"Freaks," or Short Circus

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January 3, 1932

From: Irving Thalberg, Head of Production

To: Louis B. Mayer


First off, thanks again for the invitation to your Herbert Hoover fundraiser tonight. As appealing as the prospect sounds of seeing the magnetic Mr. Hoover in person, I'm afraid that Norma and I have our regular bridge game with Marie Dressler and Ben Turpin and so we must reluctantly pass.   

Now down to cases -- I understand that you have seen a rough cut of "Freaks" and that you have some concerns. As I have already told you, this is a very unusual film, which, granted, makes it a risky proposition for MGM. On the other hand, overall box office business is good -- so good that the grapevine reports you are getting ready to buy Mexico, which is something I'm sure Mr. Hoover can help you with. Given that, I think we can find room to release a movie that takes an artistic risk.

Now, to address your points one by one:

1. I understand that you had an encounter with John Barrymore yesterday where he described "Freaks" to you as "a delightful circus movie" just before throwing up on your shoes. I think you should take anything John says with a grain of salt, not to mention grain alcohol. If you believed John's joking description, that may account for your reaction to the movie. You bemoan the lack of animals, clowns and laughing children, but those are beside the point of the plot -- although, to make you happier, we will add a scene of Wallace Ford in a clown outfit getting hit on the head with a prop hammer by Leila Hyams.

2. You write that you hate the title of the picture, that "Freaks" is too sensational-sounding. We chose that title because that is the derogatory term given to the circus people by the evil trapeze artist. The title is ironic because the movie shows us that these people are much more than freaks. I cannot accept any of your alternative titles -- "Saw Dust," "Bareback Mountin'," "Bearded Lady for a Day," "Carnivale" or "Sideshow Mob."

3. As you point out, there are several scenes where we see armless sideshow performers who are using their feet to hold a glass of beer. Per your suggestion, we will consider switching beer to milk.

4. I am at a loss to understand your desire for musical numbers in this picture. To bring the story to a halt, as you suggest, so that the Siamese twins can sing "Me and My Shadow" or so the human torso can dance to "Clap Yo Hands" would be disastrous.

5. You express concern about the level of "violence" in the film. What mayhem there is flows naturally from the plot, and the idea of giving the sideshow folk "cuter weapons" is unacceptable.

6. Under no circumstances will I even consider your suggestion that we should replace our male lead, Harry Earles, with Jackie Cooper. I don't care how much Cooper made you cry in "The Champ" -- the character of Hans is not a boy, he is a man who happens to be a midget. Therefore I also cannot consider your other plot suggestion -- that in the end, Hans is adopted.


7. I do agree with you that a picture of this nature requires a special publicity push, but the idea of a "Miss Freak of 1932" beauty contest at major theatres is out, as is the "Pinhead the Tail on the Donkey" competition. 

In conclusion, I hope that after an interval of time you will come to appreciate this film as a unique, engrossing look at a subculture -- a group of very human people who band together to protect one of their own (Hans) from the bullying trapeze artist and her brutish lover, the strong man. I'm hearing from people all over the lot that this is one of MGM's most remarkable films, with or without Jackie Cooper, and I feel very strongly that it is ready to go as it is. All the mishegas about this picture is going to fell me at an early age, I swear.

I believe that covers all of your concerns. Give my regards to Mr. Hoover.

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