Olga Baclanova, later recalled the day when she was first introduced to the supporting cast, "Tod Browning shows me little by little and I could not look, I wanted to faint. I wanted to cry when I saw them. They have such nice faces... they are so poor, you know... Browning takes me and say, you know, 'Be brave, and don't faint like the first time I show you. You have to work with them.'... It was very, very difficult first time. Every night I felt that I am sick. Because I couldn't look at them. And then I was so sorry for them. That I just couldn't... it hurt me like a human being."
Johnny Eck, the half-boy, remembered his screen test was taken by MGM's scouting unit while he was on tour in Canada, and he shared the screen with the world's largest rat. He recalled being treated well by the crew, "The technicians, the sound men, the electricians, and the prop department, and everybody... was my friend... We got along beautifully."
Tod Browning's only onscreen credit is on the title page: "Tod Browning's Freaks," which is interpreted as the director credit. He is not in studio records as a producer.
Samuel Marx, head of MGM's Story Department, recalled with peculiar pride, "And so, Harry Rapf, who was a great moral figure, got a bunch of us together and we went in and complained to Irving Irving Thalberg about 'Freaks'. And he laughed at that. He said, 'You know, we're making all kinds of movies. Forget it. I'm going to make the picture. Tod Browning's a fine director. He knows what he's doing.' And the picture was made." But the lunchroom protests didn't end. As a result, a makeshift table was constructed and the cast of "Freaks" (with the exception of Harry Earles and Daisy Earles, Violet Hilton and Daisy Hilton, and the more "normal" cast-members) were forced to eat their meals outdoors.
Myrna Loy, originally slated for the Olga Baclanova role, turned down the part because she felt the script was offensive.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a member of the MGM writing department at the time the movie was in production. He never felt quite at home with all the movie stars and powerful moguls, and so he often dined in the commissary at the table of the sideshow attractions (freaks) during his lunch hour.
Prince Randian, the man with no arms or legs, developed a habit of lurking in dark corners and frightening passers-by with a blood-curdling yell.
Schlitze, the microcephalic member of the cast who appears to be female, was actually a male. The dress was worn for reasons of personal hygiene.
A woman who attended a 1932 test screening for the film claimed later that she suffered a miscarriage resulting from the film's shocking nature, and threatened to sue MGM.
According to one source, director Tod Browning was introduced to the story by Cedric Gibbons, longtime head of MGM's Art Department. He was supposedly boyhood friends with author Clarence Aaron 'Tod' Robbins and convinced the studio to purchase film rights for the sum of $8,000. Another source claims that the diminutive actor Harry Earles gave Browning a copy of the story during the production of The Unholy Three in hopes that he could star in the adaptation.
According to the screenplay, the scene in which Madame Tetrallini introduces the wandering land-owner to the performers frolicking in the woods ran quite a bit longer. It included additional dialog that endeavored to humanize the so-called freaks. She tells him they are "always in hot, stuffy tents - strange eyes always staring at them - never allowed to forget what they are." Duval responds sympathetically (clearly the stand-in for the viewing audience), "When I go to the circus again, Madame, I'll remember," to which she adds, "I know, M'sieu - you will remember seeing them playing - playing like children... Among all the thousands who come to stare - to laugh - to shudder - you will be one who understands."
After the film had been withdrawn and shelved by MGM, the distribution rights were acquired by notorious exploitation roadshow specialist Dwain Esper. Esper traveled the country showing the film under such lurid titles as "Forbidden Love" and "Nature's Mistakes".
Although production chief Irving Thalberg decided to re-cut the picture immediately after the disastrous test screening, he could not cancel the world premiere on January 28, 1932 at the 3,000-seat Fox Theatre in San Diego. This is the only venue at which the uncut version of "Freaks" is known to have played. Ironically, the unexpurgated "Freaks" was a major box-office success. Crowds lined up around the block to see the picture, which broke the theatre's house record. By the end of the run, word had spread that "Freaks" was about to be butchered, and the theatre advertised, "Your last opportunity to see 'Freaks' in its uncensored form!"
Cast member Olga Roderick, the bearded lady, later denounced the film and regretted her involvement in it.
During a publicity photo session with Olga Baclanova, midget actor Harry Earles kept making lewd remarks. Many of her surprised and disgusted visual expressions in the photos that the session yielded are authentic rather than posed.
During filming, director Tod Browning was plagued with dreams in which Johnny Eck and a pinhead would keep bringing a cow in backward through a doorway in the middle of shoots.
During the 1920s and 1930s, photographer Edward J. Kelty took a succession of group photographs of members of the Barnum and Bailey freak show. What is interesting is how many cast members can be spotted in them (this film is the only movie credit for most of them). Familiar faces include Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), Peter Robinson (human skeleton), Elvira Snow (pinhead), Jenny Lee Snow (pinhead), Elizabeth Green (bird girl) and Olga Roderick (bearded lady).
Dwarf John George - for reasons unknown - does not appear in "Freaks", even though a role was specifically written for him in the screenplay.
Dwarf actor Angelo Rossitto, who appeared as Angeleno, would go on to a successful career in TV and films including Little Moe in the Robert Blake TV series Baretta and as one half of the giant Master Blaster opposite Mel Gibson in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
In the UK this film was banned for 30 years after it was first released.