According to David J. Skal and Elias Savada’s excellent book, Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, the source of Freaks â€“ a short story by Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins called “Spurs” â€“ was first brought to the Dracula director’s attention by dwarf actor Harry Earles (who had been in Browning’s The Unholy Three with Lon Chaney). Thus, one of most notorious American films of all time was born, a film so upsetting on its release that patrons were running out of preview screenings. Legend has it that one woman actually tried to sue the film’s studio, MGM, when she miscarried after a viewing of the film. It was and remains potent stuff, a film that takes spectators behind the scenes at a travelling circus and right into its sideshow â€“ complete with a cast of sideshow “freaks.” Backed all the way through its production at MGM by whiz kid producer Irving Thalberg (who went uncredited as the film’s producer), even when Louis B. Mayer himself wanted the production stopped, it remains a singular film, alternately harrowing and compassionate. It has come to be justly considered one of the very great works of screen horror.
The film opens at a carny sideshow, where a barker introduces the most horrible attraction of all. Women scream and turn away, but we do not see the monstrosity until the last scene. The barker tells the story of the terrible revenge of the code of the freaks â€“ “offend one and you offend them all!” The freaks are part of a carnival travelling through the French countryside. Among them is the dapper dwarf Hans (Harry Earles), engaged to his loving dwarf woman Frieda (Daisy Earles, Harry’ sister), but smitten with the aerialist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). His fellow performers, who include the Half-boy Johnny (Johnny Eck), Siamese Twins Daisy and Violet (Daisy and Violet Hilton), the limbless Prince Randian, Pinheads Schlitze, Zip and Pip, however, form a strong, protective community, aided by the doting Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione, once a colleague of Sarah Bernahrdt), pretty seal trainer Venus (Leila Hyams, in a role initially meant for Jean Harlow) and sympathetic clown Phroso (Wallace Ford).
Hans begins to make a fool of himself over Cleo, spending lavish amounts on gifts, but Frieda worries that Cleo is just laughing and taking advantage of Hans, which is indeed the case. When strong man Hercules (British actor Henry Victor with a horrible German accent) breaks off a stormy affair with Venus, he ends up in Cleo’s arms. Cleo and Hercules indeed laugh at Hans’ pathetic, love sick behavior, but Cleo can’t turn down the jewelry and champagne (“Look how it sparkles,” Cleo says. “Like your eyes”, replies Hans). Venus in the meantime finds a strong shoulder to lean on in the form of Phroso, and the two quickly make a charming couple.
Freida finds Hans slipping away from him and tells him to watch out. Cleo, she says, is just laughing at you, but Hans does not heed such warnings. When a concerned Freida approaches Cleo about Hans’ happiness, she tells Cleo that Hans has inherited a sizeable fortune. Cleo tells Hercules that she will marry Hans â€“ after all, dwarfs are weak people and don’t live very long. A wedding banquet ensues, and in the film’s most famous scene, a drunken Cleo, poisoning Hans’ champagne, is initiated by a table of chanting freaks â€“ “gooble gobble, we accept her, we accept her, one of usâ€¦one of us!”(As a point of pop culture, it should be noted that the Ramones mis-remembered the chant and the rallying cry `gabba gabba hey’ was born.) Cleo, horror in her eyes, screams at them. “Dirty, slimy freaks!”
Hans becomes ill from the poison, and while a doctor diagnoses ptomaine, the freaks know better. Hans plays sick and pretends to take the lethal spoonfuls of “medicine” from Cleo, but on a dark and stormy night, he lets the freaks in his wagon to exact their revenge. In a harrowing scene, the freaks chase Cleo through the muddy woods at night.
Completely unforgettable â€“ almost anyone who has seen it has never forgotten their first viewing of it â€“ this brief film (64 minutes) has scenes of poetic horror and wonderful scenes of the freaks being all too human. One marvels at the legless, armless, Prince Randian lighting a cigarette or the “Half-boy” Johnny Eck speeding along on his hands, but when they are covered in mud crawling towards Cleo and Hercules in the climactic storm, they are truly terrifying. That the film exists at all is a miracle, but that it came from MGM in the ’30s is almost beyond belief, and the stories about the film’s production (some of which are recounted in Skal and Savada’s book) are no less fascinating. For example, while few at the MGM studios seemed too upset to see the “freaks” â€“ Thalberg’s wife, actress Norma Shearer, even befriended the male, dress-wearing pinhead Schlitze â€“ the sight of the Hilton twins at the MGM commissary so upset F.Scott Fitzgerald (during his Barton Fink-like tenure at the studio) that he ran from the commissary to vomit. Such is the film’s legacy â€“ it has either delighted or sickened those who have seen it.