It was Harry Earles, who'd played the felonious midget in 'The Unholy Three' (based on a novel by Clarence Aaron "Tod" Robbins), who brought to Browning's attention a short story by Robbins called 'Spurs', about a group of circus freaks wronged by their able-bodied fellow performers, who banded together to take revenge. Browning, himself a sideshow contortionist prior to his Hollywood career, seized upon the idea with zeal.
He assembled a cast of genuine sideshow freaks (I'm using the word 'freak' solely because that's the title of the film; there is no prejudice attached to it) including an hermaphrodite, a human torso, a bearded lady, microcephalics (or, to quote the script's sixty-years-before-the-idea-of-political-correctness description "pin-heads"), midgets and siamese twins. Apart from one scene at the end (I won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen the film), there's no special effects, no camera trickery, no it's-all-done-with-mirrors. No, siree. Browning keeps it real.
To say that the end result was controversial is putting it mildly. Half an hour was cut from the film (ie. a third of its 90 minute running time) by the studio following outraged reaction from preview audiences. In the UK, even in this truncated version, it was banned for thirty years. Ultimately, 'Freaks' did for Browning's career what 'Peeping Tom' did for Michael Powell's and he made only four other films before retiring from the business in 1939, leading a reclusive lifestyle until his death in 1962. Thankfully, the film itself has survived. It has outlasted censorship (although controversy remains) and has been rediscovered - and championed - by new generations of film-goers.
The plot is simple and pacy: glamorous trapeze artist Cleopatra (Ogla Baclanova) is part-amused-part-irritated by midget Hans (Harry Earles)'s crush on her, until she discovers that he's inherited a considerable fortune. In league with strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), Cleopatra encourages his attentions. They marry; Cleopatra and Hercules behave abusively towards the freaks during the wedding feast; Cleopatra tries to poison Hans on their wedding night.
Apart from a romantic subplot between animal trainer Venus (a radiant Leila Hyams) and laconic clown Phroso (Wallace Ford), 'Freaks' concentrates on the discovery of Cleopatra and Hercules's treachery and the grim retribution that follows. As a horror film, it's creepily effective. A scene of the freaks crawling through the mud under a circus waggon, closing in on their Cleopatra and Hercules - the human torso has a switchblade clamped between his teeth and a look on his face that suggests he isn't going to let the absence of hands stand in his way - is one of the most chilling and unforgettable images in cinema.
But Browning never lets 'Freaks' become just an exercise in grotesquerie. Hans' first act infatuation with Cleopatra is played out against a sequence of wryly observed and often quite charming vignettes which establish the freaks as fully rounded people in their own right. Many of his cast - such as the siamese twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) and the human torso (Randian) - were already well-known vaudeville and sideshow acts in their own right. Browning cannily has them retain these personas for the film. He also structures scenes around the minutaie of their lives - the difficulty of romantic relationships for the twins; the human torso's cigarette lighting technique - that humanises and dignifies them. Sure, the freaks come on like badass mothers at the end - but that's only because supposedly normal people have crossed the boundary with them.
'Freaks' deserves a place on any list of great, favourite or classic movies. It's unique. A true one-off. It would never get made today, given the prevailing climate of political correctness. The bastions of PC would have us believe that 'Freaks' is exploitative because it trades on its characters' deformities, a perspective that completely misses the point. 'Freaks' surpasses their deformities; it lets them be the heroes.