11 Astonishing Facts About Freaks

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

In 1931, fresh off the success of his horror hit Dracula, director Tod Browning finally got the go-ahead to pursue a longtime passion project of his: a revenge tale centered around sideshow performers in a traveling circus. Eager to produce their own horror films that could rival Dracula, MGM let Browning make Freaks, one of the most ambitious and gutsy filmmaking efforts in Hollywood at the time. Though today many regard it as a classic, or at least a cult favorite, Freaks did not have the same reception in the early 1930s. Its title character faced scrutiny and revulsion on the MGM backlot, and the film itself faced scandalized audiences nationwide.

Now, nearly 90 years after its initial release, Freaks remains a unique work in Hollywood history. Here are 11 facts about how it got there, from the original idea to its unlikely revival.

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED TO BE A LON CHANEY VEHICLE.

The story of Freaks as a film project apparently dates back to at least 1925, and the MGM silent drama The Unholy Three, which was directed by Browning and starred “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney. The film was based on a short story by Tod Robbins, and co-starred eventual Freaks star Harry Earles as a dwarf criminal who pulled scams by posing as a baby. The story goes that Earles, eager to find more film roles, brought Robbins’s short story “Spurs”—the tale of a pair of circus performers (part of a bareback riding act in the story) who take advantage of a wealthy dwarf—to Browning.

Browning, himself a former sideshow and vaudeville performer, took an interest in the story and convinced MGM to purchase the rights. The original plan, according to Browning biographer and historian David J. Skal, was to make the film another Chaney vehicle, but the film never got off the ground during the silent era. Chaney died in 1930, shortly after again co-starring with Earles in a talkie remake of The Unholy Three, but Browning never lost interest in the story.

2. MGM WANTED IT TO RIVAL DRACULA AS A HORROR FILM.

Though there were certainly monstrous characters populating various silent films (particularly those portrayed by Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera and London After Midnight), the horror film as a genre didn’t really take off until the era of talkies began. Shortly after Chaney’s death due to complications from lung cancer, Browning was off at Universal Pictures, helping to lead the horror wave with his now-classic adaptation of Dracula. When Browning returned to MGM in the wake of Dracula’s success, head of production Irving Thalberg wanted to capitalize on the horror boom. The hope was that, with the director of Dracula back at the studio, MGM could best Universal with something even more horrifying, and so Browning was finally given the go-ahead to make Freaks, which had remained a pet project of his for years.

According to Skal, it became a classic lesson for Thalberg in being careful what you wish for: The story goes that after he was presented with the screenplay for the film, Thalberg reportedly hung his head and said, “Well, I asked for something horrible, and I guess I got it.”

3. CASTING THE "FREAKS" WAS AN INTENSE PROCESS.

Olga Baclanova and Harry Earles in 'Freaks' (1932)
Harry Earles and Olga Baclanova in Freaks (1932)
Warner Home Video

Aiming for authenticity, Browning sought real sideshow attractions and performers to play the “freaks” at the heart of the story instead of relying on movie magic (as he so often had with Chaney) to portray them. Earles, who brought “Spurs” to Browning in the first place, naturally came on board to play the wealthy dwarf Hans, and enlisted his sister Daisy to play Hans’s dwarf fiancée Frieda.

For the rest of the characters, casting director Ben Piazza put out a call for photographs and on-camera tests for various sideshow performers, and apparently spent nearly a month traveling the country to scout out various acts. This exhaustive search paid off, leading to the casting of memorable performers like the “Half Boy” Johnny Eck, the “Living Torso” Prince Randian, Angelo Rossitto (who continued to work in films for more than five decades after Freaks), and Schlitzie (spelled Schlitze in the film), who in many ways became the performer most identified with the film.

4. MYRNA LOY AND JEAN HARLOW WERE ORIGINALLY CONSIDERED AS CO-STARS.

Casting the other characters in Freaks may not have required as much of an outside-the-studio effort, but it was nonetheless met with a few challenges. When casting the scheming trapeze artist Cleopatra, Thalberg apparently wanted Myrna Loy, who was then a rising star recently signed to an MGM contract. According to Skal, Loy was “absolutely horrified” by the script, and begged Thalberg not to make her do the film. Thalberg relented, and the role went to Olga Baclanova, a former Moscow Art Theatre performer who left the company during a U.S. tour in 1925 and went on to co-star in The Man Who Laughs in 1928, alongside Conrad Veidt. For the seal trainer Venus, Browning wanted Jean Harlow, who was apparently announced to the press as one of the film’s stars near the start of production. Thalberg eventually nixed that idea too, and the role went to Leila Hyams.

5. TOD BROWNING HAD NIGHTMARES ABOUT THE PERFORMERS DURING PRODUCTION.

Browning’s insistence on casting real sideshow performers in Freaks paid off visually, resulting in an unforgettable film experience that also managed to humanize the various real people behind the story. When those casting decisions were applied to the practical process of shooting a film, though, things were sometimes less rewarding. Though many of them were seasoned performers, the “freaks” were not necessarily trained actors, and some of them required special care and patience due to impairments. The stress of working with them took a toll on Browning, which led to some unusual dreams during the making of the film.

"It got to the point where I had nightmares. I mean it. I scarcely could sleep at all. There was one terrible dream in which I was trying to shoot a difficult scene,” Browning later recalled. “Every time I started, Johnny Eck, the half-boy, and one of the pinheads would start bringing a cow in backwards through a door. I'd tell them to stop but the next take they'd do it all over again. Three times that night I got up and smoked a cigarette but when I went back to bed I'd pick up the dream again." 

6. THE "FREAKS" WERE OSTRACIZED BY STUDIO EMPLOYEES.

Browning’s practical difficulties in shooting the film aside, the performers in Freaks also faced resistance from various MGM employees who were reportedly disgusted by their presence on the studio lot. Studio head Louis B. Mayer was apparently so shocked by the performers that he wanted to shut the picture down. Thalberg was able to keep Mayer at bay, but other employees also raised objections after see the “freaks” in the MGM commissary.

To keep tempers from flaring, Thalberg arranged a compromise: Though the more “normal” looking cast members—including Harry and Daisy Earles and the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton—were allowed to remain in the commissary, the rest of the cast was relegated to a tent erected outside, which served as their mess hall. This perhaps still didn’t stop certain reactions, though. According to one possibly apocryphal story, F. Scott Fitzgerald—who was doing some screenwriting work for MGM at the time—walked into the commissary one day and was so shocked by the sight of the Hilton sisters that he fled the room to go vomit. Fitzgerald later worked what seems to be a version of this encounter into his short story “Crazy Sunday,” which is about a Hollywood screenwriter.

7. AUDIENCES WERE SCANDALIZED BY IT.

Freaks finally held its first previews in San Diego in January of 1932, where the audience reaction was swift and brutal. One woman ran screaming from the theater during the movie, while another apparently threatened to sue the studio, claiming that the film was so horrific it had caused her to suffer a miscarriage (it remains unclear whether or not these stories were actually publicity stunts cooked up by MGM to play up the film’s horror elements). One review from a critic who saw the film’s first cut called it "rather gruesomely dramatized for the edification (or education) of those morbid persons who enjoy gazing upon unfortunate, misshapen, cruelly deformed humanity." Fearing further disaster, Thalberg decided to act.

8. THE STUDIO CUT THE MOVIE SHORT.

After the disastrous preview screenings of Freaks, Thalberg decided changes needed to be made, and moved the film’s wider release from January 30 to February 20 of 1932. Without Browning’s input, Thalberg trimmed the film from a length of 90 minutes to only about 60, cutting both footage that depicted the attack on Hercules and Cleopatra in greater detail and some scenes that further humanized the “freaks” through small character moments (the scene in which Prince Randian lights his own cigarette using only his mouth, for example, also originally included footage of him rolling the cigarette). Thalberg also cut an epilogue sequence that depicted a London museum opened by Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione) and replaced it with a framing device featuring a carnival barker who showed off the mutilated Cleopatra to a crowd. Thalberg also added a different epilogue in which Venus and Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford) bring Frieda to Hans’s mansion for a reunion and reconciliation.

The uncut version of Freaks still played at the film’s world premiere at San Diego’s Fox Theatre on January 28, and ironically it ended up finding success there. The film set a house record during its run for the theater, which capitalized by advertising itself as the only place where audiences could ever see the “uncensored” version of Freaks.

9. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE FAILURE.

Roscoe Ates, Daisy Hilton, and Violet Hilton in 'Freaks' (1932)
Roscoe Ates, Daisy Hilton, and Violet Hilton in Freaks (1932)
Warner Home Video

Though both initial audience and critical reactions were rather negative, Freaks continued to march through its release across the country in the early months of 1932. Along the way it found box office success in some major cities, and even some positive reviews, but the horrified responses to the film drowned out any sense that Freaks could ever become a box office success. The film’s New York engagement was delayed for months, and when it finally arrived in the summer of 1932 the writing was on the wall. The studio pulled Freaks from circulation and reported a loss of $164,000 against its $316,000 budget.

The next year, in an effort to recoup some of the money lost during the initial theatrical run, Thalberg re-released the film, without the MGM logo, under the new title Nature’s Mistakes. The new release was accompanied by an ad campaign that asked questions like "Do Siamese Twins Make Love?" and "What Sex is the Half-Man-Half-Woman?"

10. IT DERAILED BROWNING’S CAREER.

Before Freaks, Browning was one of the most successful directors in Hollywood, and his success had earned him enough clout to get the ambitious and gutsy film made after Dracula hit big at Universal. After Freaks, he never quite recovered. According to Skal, this was not just due to that film’s failure, but due to Browning’s continued discomfort with the change in the filmmaking process that came from the rise of talkies. That discomfort, coupled with an increasing inability to get more personal projects approved by the studios in the wake of Freaks, led to his decline in the 1930s.

Browning directed just four more films (two of them uncredited), with his final directing credit coming on the MGM mystery Miracles for Sale in 1939. He retired with enough savings from his directorial successes to live comfortably in a pair of homes in Beverly Hills and Malibu, and died in 1962.

11. IT FOUND A NEW AUDIENCE IN THE 1960S.

After its critical and commercial failure in the United States, Freaks faded into the background as a kind of Hollywood curiosity, and was banned in several countries (including the United Kingdom) for decades. The film was licensed by distributor Dwain Esper in the late 1940s, and played on the grindhouse circuit at various independent theaters, but it wasn’t until the 1962 Cannes Film Festival that the film’s revival really began. After screening there, it was heralded as a kind of forgotten classic. Noted film collector and archivist Raymond Rohauer picked up the baton from there, landing the rights to Freaks and showing it as a cult film. It gained prominence on the midnight movie circuit, and found particular success with members of the 1960s counterculture movement, who saw kindred spirits in its cast.

Additional Sources:
“Tod Browning’s Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema” (Warner Home Video, 2004)

K-Swiss Has Cooked Up an Entire Line of Breaking Bad Sneakers

Breaking Bad lives on in sneaker form.
Breaking Bad lives on in sneaker form.
K-Swiss

Breaking Bad has been off the air for nearly seven years, but there’s no sign that AMC’s breakthrough drama is showing any hints of slowing down. On the heels of their success with a limited-edition Breaking Bad sneaker in October 2019, K-Swiss has returned to the seedy underbelly of Albuquerque, New Mexico, with an entire line of shoes.

The company announced a joint venture with Sony Pictures Consumer Products for three new sneakers based on the popular drug-running series starring Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a chemistry teacher-turned-unlikely drug kingpin. All of the K-Swiss x Breaking Bad Classic 2000 varieties are based on the K-Swiss Classic 2000 low-top design and take inspiration from different elements of the show.

The Cooking shoe has a yellow color scheme that takes after the protective suits worn by Walter and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) during meth cooks. K-Swiss will make 1144 pairs available:

The K-Swiss x 'Breaking Bad' Classic 2000 Cooking sneaker is pictured
The K-Swiss x Breaking Bad Classic 2000 Cooking sneaker.
K-Swiss

The Cleaning shoe (1162 pairs) is patterned after the jumpers worn by the two during the cleaning of their elaborate underground lab built by drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito):

The K-Swiss x 'Breaking Bad' Classic 2000 Cleaning sneaker is pictured
The K-Swiss x Breaking Bad Classic 2000 Cleaning sneaker.
K-Swiss

The Recreational Vehicle design, with a stripe that looks like the exterior of White’s mobile meth laboratory, resembles the October 2019 shoe release. K-Swiss will make 1396 pairs available:

The K-Swiss x 'Breaking Bad' Classic 2000 Recreational Vehicle sneaker is pictured
The K-Swiss x Breaking Bad Classic 2000 Recreational Vehicle sneaker.
K-Swiss

The Cooking and Cleaning shoes have “Heisenberg,” Walter’s alias, written on the sole:

The K-Swiss x 'Breaking Bad' Classic 2000 Cooking sneaker sole with 'Heisenberg' printed on it is pictured
The K-Swiss x Breaking Bad Classic 2000 Cooking and Cleaning sneakers have 'Heisenberg' printed on the sole.
K-Swiss

All the sneakers come packaged in a Breaking Bad periodic table box. Men’s sizes retail for $80 to $90. No women’s sizes have been announced. You can find them in limited quantities online at KSwiss.com, FootLocker.com, Footaction.com, and ChampsSports.com beginning February 20.

8 Surprising Facts About Andy Kaufman

Andy Kaufman in 1981.
Andy Kaufman in 1981.
Joan Adlen, Getty Images

For fans of the late comedian Andy Kaufman (1949-1984), the debate over whether Kaufman was more interested in antagonizing audiences or making them laugh still rages. During a career that saw him appear on stage and on television (Taxi), the performer often blurred the lines between his real persona and the characters he inhabited.

For more on Kaufman, keep reading. Thank you very much.

1. Andy Kaufman got a letter from his doctor that kept him from being drafted.

Born in New York City on January 17, 1949, Kaufman was raised in Great Neck, Long Island and displayed an interest in performing from an early age, entertaining children at their birthday parties when Kaufman himself was only 8 years old. After graduating from high school in 1967, Kaufman though he might be drafted for military service but didn’t wind up serving. His doctor wrote a letter explaining that Kaufman seemed to have no basic grasp of reality, let alone the Vietnam conflict. Joining the Army, the doctor wrote, might cause Kaufman to completely lose his mind. The letter, which likely contained a good measure of hyperbole, earned him a permanent 4-F deferment from service. He went on to attend Grahm Junior College in Boston.

2. Andy Kaufman’s stand-up act was very, very bizarre.

Kaufman got his start in the early 1970s performing at comedy clubs in New York and Los Angeles. Unlike most comics of the time, Kaufman didn’t write a conventionally-structured act. Instead, he would take on the role of performance artist, confusing audiences with stunts like reading from The Great Gatsby and threatening to start over if they complained. He would also drag a sleeping bag on stage and climb into it or do his laundry with a portable dryer. These appearances were sufficiently provocative that Kaufman sometimes hired off-duty police officers to break up fights in the crowd or intercept people trying to attack him.

3. Andy Kaufman once opened for Barry Manilow.

Before Kaufman got television exposure, it was easy for bookers to assume he was a polished and conventional performer. As a result, Kaufman got a number of gigs in the early 1970s opening for established musical acts like the Temptations and Barry Manilow. Appearing onstage in 1972 before the Temptations came out, Kaufman wept and then shot himself in the head with a cap gun. Similarly bizarre behavior was also displayed before a Manilow concert, with irate members of the audience having to be calmed down by Manilow himself.

4. Andy Kaufman was once voted off of Saturday Night Live.

Kaufman succeeded in drawing attention to himself on stage, which led to being invited to perform on Saturday Night Live beginning in 1975. During these appearances, Kaufman would take material from his act, including his lip-syncing of the theme to the Mighty Mouse animated series. Such stunts drew a mixed reception from viewers. From 1975 to 1982, Kaufman made a total of 14 appearances on the show. Then, producers decided to offer viewers the chance to “vote” Kaufman off by calling in to cast their ballot. On the November 20, 1982 broadcast, 195,544 callers asked that the show not permit him to come back on. They outnumbered the 169,186 viewers who called in support of him. While the bit was intended to be humorous, Kaufman honored the results and never appeared on Saturday Night Live again.

5. Andy Kaufman once took his entire audience out for milk and cookies.

Kaufman eventually took his show to Carnegie Hall in 1979, where he was greeted by 2800 people who had come to appreciate his eccentric approach to performing. At the show's conclusion, he invited the entire audience to board buses waiting outside the building. Kaufman took them to the New York School of Printing in Manhattan, where he served the nearly 3000 attendees milk and cookies. He later gave them a ride on the Staten Island Ferry.

6. Andy Kaufman thought about franchising Tony Clifton.

One of Kaufman’s great ruses on the public was dressing as the abrasive lounge singer Tony Clifton, complete with prosthetic chin and torso padding, all while insisting Clifton was an entirely different person. Kaufman sometimes enlisted associates, including his brother Michael and his writing partner Bob Zmuda, to put on the make-up. In 2013, Michael told Vice that Kaufman’s plan was to have Clifton become a roving character. “Andy had been talking about franchising Tony Clifton before he died,” Michael Kaufman said. “He was going to have one in every state.”

7. Andy Kaufman insisted on an Andy Kaufman stand-in for Taxi.

When Kaufman agreed to appear on Taxi (1978-1983) as Latka Gravas, a version of the “Foreign Man” character he had been performing on stage, he had a peculiar request: He wanted to be expected on set for only two of the five shooting days for each episode. While Kaufman didn’t seem to want to do it at all, the paycheck allowed him to pursue his more experimental brand of comedy. Producers agreed. In 2018, co-star Carol Kane, who played Kaufman's love interest, told The Hollywood Reporter that the cast “would work with a fake Andy who wore a sign around his neck that said ‘Latka.’”

Kaufman also showed up to shoot an episode as his alter ego Tony Clifton, insisting that he was not Kaufman. Star Judd Hirsch got so angry that he had Clifton thrown off the set.

8. Andy Kaufman broke character for Orson Welles.

While there were certainly times Kaufman spoke from the heart, it was rare to see him break any one of his myriad characters in front of an audience. That happened—fleetingly—when Kaufman appeared on The Merv Griffin Show in 1982 on a night it was being guest-hosted by legendary film director Orson Welles. Sporting a neck brace from his stint in professional wrestling, Kaufman didn’t keep up appearances for long. After Welles told him he was “fascinated” by his characters, talk turned to Kaufman’s “Foreign Man,” his Elvis Presley imitation, and his “third character,” Tony Clifton. “Well, he wasn’t a character,” Kaufman said, correcting himself. “There’s a lot of debate over whether it’s a character or a real guy, and that’s Tony Clifton, but that’s a whole other story.”

“That’s metaphysics,” Welles replied.

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