With the release of this harrowing early sound motion picture, director Tod Browning blindsided audiences with this shocking follow-up to his successful Dracula, create a cult film for the ages, and kill his promising career dead in its tracks by daring to ask “Can a full-grown woman truly love a midget?”.
The set-up is simple enough: A gold-digging trapeze artist in a travelling circus and her strongman lover concoct a plan for her to woo, marry, and murder her dwarf co-worker in order to get their hands on his inheritance. Sinister deeds culminate in an unforgettable, truly unsettling climax on a dark and stormy night.
As a teen, Browning ran away from home to join a circus, performing as clown and a contortionist, before becoming a stage actor and later a filmmaker. Thus, his sympathies are clearly with the malformed here, as it is the beautiful, “normal” people who behave as monsters towards their sideshow counterparts. Browning cast actually circus freaks and sideshow performers — among them half-boy Johnny Eck, conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, Prince Randian, and Josephine Joseph — and filmed them with respect and without an atmosphere of exploitation, giving them a presence at a time when the deformed and disabled were preferred kept out of sight.
This plus the movie’s unrelenting tone sent shock waves through audiences and distributors alike, resulting in controversy to the extent that MGM removed its logo from the film, and the UK banned it for 30 years. Rediscovered in the 1960s, it became a counter-culture obsession, later a staple of countless midnight movie screenings, and is now preserved in the National Film Registry. The fallout ruined Brownings career, however, and he was forced to retire from filmmaking.