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 Although no longer enforced, some of the laws were never officially repealed.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.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a member of the MGM writing department at the time the movie was in production. It is said, one day as he came into the studio commissary for lunch and saw the Hilton sisters, one reading the menu and the other seemingly understanding it, he was horrified, became nauseous and left the lunchroom. He would later go on to write of a studio filming a "circus" picture.
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.
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 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."
According to Johnny Eck, the sideshow performers started "going Hollywood" during filming. Several of them began wearing sunglasses in public, and some demanded special treatment on the set. They also argued over who was most important to the film.
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."
Cast member Olga Roderick, the bearded lady, later denounced the film and regretted her involvement in it. Although Roderick was the most vocal in her dislike of the movie, many of the "freaks" expressed their disdain. Only Johnny Eck seems to have praised the film throughout his life.
The performer with the worst reputation for prima donna behaviour was Olga Roderick, the bearded lady. Despite Tod Browning's orders to leave her hair natural, she showed up on her first day of shooting with hair and beard dyed jet black and a marcelled hairdo.
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."
Tod Browning took a particular liking to Johnny Eck, nicknaming him "Mr. Johnny" and giving him rides on the camera dolly. Eck claimed that Browning wanted to make a "sequel" to "Freaks" focusing on Eck himself.
On the lot, one of the most beloved of the sideshow performers was Schlitze, the most prominently featured "pinhead." His fans on the lot included Norma Shearer, but when he asked to meet his favourite star, Jackie Cooper, the child actor was highly disturbed by this. Schlitze was so enamored of the filmmaking process, he even came to the set on days he wasn't called.
Once studio head Louis B. Mayer saw the sideshow entertainers whom Browning had cast, he was horrified and tried to have the picture shut down. It took all of Irving Thalberg's persuasive skills to keep it going.
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."
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).
The film's première runs in Chicago and Los Angeles were miserable failures. No exhibitor in San Francisco would show it, and it was banned in many areas. By contrast, it was a big hit in Cincinnati, Boston, Cleveland, Houston and Omaha.
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".
MGM responded to criticism of the film with a series of ads congratulating itself for daring to humanize deformity. Calling the film "A LANDMARK IN SCREEN DARING!" ads asked "'Do we dare tell the real truth on the screen? Do we dare hold up the mirror to nature in all its grim reality?'"
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.
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.
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.
One concession Irving Thalberg had to make to keep the film in production was over eating arrangements. Led by Harry Rapf, studio executives had complained about having to look at the performers during lunch breaks, so a special tent was set up for their meals to keep them out of the MGM Commissary. Only the little people and Daisy and Violet Hilton were allowed to eat in public.
Following the huge success of Dracula (1931), which MGM director Tod Browning made on loan to Universal, he was instructed by MGM production chief Irving Thalberg to "give us something to out-horror 'Frankenstein'", another Universal hit of the time. Browning was essentially given the freedom to make whatever he wanted, but Thalberg was completely unprepared for what he produced.
Tod Browning's career never recovered from the disastrous initial release of "Freaks". From then on MGM put him on a tight creative leash. Of his four subsequent films only "The Devil Doll" (1936) has some of the spirit of his earlier work, but it is marred by a compromised script and a weak ending. Browning retired in 1939 and spent the rest of his life in seclusion.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
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 bird costume worn by Olga Baclanova near the end of the film was originally designed for Lon Chaney to use in the film West of Zanzibar (1928). A scene was shot with Chaney in the costume, but was deleted from the final release print. Four years later, director Tod Browning decided to use it for this film.
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!"