Tod Browning’s career never fully recovered after he made Freaks in 1932, the notorious horror film that was centered around the lives of sideshow performers. Browning was at the top of his tree when he made the film. He had a to-die-for CV, after a string of hits with Lon “The Man of a 1,000 Faces” Chaney, and had topped it all with the previous year’s smash-hit Dracula (1931), the movie that launched Bela Lugosi’s career. Browning was the studio’s blue-eyed boy, but his next picture Freaks finished all that.
Based on the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, Browning altered the tale and added in elements from his own early experience working in a traveling circus. It was his desire to give the film authenticity that proved controversial, as Browning insisted on casting actual carnies, instead of actors in make-up or costume.
Among the characters featured as “freaks” were Peter Robinson (“the human skeleton”); Olga Roderick (“the bearded lady”); Frances O’Connor and Martha Morris (“armless wonders”); and the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Among the microcephalics who appear in the film (and are referred to as “pinheads”) were Zip and Pip (Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow) and Schlitzie, a male named Simon Metz who wore a dress mainly due to incontinence, a disputed claim. Also featured were the intersexual Josephine Joseph, with her left/right divided gender; Johnny Eck, the legless man; the completely limbless Prince Randian (also known as The Human Torso, and mis-credited as “Rardion”); Elizabeth Green the Stork Woman; and Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, who suffered from Virchow-Seckel syndrome or bird-headed dwarfism, and is most remembered for the scene wherein she dances on the table.
Even before its release, MGM flipped and demanded changes: a prologue was added; the attack on Cleopatra edited; the castration of the strongman Hercules cut; and the film given a so-called “happier ending,” where Hans is reconciled with his true love Frieda. Still, all this wasn’t enough:
When the film was released it was greeted with revulsion and disgust by both the critics and the public and enjoyed only a very short cinema run in the United States before being withdrawn by MGM. In the UK the film was refused a certificate altogether. At the time the only categories available for films were ‘U’ and ‘A’ and it was felt that the film exploited for commercial reasons the deformed people it claimed to dignify. Even the arrival of the ‘H’ category for horror films later the same year failed to save the film.
The press reviews generally damned the movie:
The disparity of the film’s press reviews was astonishing, ranging from outright condemnation to a subtle warning to exhibitors to shy away from this touchy piece of merchandise unless they had “the courage to go through with a play date.” Almost all the reviews had this in common, an attempt to keep the younger patrons’ morals from being corrupted by the “shock” nature of the picture.
Harrison’s Reports commented: “Any one who considers this entertainment, should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital. Terrible for children or for Sunday showing.” Richard Hanser of the Buffalo Times echoed this warning with: “While the story may tax the credulity of the onlooker, it has the fascination of the horrible. It must surely be a nightmarish spectacle for children and they had better be kept away.” Similarly, The New Yorker chimed in with: “I don’t think that everyone on earth should see it. It’s certainly not for susceptible young people.”
In the Kansas City Star, John C. Moffit’s caustic wordplay nearly burnt through the printed page with: “There is no excuse for this picture. It took a weak mind to produce it and it takes a strong stomach to look at it. The reason it was made was to make money. The reason liquor was made was to make money. The liquor interests allowed certain conditions of their business to become so disgraceful that we got prohibition. In Freaks the movies make their great step toward national censorship. If they get it, they will have no one to blame but themselves.”
Freaks remained banned in the U.K. for thirty years and is allegedly still banned in certain US States. However, in the 1960s, the film was:
...rediscovered as a counterculture cult film, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s the film was regularly shown at midnight movie screenings at several movie theaters in the United States. In 1994, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”