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  • Writer's pictureRua Fay

"Freaks:" The Film that Destroyed One of the Best Directors in Hollywood

The early 20th century was a pivotal time for the film industry. In a short few decades film went from a sequence of still pictures to a full production with synched sound, drawing in millions of eager audience members across the globe. One of the key players in Hollywood during this time was Todd Browning, man who would rise to become one of the most influential directors of all time and then suffer the most catastrophic downfall the industry had seen thus far.

When it comes to the earliest years of film, few stand out as being the most iconic, and one of those fateful pictures is 1931's Dracula, directed by none other than Todd Browning. The movie is largely responsible for the modern, popular image of the classic vampire. It features a career-defining performance by Bela Lugosi, making him a legend in the world of acting, and catapulting the director's career as well. It was released on February 12th, 1931, and from that point forward, Browning's life would never be the same again. Dracula ended up selling 50,000 tickets during its theatrical run, generating $700,000 in ticket revenue, which is roughly $14 million today. It was Universal's biggest success of 1931 and helped establish the studio as the leading producer of horror films, a reputation they still carry today. Needless to say, Dracula was not only a successful movie, but an important one, for Universal Pictures, the horror genre, and the industry as a whole. Because of Dracula, Browning was nicknamed the "Edgar Allen Poe of Cinema."

After the never-before-seen success of Dracula, Todd Browning found himself being the hottest new prospect for Hollywood studios to employ. He was on track to become not only an extremely successful director, but a lucrative name on a marquee for any studio who would hire him. In mid 1931, he signed a deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to create his next big picture, one that the studio was sure would lead to another boatload of money like he had made for Universal.

At this point, Browning had full creative control, and an entire studio in his pocket, he could make anything he wanted. And what exactly did he do to follow-up the most prosperous film of 1931, a sequel? No. Instead, a little film you may not have heard of, but with a name that lives in infamy, Freaks. A mere 9 months after the release of Dracula, Browning rounded up his crew and began filming the movie that would end up destroying his career...

Freaks is a drama/horror film based off the short story, Spurs by Tod Robbins. It tells the story of a trapeze performer who joins a carnival sideshow with the intent of seducing and murdering the dwarf who runs the circus for his inheritance money. It contains a lot of violence and murder and ends with the main character being maimed, mutilated, and turned into a "human duck." When it comes to the genre of horror, this seems like a very tame plot, but the horror was intended to come from the cast rather than the story. Freaks employed a cast of real disabled people and sideshow performers, including dwarves, amputees, microcephalics, and even siamese twins. Obviously today, we treat these conditions with much more sensitivity, but in 1931, these people were monsters, and the vast majority of the public had never seen anyone with these abnormalities, leading to one of the most intense audience outcries to ever spur from a Hollywood picture.

Freaks released on February 12th, 1932, exactly a year after the premiere of Dracula. Meaning that Browning's time as a big name in Hollywood both started and ended on the same day. Upon release, MGM was immediately accused of exploiting its subjects, but little did they know, that would soon be the least of their worries. Audience members would recoil in fear after seeing the sideshow performers on screen, and run out of the theater before the end of the film. Hollywood trade journal, Harrison's Reports wrote that "Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward." Kansas Star Journal writer, John C. Moffitt wrote that "There is no excuse for this picture. It took a weak mind to produce it and it takes a strong stomach to look at it."

There were various reports of people becoming sick or even fainting which watching Freaks, however the most infamous reaction came from a woman who threatened to sue MGM, claiming that the film caused her to have a miscarriage.

In an effort to quell audience uproar, MGM cut thirty minutes of the film entirely out, without the consent of Todd Browning. Unfortunately, the original 90 minute version no longer exists, so the only remaining cut of Freaks is a mere 64 minutes in length. Freaks became the only MGM film to be prematurely pulled from theaters before completing its domestic theatrical run. In addition to becoming a PR nightmare for the studio, Freaks was a financial failure at the box office, barely grossing half of what Dracula did the year prior. Not only did Freaks severely damage the reputation of MGM, it barely made the studio any money for their trouble.

None of the damage the studio suffered because of Freaks could compare to the havoc it wreaked on Todd Browning's career. All of the prestige and credibility he had made off of Dracula was now gone, and there was absolutely no chance of getting it back. Before Freaks, Browning was known to make 2-3 films a year, but after Freaks, he was lucky to get one deal from a studio a year. His last four films ended up being forgettable and bleak, a clear reminder of Browning's wasted potential. At the age of 59, he released his final film, and it is said that the last twenty years of his life he spent as an alcoholic recluse. Todd Browning died alone at 82 in his Malibu home on October 6th, 1962, leaving behind a turbulent yet influential legacy.

There's no doubting that Freaks completely destroyed Browning's career, however retrospective criticism of the film has been much kinder than that from the audiences of 1932. Today, Freaks holds a score of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and is now a beloved cult film. Something I'm sure Browning would be shocked by if he had lived to see the day. The storytelling, effects, and performances are all held in high regard from film students and critics everywhere, and it is still occasionally screened in independent theaters around the world.

Whether or not you see any merit to Freaks, there's no doubting just how much of a creative risk it was to make, and if it weren't for that same risk taking spirit, we wouldn't have some of today's most iconic films. Although, Freaks was not a success at the time, it is still an incredibly important part of film history and even Todd Browning's career ended up being a casuality, it was a worthy sacrifice.


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