“Freaks” is a 1932 pre-Code horror movie that starred a variety of real-life circus freaks–or, as we’d know them today, people with disabilities–including dwarf brother and sister Harry and Daisy Earles; conjoined twin sisters Daisy and Violet Hilton; a man named Schlitzie with an extraordinarily small head, a condition known as “microcephaly;” and Johnny Eck, who had sacral agenenis, born without the lower half of his torso. The troupe also included a Bearded Lady, Stork Woman, and Human Skeleton.
“Freaks” tells the story of a beautiful trapeze artist who resolves to seduce a circus dwarf and murder him to get at his substantial financial inheritance.
Here’s the scene where the freaks decide they accept her, and declare her “one of us.”
The trapeze artist’s plan does not end well for her.
Surprisingly, given the period, “Freaks” portrays the troupe of freaks as people with their own minds and desires. They’re a family that looks out for one another, and are kind to strangers–so long as the strangers don’t betray them.
Ironically given that message, the film was banned for decades due its graphic content. The people who worked on the lot where the movie was filmed found the performers disturbing; the cast wasn’t allowed to move freely about the lot, and had to stay in their own, segregated area. The camera looks squarely at the disabled characters; the viewer is unable to look away.
About the performers:
Dwarf brother and sister Harry and Daisy Earles were part of a sibling group of four dwarfs who performed as the Doll Family. They appeared in The Wizard of Oz. Decades of performing with the circus and films provided them with a good living, and they bought a house together and retired to Sarasota, Fla., where they lived until their deaths; the last survivor passed in 2004.
Johnny Eck, born without the lower half of his torso, was a sideshow performer, artist, musician, photographer, illusionist, penny arcade owner, “Punch and Judy” operator, and skilled model-maker.
“Schlitzie,” born Simon Metz, had an unusually small brain and skull, stood only 4 feet tall, had myopia, and several intellectual disability, with the cognition of a three-year-old. He was unable to take care of himself and could speak only in small words and simple phrases. But he could do simple tasks, and reportedly understood most of what was said to him. He had a very quick reaction time, and was a good mimic. People said he was very friendly, affectionate, exuberant, and social, and he loved being the center of attention and performed for anyone. He was often cast as girls, and people who knew him used either male or female pronouns.
“On the sideshow circuit, microcephalic people were usually promoted as ‘pinheads’ or ‘missing links,’ and Schlitzie was billed under such titles as ‘The Last of the Aztecs,’ ‘The Monkey Girl,’ and ‘What Is It?'”
Schlitzie was adopted by George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer, while performing at the Tom Mix Circus in 1935. After Surtees died in 1965, Surtees’ daughter committed Schlitzie to a Los Angeles hospital, where some time later he was recognized by sword swallower Bill “Frenchy” Unks, who happened to be working at the hospital during the off-season. “According to Unks, Schlitzie seemed to miss the carnival badly, and being away from the public eye had made him very depressed. Hospital authorities determined that the best care for Schlitzie would be to make him a ward of Unks’ employer, showman Sam Alexander, and return him to the sideshow, where he remained until 1968.”
Schlitzie became a street performer in Los Angeles in his final years, and enjoyed visiting MacArthur Park, where he fed the pigeons and ducks and performed for passersby. He died at age 70.
Schlitzie may have been the inspiration for Zippy the Pinhead and the circus freak Bertam in Red Dead Redemption 2. He’s the subject of a comic book biography, which will be featured in a documentary about his life.