A guide to the fascinating stars of Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’
I first saw Tod Browning’s “Freaks” when I was 11 years old, after reading the liner notes on “Ramonesmania,” explaining that they got the “Gabba Gabba We accept you! We accept you! One of us!” refrain on Pinhead from this movie. This was in the pre-Wikipedia dark ages where many of us learned about things through liner notes.
For the uninitiated, “Freaks” is a 1932 pre-code film by Tod Browning about a circus sideshow. The film used real sideshow performers in the cast–an extremely controversial choice that led to the film being banned in the UK. On the one hand, the idea of people with disabilities being used as fodder for entertainment is incredibly sad and disturbing–it was a dark period in our history. But, on the other, the film itself was on the side of these “freaks” and many of them were awesome performers in their own right and deserved to have a chance to shine on the silver screen.
Harry and Daisy Earles as Hans and Frieda
No, they weren’t married in real life. They actually were brother and sister. In fact, Harry and Daisy, along with their two sisters Grace and Tiny toured as a group calling themselves “The Doll Family.” Daisy was known as “The Midget Mae West.”All four appeared as munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz,” and numerous other films, often with Laurel and Hardy, leading them to dub themselves “The Motion Picture Midgets.”
It was actually Harry who approached Browning about the idea for the film in the first place–the source material being a short story by Tod Robbins called Spurs (which you can read here if you like).
Daisy and Violet Hilton as The Siamese Twins
Out of all of the cast of Freaks, perhaps the most fascinating story is that of Daisy and Violet Hilton. The girls, joined at the hips and buttocks, were the first conjoined twins born in Britain to survive more than a few weeks. When they were just born, they were sold by her mother to her boss, who saw dollar signs the moment she laid eyes on them. The girls were trained from a young age in singing, dancing and playing musical instruments (Violet played saxaphone, Daisy played violin).
They started out in the usual sideshows, but by the age of 18 they were touring with Bob Hope as a part of his dance troupe. They made enough money from this to live in a Hollywood mansion. However, their adoptive family/managers still had too much control over their finances, so they eventually sued to get out of their contracts and then went on to star in vaudeville reviews.
Supposedly, Harry Houdini taught the girls how to self-hypnotize themselves in order to “get rid” of one another, so they could enjoy some privacy.
They were already big stars on vaudeville by the time they did “Freaks.” While they had hoped it would be their big break in Hollywood, the girls only did one film after that, a 1951 exploitation film called “Chained For Life.” One cool thing about that movie, however, is that it includes a recording of the girls singing, which was really lovely:
Tragically, though, their last public appearance was in 1961 at a midnight movie showing of “Freaks” at a drive-in theater in Charlotte, North Carolina. They were abandoned there by their manager and, without any mode of transportation out of there, they were forced to take a job there at a grocery store. They lived there until they died in 1969, within days of each other.
Their lives were the inspiration for the Broadway musical “Sideshow,” which is pretty awesome, even if the big torch song between the two sisters is called “I Will Never Leave You” (which feels a tad obvious).
Johnny Eck as The Half Boy
In addition to being a circus and sideshow performer, Johnny Eck, who was born with a condition that truncated him off at the waist, was also an artist, a magician, and a photographer. He got into performing when, as a twelve-year-old, he raised his hand to volunteer for a magician’s act and, after impressing the magician with how he walked on his hands, was asked to join the show. However, that dude was kind of a scam artist, so he left his employ after a year and set out on his own.
He performed with a variety of circuses, including Ringling Bros., before being approached to do “Freaks.”
Here is an example of one of his watercolors–a screen printing of “Jesus Giving The Finger.”
Image via The Johnny Eck Museum
The details of the lives of many of the other performers from this movie are scant, and often tragic. Schlitzie, who had microcephaly and played one of the “pinheads” and was the basis for the Bill Griffith comic “Zippy the Pinhead” ended up institutionalized for a while, as did several of the other performers who had developmental disabilities. Because that’s just how things were handled at that time.
It absolutely sucks that this was a thing people considered “entertaining” at one point in our history–but that doesn’t take away from the fact that these people were fascinating, talented and compelling in their own right, independent of their disabilities. I think it’s important that they be remembered for that.