Freaks is a film about sideshow performers, directed and produced by Tod Browning and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with a cast mostly composed of actual carnival performers. The film was based on Tod Robbins' short story "Spurs". Director Browning took the exceptional step of casting real people with deformities as the eponymous sideshow "freaks," rather than using costumes and makeup.
Browning had been a member of a traveling circus in his early years, and much of the film was drawn from his personal experiences. 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.
In mid-1931, MGM production head Irving Thalberg summoned scenarist Willis Goldbeck to tell him the time had come for the prestige studio to take heed of much-smaller Universal’s success with Tod Browning’s Dracula. Browning had done many silents for MGM, so Thalberg commissioned Goldbeck to write a vehicle for Browning’s comeback, something "even more horrible than Dracula."
Drawing on a Tod Robbins novel called Spurs, Goldbeck created a world even more self-contained than that of Grand Hotel (made the same year) — the warped world of Freaks, the garish world of the circus sideshow, replete with bearded lady, vain acrobats, simpering pinheads, even a hermaphrodite. Thalberg’s reaction to the script was: "Well, I asked for something horrifying."
Freaks was shot in 36 days on the sets still standing from Garbo’s Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise. Real freaks were brought to Culver City to populate this bizarre world, but the line between film and reality blurred when the freaks ate their meals in the MGM commissary. Even the most hardened showbiz veterans were "shocked and nauseated." Neither their complaints nor those of studio executives could stop Thalberg from completing the film. Its release was another matter. It received so much bad press and created such ill will that MGM was forced to withdraw it from circulation, suffering a loss of $164,000.
In the UK this film was banned for 30 years after it was first released. It is also still banned in Sweden to this day as well as being listed as banned in Finland and Ireland. It is still technically illegal to show it in some states and cities in the US, although the archaic laws regarding that are no longer enforced. One of the writers, Edgar Allan Woolf, also co-wrote the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz in 1939. The film's original ending showed Hercules singing soprano in Madame Tetrallini's new sideshow due to the fact that he had been castrated by the freaks, but due to intense reactions of disgust on the part of test audiences, this scene was cut from the final release of the film. The on-screen romance between Hans and Frieda was very subdued because the roles were being played by real life brother and sister Harry and Daisy Earles.
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