Archive for October 22nd, 2008

Tod Browning’s FREAKS!

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

TOD BROWNING

ON THE MAKING OF 

Freaks!

 

 

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

Freaks – the story of living torsos, pinheads, human skeletons, bearded ladies and little people was directed by Tod Browning, who made the successful horror film, Dracula (1931). The tale combines the strange reactions and code of loyalty of a troupe of so-called carnival “freaks” with a weird romance between the trapeze queen and the strong man, and a plot on the part of these to secure the fortune of one of the little people.

 

The films sideshow cast includes Johnny Eck, the half-man; the Hilton Sisters, Siamese Twins; Randian, the living torso; Harry Earles, little person previously seen in The Unholy Three and his sister Daisy, Pete Robinson, living skeleton; Josephine-Joseph, half man-half woman; Olga Roderick, the bearded lady; Elizabeth Green and Koo Koo, the bird girls and others.

 

 

Also in the cast are Olga Baclanova, the Russian actress who appeared in Grand Hotel; Leila Hyams, Wallace Ford, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor and Edward Brophy.

 

When the film was first previewed in Los Angeles, some horrified spectators got up from their seats and ran – did not walk – to the nearest exit. When it was taken to San Diego for a week’s trial run, the film smashed all house records. But it aroused the indignation of some San Diegans to the extent that letters – not “fan” letters – poured in to Browning’s office at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, the film’s producer.

 

“You must have the mental equipment of a freak yourself to devise such a picture,” wrote one irate woman. “Horrible,” said another. “To put such creatures in a picture and before the public is unthinkable,” wrote others.

  

From all of which, you may gather that Freaks is either a horror of horror pictures, or at least vastly different from the usual film. It made some people ill, fascinated others.

 

 

Why was Freaks made?

 

“First,” according to Browning, “because millions of people have seen these people in side shows and museums for years, and evidently like to see them. Now for the time, they have an opportunity to view the top-notchers all together.

 

“Second, because we have a human, inside story of their world. Something that could very possibly happen in life. Does happen in life. A normal woman marries a sideshow oddity because he has money. When she treats him cruelly they all get together and make her one of them.

 

“Impossible? Why? Randian, the human torso who has neither arms nor legs, is married, has two children and eight grandchildren. The bearded lady has been married twice, the bird girl once, the half man-half woman is married, and also the human skeleton. Do you think these people were married for love or for money? Well —

 

It was a great day in the sideshow world when the human curiosities were collected at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, according to Browning.

 

“Most of them had never met one another before and were tickled to death at the opportunity. Temperamental? Oh, sure, and jealous. We had a few battles. The bearded woman couldn’t get along with the bird woman. The human skeleton preferred to take his meals alone instead of going on a club agreement with three others. By the way, he gained three pounds on the free noontime meals at the studio while here. He left town weighing forty-three pounds to his 5’ 8” of height.”

 

 

The cast lived at an apartment house across from the studio. Most of them had nurses or managers to care for them. Were they difficult to direct? Definitely, according to Browning.

 

“You never could tell what they were going to do. They had to be humored like children. Once in a while they became upset, angry, and would try to vent their rage in biting the person nearest to them. I was bitten once. But considering everything, we had little trouble.

 

Browning found no reason why people would object to the film.

 

“Those who don’t want to see it don’t have to and those that do can. We are being perfectly clear in our advertising as to what it’s all about.”

 

 

The New York Times called Freaks a film not “easily forgotten” because of the “underlying sense of horror, [and] the love of the macabre that fills the circus sideshows in the first place. Tod Browning, the director, has brought all of it out as fully as possible, trying to prove that the ‘strange people’ are children, that they do not like to be set apart. But they know they are, and in the sideshow is a spirit of mutual protection that holds if you injure one of them you injure all.”

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