How tough was the original cut of Tod Browning’s Freaks? One woman who saw an early test screening - one of the only people to ever see the complete film - threatened to sue MGM for giving her a miscarriage.
Of course people reacted a bit differently back in the day (remember that the reveal of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera make-up caused fainting), but Browning’s Freaks stands the test of time as a truly odd and unsettling movie, a film whose climax is a nightmarish vision of the physically afflicted squirming through the mud, vengeance on their minds. And we have never seen the worst of it.
After Dracula was a huge hit and proved that horror could draw audiences, Universal wanted to make whatever director Tod Browning wanted to make, and he decided to adapt a short story called Spurs. That story, by Tod Robbins, is markedly different from the film, with mainly the idea of a midget performer getting suckered into a cruel marriage by a normal sized woman being shared. The story has a strange ending - the midget forces the woman to carry him on her shoulders across all of France as punishment - but it doesn’t equal the dark vision of Browning’s film.
All of the sideshow performers in Freaks are real people, and many continued on the freak show circuit for years afterwards. Most of them appear in the film under their own or their stage names - Johnny Eck the Half-Boy, Schlitzie the Pinhead, Koo Koo the Bird Girl, Daisy and Violet Hilton, the Siamese Twins - but more importantly they appear as real people. The genius of Freaks is that Browning portrays these people as the human beings they are, working show business people who have lives and loves and day to day concerns. Their bodies are unique, strange and different but their inner lives are much like our own.
The true monsters in Freaks are Cleopatra, the trapeze artist, and Hercules the strong man. Together they conspire to trick the rich midget Hans into marrying Cleo and then poison him; when she has his money they’ll run off together. But the other freaks get wind of the plan, and they wreak a particularly gruesome vengeance upon the pair.
That vengeance is only glimpsed in the final film. Those test screenings in early 1932 were disasters, and MGM took the movie away from Browning and slashed almost a half hour from the film. The original runtime of an hour and a half had been butchered down to just 62 minutes. What was removed has become the stuff of legend; back in the early 30s nobody bothered to save deleted scenes, and so no one alive today has ever seen the complete version of Freaks.
The studio trimmed throughout, removing small bits of comedy business and cutting scenes short. Many of the cuts were, oddly, aimed at the relationship of Venus and Phroso the clown; in the finished film Venus is a good girl, but in the original film she was a bad girl trying to go good. The two share many more scenes, and one sequence has Phroso knocking out stuttering Roscoe* for calling Venus a tramp. Also cut from the finished film were many scenes that detailed the growing enmity between Venus and Hercules the strong man, a dislike that would blossom in the final sequence when he attempts to kill her and fights Phroso.
In the version of the film you have seen the hellish vision of tan army of freaks closing in on the terrible two. Cleopatra runs into the rainy woods, looks behind her and screams before the scene fades back into the opening sequence of a group of sideshow rubes gawking into a pit. From there the movie goes into a happy ending that MGM tacked onto it, a happy ending that never existed in the original cut. The footage from the original cut no longer exists but a script in the MGM archives clues us in to what we would have been.
Those test audiences saw Cleo run into the woods, pursued by slithering freaks. A bolt of lightning hit a tree, sending it crashing onto her and allowing the hunting party to catch up. They swarm over her, between the branches, and she screams horribly. At this point Browning cuts back to the circus caravan, where Venus’ wagon has caught fire in the wake of the Phroso/Hercules fight. The men of the circus have put out the blaze, but they hear the agonized screams of Cleo in the woods; they run out with their lanterns, and when they get to the fallen tree the freaks scatter. The men approach and are horrified by the mess they see. One cries out for an ambulance.
Meanwhile other freaks continue to chase the injured Hercules. He makes it to a wagon and climbs up the steps, but his pursuers catch up to him. They pounce on him and the film cuts to black.
It picks up three years later, in London. Venus and Phroso are a couple, and they have a picture of Hans and Frieda, now married and with a little baby. Venus and Phroso are visiting Madame Tetrallini, the mother figure to the pinheads, who keeps the freaks on display during the off season. She leads the two to a special exhibit, and it’s Cleo in the pit, mutilated into a horrible quacking chicken woman, as seen in the final film. But there’s more: Tetrallini tells the two that Cleo is now senseless, cannot speak and understands nothing, and it’s for the best. What’s more, Cleo’s boyfriend is here with her. The camera pans to the other side of the hall and we see Hercules, singing soprano - the freaks have castrated him.
Even with (or likely because of) the massive cuts Freaks was a box office bomb. It destroyed Browning’s career, and he would never make another major studio picture. Freaks would be banned in England for 30 years and it would slowly gather an underground reputation in the US as a bizarre, heartfelt, frightening and ultimately amazing gem.
Tod Browning died in October of 1962, just one month after Freaks was revived at the Venice Film Festival. That showing marked the beginning of a reevaluation of the film; it became a counterculture staple in the 60s, profoundly influenced the Ramones and finally, in 1994, was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Browning died just before his movie was finally vindicated.
The deformities on display in Freaks shocked many, and the movie itself is shocking. But more shocking than the missing half of Johnny Ecks or the cigarette-lighting technique of the Human Torso or table dance of Koo Koo is the inhumanity of Cleopatra and Hercules; the cruelty of these two are more terrifying than any of the creeps and monsters Browning created with the likes of Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi. And maybe it was that horror which truly offended audiences, not the deep humanity of the freaks.
*Continuing the film’s tradition of people showcasing their true selves, actor Roscoe Ates had grown up with a severe stutter. While he eventually overcame it he revived the speech impediment for comedic roles in the movies.