In 1931 Tod Browning’s “Dracula” and James Whale’s “Frankenstein” rose from the gloom of The Great Depression and saved Universal Pictures from a grave financial crisis. Not to be outdone, MGM production supervisor Irving Thalberg planned to out-monster Universal with a shocker of his own.
MGM was soon invaded by troupes of strange looking people, sending staff and stars running. Suddenly, instead of famed directors, actors and actresses, MGM commissary diners found themselves elbow-to-elbow with pinheads, a half-boy, a bearded lady and any of the other new visitors who had just arrived.
It’s reported that famed author F. Scott Fitzgerald fled the commissary with his hand pressed to his mouth after Siamese Twins Daisy and Violet Hilton sat down beside him for lunch.
To quash a staff revolt, studio chief Louis B. Mayer banished Browning’s “human oddities” from the commissary and relegated them to a mess hall all their own.
On November 9, 1931 a secretive production began on Sound Stage 16. Opposition grew to alarming proportions from Mayer on down.
But Thalberg’s “Freaks” couldn’t be stopped.
On January 28, 1932, three reels of Browning’s original 90-minute cut of “Freaks” was secretly sandwiched between the evening’s double feature in two Southern California theaters to gauge unwitting audience reactions. What they got was pandemonium. Minutes into the film, patrons evacuated the theaters.
Thalberg immediately carved over 20 minutes out of his passion project, cutting key scenes that presented the sideshow characters as human beings — complete with relationship problems, deep feelings and a sense of humor.
By doing so Thalberg only elevated the horrific elements that sent audiences clamoring for the theater exit in the first place.
On February 10th the truncated “Freaks” premiered at the Fox Criterion in Los Angeles, California.
Despite some positive reviews it suffered a painful two-week death.
“Freaks” opened across the United States and internationally on February 20th, 1932.
It did well in some theaters while others pulled the picture – – or had it pulled by local authorities.
For the most part, “Freaks” bombed territory after territory. It was banned outright in Great Britain where it wouldn’t be seen for 30 years.
Tod Browning, the pioneering director who helped create the horror film genre, was not able to live down the controversy and his career was ruined.
Anyone who knows the history of “Freaks” asks the same questions: How did this movie get made? Would there have been broader acceptance had MGM not taken a hatchet to Browning’s story and its message?
And how did “Freaks” go from being the most reviled film of all-time to one of the most respected?
The details of the behind-the-scenes battles are lost to the ages, leaving us to imagine. So imagine is what MakingFreaks.com will do.
Michael Kriegsman, author of the upcoming graphic novel “One of Us: The Making of Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ – Reimagined,” created this website as his thank you to the film that literally changed his life.
Check out Kriegsman’s FreaksBlog where he’ll be sharing some rare revelations and never-before-published production discoveries.
Kriegsman consulted with actor Jerry Maren who worked closely with Harry Earles in “The Wizard of Oz”.
That’s our Jerry in the middle in the two photos below.
Kriegsman also consulted with the late Verne Langdon, Don Post monster mask maker, award-winning film & television makeup artist and Grammy-nominated song writer.
Langdon knew Schlitzie personally, so expect some very surprising stories. No, Verne is not pointing to Schlitze in the photo above! That’s “One of Us” author Michael Kriegsman!
Verne’s hauntingly beautiful “Carnival of Souls” graced the soundtrack of the “American Horror Story – Freak Show” episode titled “Monsters Among Us” and was reprised in the series finale. Verne may be gone but he’s certainly not forgotten. We miss him.
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