‘Can a woman fall in love with a midget?’ This was the tagline for the Irving Thalberg-produced cult classic “Freaks” (1932), a film promoting a love story between a beautiful circus performer and a sideshow “freak.’
On the cusp of popularity for “freakshows” and “sideshows,” Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon. Lon Chaney Sr. had been popular recently with using make up and special effects to brilliantly pull off characters that had “freakish” physical characteristics. Thalberg wanted “Freaks” to feature real-life known and unknown sideshow performers. In order to find the right person to deal with “Freaks,” Thalberg found out about director Tom Browning and the short story he had written called “Spurs.” “Freaks” would be loosely based off of his material. Browning also directed “Dracula” (1930) and actor Lon Chaney Sr. in films that were familiar in subject to “Freaks.”
For the production of “Freaks,” the actual sideshow performers were bussed to the MGM Studios lot. The new cast members received a lot of attention from the Studios employees, not all of it was positive. Protests broke out against the sideshow cast members. They were ostracized from the commissary because a majority of MGM Studios stars and crew were not comfortable sharing a table with them; a table was conveniently placed outside. A yet to be discovered writer at the Studios decidedly sat with the outcast members – “The Great Gatsby” author F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Coincidently with the film’s release, the community of modern medicine released evidence that so-called “freaks” actually suffered from medical disorders that could not be controlled or cured. “Siamese Twins” Daisy and Violet Hilton were one such example. The conjoined twins who were featured in the film would never be able to undergo a surgical procedure to separate without endangering each other’s lives. “Koo Koo The Bird Girl,” who was also featured in the film dancing on top of the table during the wedding feast scene, suffered from a rare disorder called “Virchow-Seckel Syndrome.” These medical discoveries turned the public away from “Freaks.” Instead of being fascinated by the subject matter, audiences felt pity. As a result, offended viewers sent letters to MGM Studios exclaiming, “To put such creatures in a picture and before the public is unthinkable!”
After the release of the film, the cast was forced to find work anywhere they could since “freakshows” were rapidly now disappearing across the country. Most of them settled down and had families, others continued to find limited work in circuses and film.
With the exception of a few showings, “Freaks” proved to be so controversial that it was pulled from distribution and banned from a lot of countries including the U.K. and Australia. It was eventually forgotten. Thirty years later, it was rediscovered and welcomed by a brand new generation of film lovers. As to quote “Freaks” famous line, “We accept it! We accept it! One of us!”