FREAKS, 1932
American Masters: Lon Chaney
"Spurs" by Tod Robbins -- This short story served as the inspiration for Freaks
Todd (with two D's) Robbins - Pre-eminent sideshow performer/historian
Sideshow World
FREAKS' imdb entry
TCM's Tod Browning entry
Coney Island's Official Website
CI's Freakshow Hall of Fame
"FREAKS: A Movie Undead"
Show An encyclopedia of novelty & variety performers & showfolk.
National Geographic's Mummy Roadshow
James Taylor's Shocked and Amazed - On and Off the Midway
Sideshow School
Save Coney Island!
Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra)

In the summer of 1931, Irving Thalberg, young production manager at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, had been eyeing, as had many other executives throughout the film industry, the phenomenal box-office success of Universal's trend-setting vampire film, DRACULA. Thalberg, sensing a growing "horror cycle" in the cinema, wanted to outdo the rival studios with a "shocker" that would allow M-G-M to become a forerunner in the sound rebirth of that genre on the screen. He asked scriptwriter Willis Goldbeck to come up with an awe-inspiring story more horrible than all the rest. Working with Leon Gordon, Goldbeck soon developed a script that dealt with the extraordinary relationships among the deformed creatures that composed the majority of circus sideshows. Thalberg called Goldbeck into his office after having read the script, with the latter recalling that Thalberg "received me with his head down on his arms on the desk, as though overcome. He looked at me sadly, shook his head and sighed: 'Well, it's horrible.'"

The script was that of FREAKS, the basic story of which was suggested from fantasy writer Clarence Aaron "Tod" Robbins' short story "Spurs," first published in the February, 1923 issue of Munsey' s Magazine. Part of the script was also based upon material gathered by Tod Browning, the film's director, during his recent European trip. Browning had known of the story for years through his friend Harry Earles, the German midget who had given a memorable performance as the baby-faced pilferer in the director's exceptional thriller, THE UNHOLY THREE (1925), based on a "Tod" Robbins novel. Cedric Gibbons, chief of the M-G-M Art Department, who as a childhood friend of the author had typed up his manuscripts, also was among those who brought the story to the attention of the studio. Gibbons was responsible for the purchase of "Spurs" by Metro for the amount of $8,000.

[...] [Source: "The Making of Freaks", 6/24/08. Follow the link for the rest of the article.

Freaks Directed by Tod Browning, 1932.

Tod Browning worked with Chaney on silent monster movies for MGM. He'd left to do work on monster movies w/Universal but came back to MGM from Universal to do Freaks in October 1931. Filming lasted for 36 days, and the final product was released in 1932.

Browning and Chaney came to this subject matter comfortably. Tod Browning was a contortionist and knew the side show scene personally. Lon Chaney, something of an outsider, having grown up with deaf parents, created the talking monster-movie genre together.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula from Browning's 1931 feature Dracula.

Lon Chaney in London after Midnight, directed by Browning and released in 1927.

Chaney, a top silent star, was fascinated w/physical abnormalities. He died in 1930, and was originally signed to star in this film as the clown Phroso.

Lon Chaney, Jr. (born Creighton Tull Chaney) as The Wolfman, 1941.

Harold and Daisy - the stars, were actually sister and brother in real life. Harry and Daisy Earles (Schneider) came from a family of little people that came to the US from Germany during WWI. They performed as The Dancing Dolls at Coney Island. The name stuck, and they often appeared as the Doll Family.

Harry was in the Wizard of Oz as one of the representatives of the Lollipop Guild.

Daisy was the tallest and known as the Midget May West. The family lived together in Hollywood with doll-sized and custom-made furniture.

Peter Robinson - The Living Skeleton. The human skeleton goes back to the days of the dime museums of the 19th century. Robinson married Bunny Smith, who at 420 lbs, was the sideshow's fat lady. Robinson was then the living Jack Spratt. He was very political, would go on and on about politics.

Martha Morris

Francis O'Connor

Frances O'Connor would sign postcards w/her feet. The Freak act was not just about being watched, but also about performing. O'Connor would also crochet w/her feet, and she'd discuss her condition. She was in a sharp shooting act also.


Microcephalics, known then as Pinheads, were a 19th century attraction. They were presented in circuses and sideshows as missing links. The age of Darwin allowed people to imagine all sorts of impossibilties coming into being. Schlitzie (Simon Metz) - was a male microcephalic, who performed in a dress, did magic shows, and had so much fun that the audiences loved him. Described as being mischievous and playful, Schlitzie was a very successful performer.

Prince Randian - The Human Torso.

Prince Randian had no arms or legs. He enjoyed a long, successful career as a sideshow attraction. Human Worms, Human Caterpillars, Living Torsos - were all very popular in sideshows. Prince had a wife and kids, and his son would carry him around the set. He could roll the cigarette as well as light it. He lived to be 63 years old and worked up to the time of his death. His last show was played in a freakshow in Time Square after which, he went back to his dressing room and died.

Daisy and Violet Hilton - Conjoined Twins - the original Hilton Sisters.

Born out of wedlock, the girls were given to their mother's midwife (Mrs. Hilton), when they were babies and exhibited in Mrs. Hilton's bar and eventually transitioned into the sideshow world. The girls could move fairly freely, because the way in which they were conjoined. They were attractive, sang, and were successful on the Vaudeville scene. They emancipated themselves finally, and they were enormously successful. They went from stage to film. Supposedly F Scott Fitzgerald, who had been writing screenplays at some point, ran into the twins in the cafeteria and was freaked out by them. He saw one reading a menu and the other appearing to understand it. Supposedly, he ran out of the cafeteria and was sick. No one knows if that's a true story, but there is a short story that Fitzgerald later wrote called "Crazy Sundays" - and makes a reference to a studio shooting a circus picture w/sideshow people.

Violet and Daisy as children.

Johnny Eck(hardt) The Astounding Halfboy and his twin brother Robert.

Johnny had a wonderful persona. He was handsome, artistic, articulate, very well liked. His brother and he were briefly part of a magic act - sawing a man in half. The brother was a ringer in the audience, and he'd get called up. He was switched w/Johnny and a dwarf with tall pants, concealing him. After the sawed box was popped open, the dwarf would run off, and Johnny would chase his lower half. He and Browning planned to make a sequel to Freaks. Check out The Johnny Eck Museum for more information.

Josephine Joseph the "Half-and-Half"

Sex Attraction as extra added attraction - annex or blow off - extra show one paid extra money to see. Often these performers were presented as hermaphrodites. It was a common convention to adopt the half and half costume. Performers in this role would often exercise w/free weights to build up the musculature on one side, and tan that side too. The other side would be pale and flabby, pushed up and usually a fraud. They were usually very good female impersonators to a mostly male audience.

Madame Olga aka Jane Barnell - The Bearded Lady.

Betty Green - Stork Woman (a gaffed freak), used to attract customers inside the tents.

Cast, 1932.

There were many stories about Jan 1932 release, including one telling of a woman running screaming up the aisle - probably a publicity stunt. Preview audience didn't get the film. Hollywood was a convenient scapegoat for the country in the 30s. They felt Freaks was a new low for Hollywood depravity. Browning, who'd had enormous success in the silent version of this genre was baffled. The film was pulled in the Summer of 1932, and banned in parts of the world for over three decades. It was rediscovered by the arthouse circuit in the 1960s, when there was a change in the social climate, embracing the idea of transgression and freakishness. The artwork of artists like Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin explore these alternative ideologies.