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)

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

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