I sat down and prepared myself to be totally disturbed while watching Tod Browning’s 1932 film, Freaks. I wasn’t disturbed at all!
Unknowingly, I didn’t realise that the film had three alternate endings and the version of the movie that I had just watched had been heavily cut to include three alternate endings.
Throughout the centuries, some have viewed people with abnormalities or disfigurements due to an accident of abnormal birth as bad omens or a curse. Such children with deformities were shunned and left to perish, but some of these survived and had no alternative but to become a ‘freak’ in a travelling circus to survive. Tod Browning’s production of Freaks is a message to all that these people have thoughts and emotions like all of us.
The plot of Browning’s film centres around these freaks and their code of ethics that are rigidly adhered to. The hurt of one is the hurt of all; the joy of one is the joy of all.
Hans who is a midget falls for the trapeze artist, Cleopatra who is having an affair with the circus strongman, Hercules. Together they plot to steal Hans inheritance and Cleopatra marries Hans and slowly poisons him in the hope that he will die. Fortunately, the plot is revealed and the freaks take revenge. Cleopatra is running through the rain soaked woods, trying to escape the freaks that follow her. The imagery is great as you watch them crawling along with knives in their mouths to exact their revenge. Hercules is wounded by a knife thrower and as a viewer he’s never seen again and you’re only left to imagine what could have happened to him. Cleopatra on the other hand becomes a freak show as you see her in a box at the end, squawking away like a duck.
The film does have a strong moral storyline, which is great to see.
So after watching Freaks, I couldn’t understand why some people told me that I would be disturbed, so I began to do a little research to find out the full story behind this movie.
The version I have watched is an ending that MGM wanted, a ‘happier ending’. It also shows Hans living as a millionaire and Frieda comes to visit and comfort him. You find out here that Hans only wanted the poison and it was the other freaks who took the revenge and Hans has a hard time coping with the revenge that was exacted.
The film is based on Spurs, which is a short story written by Tod Robbins in 1923. Not much of the original story is incorporated into the movie, just the fact that a midget marries an over sized female. Freaks began filming in October 1931 and was finished in December. During test screenings in January, 1932, one woman threatened to sue MGM as she claimed the film had caused her to suffer a miscarriage. Following this, the movie was cut down from 90 minutes to just over 60 minutes, thus the version that I watched. Much of the sequence of the freaks attacking Cleopatra, as she lay under a tree was removed. Lightning strikes the tree and she is trapped and the freaks swarm over her, eventually turning her into a human duck. Much of her lower half was tarred and feathered and the flesh of her hands had been melted to look like ducks webbed feet. Hercules on the other hand was castrated and he was also on show with Cleopatra as an exhibit singing in falsetto.
You shouldn’t be afraid of watching Freaks as I enjoyed it. I think it’s a shame that none of the original footage can be viewed, but I’ve concluded that I was more disturbed by the pre-hype this film has got over the decades than the actual film itself. I did find myself questioning the acting of Hans and Frieda as at first I thought they were children playing adults, but they were genuine midgets. Director and producer, Tod Browning who was famed for working with Lon Chaney and directing Bela Lugosi in Dracula, had difficulty finding work after Freaks, which ultimately brought to his career to an early end. Browning had been a member of a travelling circus in his early years and therefore had a good grounding to produce Freaks. (Wikipedia)
I find the cast very interesting, so it’s only fair that I attempt to list them below and tell you a bit more about them.
Daisy and Violet Hilton (Siamese Twins)
Born in Brighton, England on February 5th, 1908, they were sold by their barmaid mother to her boss, Mary Hilton, who helped deliver the twins. They were joined at the pelvis and buttocks and shared the same blood circulation.
Mary Hilton saw commercial prospects in the twins and trained them to sing and dance. She had them touring England at the age of three and then took them to Germany, Australia and to the USA. In 1926, Bob Hope formed an act called the Dancemedians and the Hilton twins had a tap dancing routine. Throughout this period, the twins never earned any money as it was kept by those who had control over them until 1931 when the twins gathered enough courage to sue their managers and gained freedom in the process.
Both girls had been married and according to some sources were cheated out of their money. The Hilton’s last appearance was at a drive-in movie theater in Charlotte, North Carolina. Their tour manager abandoned them there and as a result, they had to get a job in a local grocery store. On January 4th, 1969, they were found dead in their home due to the Hong Kong Flu. (Wikipedia)
Hans and Frieda
Harry and Daisy Earles were sibling dwarves from Germany. Along with two other sisters, they were members of The Doll Family who toured the United States from the 1920s until their retirement in the 50s.
Harry along with elder sister Gracie were the first to perform in German sideshows as ‘Hans and Gretel’ and in 1914 they were seen by Bert W Earles who brought them to the United States to tour with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show. When the two other siblings joined them in the states in the 1920s and they began touring with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus where they sang, danced and rode horses for the next thirty years. They retired in 1958 and all lived together in a house in Sarasota, Florida. All of the furniture was custom built and each of them lived their until their deaths. Tiny was the last survivor.
Daisy was known as the midget Mae West due to her looks and was briefly married in 1942, but it ended in divorce less than a year later.
Harry, was the first to begin his film career with director Tod Browning on a film called The Unholy Tree (1925) starring Lon Chaney.
Tiny also had a bit part in Freaks. (Wikipedia)
Pinheads (Schlitzie, Zip and Pip)
I think a lot of people are freaked out by the pinheads, referred to that way because of their small craniums. They suffered from microcephaly and most sufferers including Zip and Pip were mentally retarded.
Schlitzie is a wonderful character who died September 24, 1971. Schlitzie, real name Simon Metz was an American sideshow performer who toured regularly with the Barnum and Bailey circus. Those who knew him described him as an affectionate, exuberant, sociable person who loved dancing, singing and being the centre of attention, performing for anyone he could stop and talk to. He had the mind of a three year old and it’s debateable the reason why he wore a dress. Some say it was due to his incontinence, but others state that it was to make him appear stranger.
Unfortunately, Schlitzie was committed to a Los Angeles county hospital in 1965 following the death of his manager George Surtees. There he was sad and depressed, but fortunately he was recognised and taken out of their. He lived a happy life until the age of 70 when he died of bronchial pneumonia. (Wikipedia)
Also known as The Snake Man, The Living Torso, The Human Caterpillar, he was born without limbs in 1871 in Demerara, British Guinana.
He’s best known for rolling a cigarette with his lips in the film Freaks and he was a popular sideshow performer starting in the early 1900s for the next 45 yrs. He was a Hindu and was able to speak, English, German and French. His personal philosophy was that no physical handicap need matter if the mind is dominant. He lived until the age of 63 in 1934 and died shortly after his last performance at Sam Wagners’s 14th Street Museum.
His other talents included painting and writing by holding a brush or stylus with his lips and shaving himself by securing a razor in a wooden block. (Wikipedia)
Frances Belle O’Connor
Born without arms in 1914, Frances appeared in many circus sideshows as the armless wonder or the living Venus De Milo. She would perform normal actions such as eating, drinking and smoking using her feet. She lived until the age of 62. (Wikipedia)
Was an American actor who had dwarfism and was 2’ 11” tall. He was often Shirley Temple’s stand-in for many of her films and co-founded the Little People of America organisation with initially seven members, but now it has thousands. His last major role before his death in 1991, was as ‘Master’ opposite Mel Gibson in Mad Max Beyond.
Another sideshow performer and American Shakespearean actor who died in 1956.
Otherwise known as The Living Skeleton, Peter had a normal childhood and appearance until his early teens when his weight began to drop. When working as a carnival sideshow entertainer, he weighed in at only 58 pounds.
He married a fellow entertainer in 1922 and had two children. (Wikipedia)
Often billed as the amazing Half-Boy and King of the Freaks, Johnny Eck was missing the lower half of his torso due to Sacral agenesis. This did not stop him from having a fulfilling career and being involved in a famous illusion in 1937.
Johnny had a twin brother called Robert and together with illusionist and hypnotist, Rajah Raboid, they performed together at Raboid’s Miracles of 1937 show that amazed audiences and had grown men running out of the theatre.
Robert Eck would heckle the illusionist when performing the traditional sawing a man in half illusion. Robert would then be called up on stage and become the man who is about to be sawed in half. During the illusion, Robert and Johnny would switch places with Johnny playing the top half of his body and a dwarf would play the bottom half that would be concealed in specially built trouser legs. After being sawed in half, the legs would suddenly get up and start running away, prompting Eck to jump off the table and start chasing his legs around the stage, screaming ‘Come back! I want my legs back’. Sometimes he would chase the dwarf into the audience, thus causing people to flee the theatre in terror.
Apart from being a sideshow performer, Johnny Eck was an artist, photographer, illusionist, penny arcade owner, Punch and Judy operator and an expert model-maker. (Wikipedia)
Joseph was 19 when she starred in Freaks as a half man half woman although it was never confirmed if he/she was a true hermaphrodite.
Hermaphrodites were very common in freak shows, but a lot of them were considered to be frauds. They were often portrayed with the half and half trick with the woman being on the left and the man on the right. (Wikipedia)
Real name Jane Barnell was a bearded lady who used the stage name of Lady Olga Roderick. Her beard was 13 inches long when she met a circus strongman who invited her to join John Robinson’s Circus. She also toured with the Ringling Brothers circus and later joined Hubert’s Museum in Times Square, New York.
She found Tod Browning’s film Freaks ‘to be an insult to all freaks everywhere’.