to disastrous reviews. Thalberg ordered a re-edit pronto. These removed scenes are now considered lost for ever or perhaps they dwell in the deepest, darkest corners of MGM’s archives. Either way, it must surely be the strangest picture Hollywood ever produced.
Featuring real life sideshow performers with a range of deformities: from “pinheads” to “the Human Torso”; the cast is cajoled into mostly standing around for grim tableaux shots or occasionally performing tricks as the midget cast members play out the story. The ending is as iconic as it is insane.
Freaks had the privilege of being the longest “banned” picture in British history. Not bad for a film that offers a humane, if not entirely sensitive approach, to people with an array of genetic defects. The famous banquet scene and refrain ‘gooble gobble, gooble gobble, one of us, one of us’ has been spoofed by South Park and even referenced in Robert Altman’s The Player.
Tod Browning, in a sort of ham-fisted way, implies the avaricious “normal” characters are the real freaks. Or something like that.