From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- 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 imbecile squawking "human duck."
The film was based on Tod Robbins' short story Spurs. Tod Browning took the exceptional step of casting real people with deformities as the eponymous sideshow "freaks," rather than using costumes and makeup. Director Browning had been a member of a traveling circus in his early years, and much of the film was drawn from his personal experiences. He intended to portray the classic moral of how outer beauty does not necessarily equate to inner beauty. 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.
Reaction to this film was so intense that Browning, famed at the time for his collaborations with Lon Chaney, Sr. and for directing Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931), had trouble finding work afterwards, 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 thirty years.
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 imbecile squawking "human duck."
Spliced throughout the main narrative are a variety of "slice of life" segments detailing the lives of the sideshow performers. The vignettes, while not advancing the main narrative, drive home the point that the physically malformed freaks are just as human as the other "normal" 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.)
- Wallace Ford as Phroso
- Leila Hyams as Venus
- Olga Baclanova as Cleopatra
- Henry Victor as Hercules
- Harry Earles as Hans
- Daisy Earles as Frieda
Among the characters featured as "freaks" were Daisy and Violet Hilton and the "armless wonders" Frances O'Connor and Martha Morris. There were several microcephalics who were referred to in the film as "pinheads." The most notable of these was Schlitzie, who wore a dress mainly to make it easier to use the toilet, but who was in fact a male named Simon Metz. Other microcephiles were Zip and Pip (Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow). Also featured were the intersexual Josephine Joseph, with her left/right divided gender; Johnny Eck, the legless man; and the completely limbless Prince Randian (also known as The Human Torso, and mis-credited as "Rardion"). There was also Koo-Koo the Bird Girl (who suffered from Virchow-Seckel syndrome or bird-headed dwarfism, and who is most remembered for the scene where she dances on the table), Elizabeth Green the Stork Woman, Peter Robinson the Living Skeleton and Olga Roderick the Bearded Lady.
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 Arsène Lupin with John Barrymore. Browing declined, preferring to develop Freaks, a process 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 Allen 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.
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 were 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 had its premiere at the Fox Criterion in Los Angeles on February 10.