11 Astonishing Facts About Freaks

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

In 1931, fresh off the success of his horror hit Dracula, director Tod Browning finally got the go-ahead to pursue a longtime passion project of his: a revenge tale centered around sideshow performers in a traveling circus. Eager to produce their own horror films that could rival Dracula, MGM let Browning make Freaks, one of the most ambitious and gutsy filmmaking efforts in Hollywood at the time. Though today many regard it as a classic, or at least a cult favorite, Freaks did not have the same reception in the early 1930s. Its title character faced scrutiny and revulsion on the MGM backlot, and the film itself faced scandalized audiences nationwide.

Now, nearly 90 years after its initial release, Freaks remains a unique work in Hollywood history. Here are 11 facts about how it got there, from the original idea to its unlikely revival.

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED TO BE A LON CHANEY VEHICLE.

The story of Freaks as a film project apparently dates back to at least 1925, and the MGM silent drama The Unholy Three, which was directed by Browning and starred “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney. The film was based on a short story by Tod Robbins, and co-starred eventual Freaks star Harry Earles as a dwarf criminal who pulled scams by posing as a baby. The story goes that Earles, eager to find more film roles, brought Robbins’s short story “Spurs”—the tale of a pair of circus performers (part of a bareback riding act in the story) who take advantage of a wealthy dwarf—to Browning.

Browning, himself a former sideshow and vaudeville performer, took an interest in the story and convinced MGM to purchase the rights. The original plan, according to Browning biographer and historian David J. Skal, was to make the film another Chaney vehicle, but the film never got off the ground during the silent era. Chaney died in 1930, shortly after again co-starring with Earles in a talkie remake of The Unholy Three, but Browning never lost interest in the story.

2. MGM WANTED IT TO RIVAL DRACULA AS A HORROR FILM.

Though there were certainly monstrous characters populating various silent films (particularly those portrayed by Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera and London After Midnight), the horror film as a genre didn’t really take off until the era of talkies began. Shortly after Chaney’s death due to complications from lung cancer, Browning was off at Universal Pictures, helping to lead the horror wave with his now-classic adaptation of Dracula. When Browning returned to MGM in the wake of Dracula’s success, head of production Irving Thalberg wanted to capitalize on the horror boom. The hope was that, with the director of Dracula back at the studio, MGM could best Universal with something even more horrifying, and so Browning was finally given the go-ahead to make Freaks, which had remained a pet project of his for years.

According to Skal, it became a classic lesson for Thalberg in being careful what you wish for: The story goes that after he was presented with the screenplay for the film, Thalberg reportedly hung his head and said, “Well, I asked for something horrible, and I guess I got it.”

3. CASTING THE "FREAKS" WAS AN INTENSE PROCESS.

Olga Baclanova and Harry Earles in 'Freaks' (1932)
Harry Earles and Olga Baclanova in Freaks (1932)
Warner Home Video

Aiming for authenticity, Browning sought real sideshow attractions and performers to play the “freaks” at the heart of the story instead of relying on movie magic (as he so often had with Chaney) to portray them. Earles, who brought “Spurs” to Browning in the first place, naturally came on board to play the wealthy dwarf Hans, and enlisted his sister Daisy to play Hans’s dwarf fiancée Frieda.

For the rest of the characters, casting director Ben Piazza put out a call for photographs and on-camera tests for various sideshow performers, and apparently spent nearly a month traveling the country to scout out various acts. This exhaustive search paid off, leading to the casting of memorable performers like the “Half Boy” Johnny Eck, the “Living Torso” Prince Randian, Angelo Rossitto (who continued to work in films for more than five decades after Freaks), and Schlitzie (spelled Schlitze in the film), who in many ways became the performer most identified with the film.

4. MYRNA LOY AND JEAN HARLOW WERE ORIGINALLY CONSIDERED AS CO-STARS.

Casting the other characters in Freaks may not have required as much of an outside-the-studio effort, but it was nonetheless met with a few challenges. When casting the scheming trapeze artist Cleopatra, Thalberg apparently wanted Myrna Loy, who was then a rising star recently signed to an MGM contract. According to Skal, Loy was “absolutely horrified” by the script, and begged Thalberg not to make her do the film. Thalberg relented, and the role went to Olga Baclanova, a former Moscow Art Theatre performer who left the company during a U.S. tour in 1925 and went on to co-star in The Man Who Laughs in 1928, alongside Conrad Veidt. For the seal trainer Venus, Browning wanted Jean Harlow, who was apparently announced to the press as one of the film’s stars near the start of production. Thalberg eventually nixed that idea too, and the role went to Leila Hyams.

5. TOD BROWNING HAD NIGHTMARES ABOUT THE PERFORMERS DURING PRODUCTION.

Browning’s insistence on casting real sideshow performers in Freaks paid off visually, resulting in an unforgettable film experience that also managed to humanize the various real people behind the story. When those casting decisions were applied to the practical process of shooting a film, though, things were sometimes less rewarding. Though many of them were seasoned performers, the “freaks” were not necessarily trained actors, and some of them required special care and patience due to impairments. The stress of working with them took a toll on Browning, which led to some unusual dreams during the making of the film.

"It got to the point where I had nightmares. I mean it. I scarcely could sleep at all. There was one terrible dream in which I was trying to shoot a difficult scene,” Browning later recalled. “Every time I started, Johnny Eck, the half-boy, and one of the pinheads would start bringing a cow in backwards through a door. I'd tell them to stop but the next take they'd do it all over again. Three times that night I got up and smoked a cigarette but when I went back to bed I'd pick up the dream again." 

6. THE "FREAKS" WERE OSTRACIZED BY STUDIO EMPLOYEES.

Browning’s practical difficulties in shooting the film aside, the performers in Freaks also faced resistance from various MGM employees who were reportedly disgusted by their presence on the studio lot. Studio head Louis B. Mayer was apparently so shocked by the performers that he wanted to shut the picture down. Thalberg was able to keep Mayer at bay, but other employees also raised objections after see the “freaks” in the MGM commissary.

To keep tempers from flaring, Thalberg arranged a compromise: Though the more “normal” looking cast members—including Harry and Daisy Earles and the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton—were allowed to remain in the commissary, the rest of the cast was relegated to a tent erected outside, which served as their mess hall. This perhaps still didn’t stop certain reactions, though. According to one possibly apocryphal story, F. Scott Fitzgerald—who was doing some screenwriting work for MGM at the time—walked into the commissary one day and was so shocked by the sight of the Hilton sisters that he fled the room to go vomit. Fitzgerald later worked what seems to be a version of this encounter into his short story “Crazy Sunday,” which is about a Hollywood screenwriter.

7. AUDIENCES WERE SCANDALIZED BY IT.

Freaks finally held its first previews in San Diego in January of 1932, where the audience reaction was swift and brutal. One woman ran screaming from the theater during the movie, while another apparently threatened to sue the studio, claiming that the film was so horrific it had caused her to suffer a miscarriage (it remains unclear whether or not these stories were actually publicity stunts cooked up by MGM to play up the film’s horror elements). One review from a critic who saw the film’s first cut called it "rather gruesomely dramatized for the edification (or education) of those morbid persons who enjoy gazing upon unfortunate, misshapen, cruelly deformed humanity." Fearing further disaster, Thalberg decided to act.

8. THE STUDIO CUT THE MOVIE SHORT.

After the disastrous preview screenings of Freaks, Thalberg decided changes needed to be made, and moved the film’s wider release from January 30 to February 20 of 1932. Without Browning’s input, Thalberg trimmed the film from a length of 90 minutes to only about 60, cutting both footage that depicted the attack on Hercules and Cleopatra in greater detail and some scenes that further humanized the “freaks” through small character moments (the scene in which Prince Randian lights his own cigarette using only his mouth, for example, also originally included footage of him rolling the cigarette). Thalberg also cut an epilogue sequence that depicted a London museum opened by Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione) and replaced it with a framing device featuring a carnival barker who showed off the mutilated Cleopatra to a crowd. Thalberg also added a different epilogue in which Venus and Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford) bring Frieda to Hans’s mansion for a reunion and reconciliation.

The uncut version of Freaks still played at the film’s world premiere at San Diego’s Fox Theatre on January 28, and ironically it ended up finding success there. The film set a house record during its run for the theater, which capitalized by advertising itself as the only place where audiences could ever see the “uncensored” version of Freaks.

9. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE FAILURE.

Roscoe Ates, Daisy Hilton, and Violet Hilton in 'Freaks' (1932)
Roscoe Ates, Daisy Hilton, and Violet Hilton in Freaks (1932)
Warner Home Video

Though both initial audience and critical reactions were rather negative, Freaks continued to march through its release across the country in the early months of 1932. Along the way it found box office success in some major cities, and even some positive reviews, but the horrified responses to the film drowned out any sense that Freaks could ever become a box office success. The film’s New York engagement was delayed for months, and when it finally arrived in the summer of 1932 the writing was on the wall. The studio pulled Freaks from circulation and reported a loss of $164,000 against its $316,000 budget.

The next year, in an effort to recoup some of the money lost during the initial theatrical run, Thalberg re-released the film, without the MGM logo, under the new title Nature’s Mistakes. The new release was accompanied by an ad campaign that asked questions like "Do Siamese Twins Make Love?" and "What Sex is the Half-Man-Half-Woman?"

10. IT DERAILED BROWNING’S CAREER.

Before Freaks, Browning was one of the most successful directors in Hollywood, and his success had earned him enough clout to get the ambitious and gutsy film made after Dracula hit big at Universal. After Freaks, he never quite recovered. According to Skal, this was not just due to that film’s failure, but due to Browning’s continued discomfort with the change in the filmmaking process that came from the rise of talkies. That discomfort, coupled with an increasing inability to get more personal projects approved by the studios in the wake of Freaks, led to his decline in the 1930s.

Browning directed just four more films (two of them uncredited), with his final directing credit coming on the MGM mystery Miracles for Sale in 1939. He retired with enough savings from his directorial successes to live comfortably in a pair of homes in Beverly Hills and Malibu, and died in 1962.

11. IT FOUND A NEW AUDIENCE IN THE 1960S.

After its critical and commercial failure in the United States, Freaks faded into the background as a kind of Hollywood curiosity, and was banned in several countries (including the United Kingdom) for decades. The film was licensed by distributor Dwain Esper in the late 1940s, and played on the grindhouse circuit at various independent theaters, but it wasn’t until the 1962 Cannes Film Festival that the film’s revival really began. After screening there, it was heralded as a kind of forgotten classic. Noted film collector and archivist Raymond Rohauer picked up the baton from there, landing the rights to Freaks and showing it as a cult film. It gained prominence on the midnight movie circuit, and found particular success with members of the 1960s counterculture movement, who saw kindred spirits in its cast.

Additional Sources:
“Tod Browning’s Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema” (Warner Home Video, 2004)

The Elder Wand from Harry Potter Will Be Surprisingly Important in Fantastic Beasts 2

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

For about a year now, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has been using an image of the Elder Wand in promotional teases, as pointed out by The Ringer. You surely remember the instrument—which is said to be the most powerful wand to have ever existed in JK Rowling's Wizarding World—from the original Harry Potter series. So just how important will it be to the Fantastic Beasts sequel? Extremely.

According to Pottermore, the Elder Wand (also known as the Deathstick or "The Wand of Destiny") is the most sought after of the three Deathly Hallows. According to "The Tale of the Three Brothers," a fairy tale often told to wizard children, the Elder Wand was given to Antioch Peverell by Death himself. Whoever was able to reunite the wand with the other two Deathly Hallows—the Resurrection Stone and the Cloak of Invisibility—would become the Master of Death.

As such, the Elder Wand is extremely dangerous—and can be made even more so, depending on the intentions of the wizard who possesses it. As Dumbledore once ​said in The Tales of Beedle the Bard, "Those who are knowledgeable about wandlore will agree that wands do indeed absorb the expertise of those who use them."

So how does all of this connect to Fantastic Beasts? While in disguise in the first Fantastic Beasts movie, Gellert Grindelwald didn't carry the Elder Wand—though we know from previous installments that he had acquired it by the time the first movie takes place. Grindelwald stole the wand from Mykew Gregorovitch, stunning the wizard to gain the allegiance of the Elder Wand, sometime before 1926. But while promotional stills indicate that Grindelwald will have physical possession of the wand in this second movie, which witch or wizard has the wand's allegiance is less clear—after all, Newt Scamander captured Grindelwald at the end of the first film, and Tina Goldstein disarmed him.

However, we know from the Harry Potter series that Dumbledore takes possession of the Elder Wand after a duel in 1945, which is the same year the Fantastic Beasts series will end (so it's pretty safe to assume that Dumbledore and Grindelwald will face off in the series' fifth and final film). And Dumbledore's own words about how he came to possess the wand in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are also particularly telling. "I was fit to own the Elder Wand, and not to boast of it, and not to kill with it," he stated in the novel. "I was permitted to tame and to use it, because I took it, not for gain, but to save others from it."

We'll have to wait until this weekend to see how it all plays out in The Crimes of Grindelwald, but this is one story that will take several more installments to tell.

Simon Pegg Says New Star Wars Films Are Missing George Lucas's Imagination

John Phillips, Getty Images for Paramount Pictures
John Phillips, Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

While many Star Wars fans were unimpressed with the most recent film in the Luke Skywalker saga, The Last Jedi, even those viewers would likely agree that the most recent slate of entries into the Star Wars franchise are much better than the prequel series ... right? Well, it might not be so black and white.

Simon Pegg, who appeared in The Force Awakens as Unkar Plutt, had previously slammed the prequels, specifically ​calling The Phantom Menace a "jumped-up firework display of a toy advert." But now he seems to have come to a new conclusion: Star Wars needs George Lucas.

"I must admit, watching the last Star Wars film [The Last Jedi], the overriding feeling I got when I came out was, 'I miss George Lucas,'" Pegg confessed on The Adam Buxton Podcast. "For all the complaining that I'd done about him in the prequels, there was something amazing about his imagination."

Pegg also shared the story of how he once met Lucas at the premiere of Revenge of the Sith, and that the legendary filmmaker gave him some advice.

"He was talking to Ron Howard and I think he'd seen Shaun of the Dead  because he immediately went, 'Oh hey, Shaun of the Dead!,' and shook my hand," Pegg recalled. "And George Lucas immediately changed his demeanor."

"Don't be making the same film that you made 30 years ago 30 years from now," Lucas told Pegg, according to the actor.

Of all the complaints about The Last Jedi, from Rey's parentage reveal to Luke abandoning the Force, the lack of George Lucas is not quite a popular criticism. But we are glad to know his influence is missed—by at least one person.

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