Dir: Tod Browning
Tod Browning started in the silent era, and directed a number of successful films for rising producer Irving Thalberg, many starring Lon Chaney.
He followed Thalberg from Universal to MGM, and made the now classic 'Dracula' with Bela Lugosi.
Thalberg wanted him next to direct a John Barrymore film, but Browning asked to develop a film based on a short story about circus 'freaks'.
Presumably his past successes gave him a little currency to deal with, because he got his way.
It was a subject close to his heart. Browning had run away from home at the age of 16 to become a circus performer, working as a clown, a 'barker', and even appearing in an act where he was buried alive.
What was most certainly unusual about 'Freaks' was that many of the performers were real life circus freaks.
The cast included:
the bearded lady
the Siamese twins
the human torso
the stork woman
the bird girl
and a number of dwarfs.
Many at MGM questioned Thalberg's decision to greenlight the film, and thought the film was in bad taste. At lunch, the cast of the film were given their own table in a separate area, so that film stars would not have to face them while eating.
A regular guest at their table was F. Scott Fitzgerald who was writing for MGM, and preferred their company to that of the studio bigwigs and stars.
Olga Baclanova, the film's non-freak star found the experience challenging, 'Every night I felt that I am sick. Because I couldn't look at them.'
But Johnny Eck, the half boy, half girl in the film remembered the experience fondly. "The technicians, the sound men, the electricians, and the prop department, and everybody... was my friend... We got along beautifully."
However, the public was not ready for such a display, and test screenings were disastrous. One woman claimed that she had suffered a miscarriage due to her extreme shock upon viewing the film.
Thalberg, realising that the film was a disaster, made drastic cuts, and started a 'cleaning job' to erase the stink of the film.
Even cut to 64 minutes, the film still performed disastrously at the box office, and was extremely controversial.
It was banned in the U.K., and the ban held for 30 years.
It remains banned in some states of the U.S.
Yes, 'Freaks' is shocking.
Browning confronts us with something that makes us feel uncomfortable.
It is perhaps the same feeling that one gets when passing a car crash.
We all have a curiosity to look, but we know it is inappropriate and we know we might find something we would rather not see.
The concept of the freakshows themselves presents complex ethical issues. Is it right that able-bodied people should pay to go and stare at those who were born deformed? Is it not exploitative?
But if it provides financial independence and security and a living environment for those we are looking it, is that a bad thing?
By the 1970s, freakshows in the US had virtually disappeared. They were seen as unacceptable in modern society.
Nowadays, the concept of 'Freaks' is alive and well in the myriad of reality television shows, where social misfits, bitches, weirdos and extroverts parade themselves for our entertainment.
Is watching 'Big Brother' really any different to watching a bearded lady and Siamese twins?
'Freaks' is actually an extremely bold film. Whilst it presents us with characters who are strange and even visually shocking, it actually teaches us that these are normal, good-hearted people, simply doing a job, earning a living, and providing entertainment. It is significant that the evil in the film comes from the 'normal' characters.
Its message is powerful and simple - 'Beauty is only skin deep'.
Sadly, the film damaged Browning's career irreparably. He found it hard to get work, and directed only four more unremarkable films.
It was not until the 'Midnight Movie' screenings in the 70's that 'Freaks' was finally recognised as a bold, strange, masterpiece.
In 1994, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant"