F. Scott Fitzgerald was a member of the MGM writing department at the time the movie was in production. He never felt quite at home with all the movie stars and powerful moguls, and so he often dined in the commissary at the table of the sideshow attractions (freaks) during his lunch hour.
When MGM production chief Irving Thalberg gave Willis Goldbeck the assignment to write a draft of a screenplay based on Clarence Aaron 'Tod' Robbins's story "Spurs", the only direction he gave Goldbeck was that the script had to be "horrible". The writer completed his draft quickly and turned the script over to Thalberg. A few days later, Goldbeck was summoned to Thalberg's office, where he found the producer slumped forward on his desk with his face buried in his arms, as if overwhelmed. After a moment, Thalberg sat up straight and looked at Goldbeck. "Well," said Thalberg, "it's horrible."
Although production chief Irving Thalberg decided to re-cut the picture immediately after the disastrous test screening, he could not cancel the world premiere on January 28, 1932 at the 3,000-seat Fox Theatre in San Diego. This is the only venue at which the uncut version of "Freaks" is known to have played. Ironically, the unexpurgated "Freaks" was a major box-office success. Crowds lined up around the block to see the picture, which broke the theatre's house record. By the end of the run, word had spread that "Freaks" was about to be butchered, and the theatre advertised, "Your last opportunity to see 'Freaks' in its uncensored form!"
In the United States, this film was banned in a number of states and cities. Although no longer enforced, some of the laws were never officially repealed. Therefore, it is still technically illegal for this film to be shown some areas of the USA.
Olga Baclanova, later recalled the day when she was first introduced to the supporting cast, Tod Browning "shows me little by little and I could not look, I wanted to faint. I wanted to cry when I saw them. They have such nice faces... they are so poor, you know... he takes me and says, you know, 'Be brave, and don't faint like the first time I show you. You have to work with them.'... It was very, very difficult first time. Every night I felt that I am sick. Because I couldn't look at them. And then I was so sorry for them. That I just couldn't... it hurt me like a human being."
Johnny Eck, the half-boy, remembered his screen test was taken by MGM's scouting unit while he was on tour in Canada, and he shared the screen with the world's largest rat. He recalled being treated well by the crew, "The technicians, the sound men, the electricians, and the prop department, and everybody... was my friend... We got along beautifully."
When uncredited producer Dwain Esper traveled the country with this film, he used some of the most lurid and suggestive promotions. For some engagements, if he was satisfied that it was safe, the feature would be followed by a square-up reel. This reel was basically nudist camp footage.
Samuel Marx, head of MGM's Story Department, recalled with peculiar pride, "And so, Harry Rapf, who was a great moral figure, got a bunch of us together and we went in and complained to Irving Thalberg about 'Freaks'. And he laughed at that. He said, 'You know, we're making all kinds of movies. Forget it. I'm going to make the picture. Tod Browning's a fine director. He knows what he's doing.' And the picture was made." But the lunchroom protests didn't end. As a result, a makeshift table was constructed and the cast of "Freaks" (with the exception of Harry Earles & Daisy Earles, Violet Hilton & Daisy Hilton, and the more "normal" cast-members) were forced to eat their meals outdoors.
During a publicity photo session with Olga Baclanova, midget actor Harry Earles kept making lewd remarks. Many of her surprised and disgusted visual expressions in the photos that the session yielded are authentic rather than posed.
One woman, after seeing "Freaks", wrote a letter to Tod Browning at MGM, exclaiming that "You must have the mental equipment of a freak yourself to devise such a picture." Another viewer complained, "To put such creatures in a picture and before the public is unthinkable."
According to the screenplay, the scene in which Madame Tetrallini introduces the wandering land-owner to the performers frolicking in the woods ran quite a bit longer. It included additional dialog that endeavored to humanize the so-called freaks. She tells him they are "always in hot, stuffy tents - strange eyes always staring at them - never allowed to forget what they are." Duval responds sympathetically (clearly the stand-in for the viewing audience), "When I go to the circus again, Madame, I'll remember," to which she adds, "I know, Monsieur - you will remember seeing them playing - playing like children... Among all the thousands who come to stare - to laugh - to shudder - you will be one who understands."
After the film had been withdrawn and shelved by MGM, the distribution rights were acquired by notorious exploitation roadshow specialist Dwain Esper. Esper traveled the country showing the film under such lurid titles as "Forbidden Love" and "Nature's Mistakes".
During the 1920s and 1930s, photographer Edward J. Kelty took a succession of group photographs of members of the Barnum and Bailey freak show. What is interesting is how many cast members can be spotted in them (this film is the only movie credit for most of them). Familiar faces include Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), Peter Robinson (human skeleton), Elvira Snow (pinhead), Jenny Lee Snow (pinhead), Elizabeth Green (bird girl) and Olga Roderick (bearded lady).
According to one source, director Tod Browning was introduced to the story by Cedric Gibbons, longtime head of MGM's Art Department. He was supposedly boyhood friends with author Clarence Aaron 'Tod' Robbins and convinced the studio to purchase film rights for the sum of $8,000. Another source claims that the diminutive actor Harry Earles gave Browning a copy of the story during the production of The Unholy Three (1925) in hopes that he could star in the adaptation.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The bird costume worn by Olga Baclanova near the end of the film was originally designed by Lon Chaney before his death. A master of horror makeup and costumes, Chaney had designed the bird suit for his own use but died before he could utilize it on film. The costume had been in storage at MGM for several years when Tod Browning decided to use it for this film.
The film's original ending showed Hercules singing soprano in Madame Tetrallini's new sideshow because he has been castrated by the freaks. After intensely negative reaction by preview audiences, this scene was cut.
The tune that 'Angeleno' plays on his flute during the final confrontation between Cleopatra and the bedridden Hans is the "Mournful Tune" from Richard Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde", played in the opera while Tristan is in a similar predicament.
Numerous other bits of dialog were removed that depicted the "normal" humans as disgusting creatures and the "freaks" as gentle and sympathetic (destroying the social critique of intolerance Tod Browning was attempting to construct). While the circus awaits word on Hans's declining health, one of the Rollo Brothers coldly remarks, "You'd think the world was coming to an end - just because a mangy freak's got a hangover." In another scene, Madame Tetrallini responds to the Rollos' taunts by defending the humanity of her "children," "Augh, you cochons - you beasts... They are better than you - all of them - you two dogs!"