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Tod Browning Profile

Among the most underrated directors of the silent and early sound eras, Tod Browning stretched the boundaries of the cinematic imagination and paved the way for the contemporary horror film. Best known for his groundbreaking Dracula (1931), he specialized in a unique brand of grotesque melodrama that was not easily categorized, experimenting with the crime thriller (The Unholy Three, 1925), pseudo-supernatural whodunit (The Thirteenth Chair, 1929), revenge tale (Freaks, 1932), science fiction film (The Devil-Doll, 1936) and some films so strange they defy classification (The Unknown, 1927).

Among Browning's most outlandish stories was that of his own life. In interviews and press releases, he wove a dramatic tale of a boy who ran away to join the circus at age sixteen, and who toured the world as a celebrated comedian and musical performer, the headlining act of a variety of famed music hall troupes. For good measure, he added that he also worked as a horseracing jockey in Kentucky during the off-seasons.

But this story, like those of his films, was a colorful exaggeration of real life. Born Charles Albert Browning in Louisville, Kentucky in 1882, Tod was given a conservative, religious upbringing with a strong work ethic. From his youth, however, he yearned to escape this life of responsibility and respectability, to pursue dreams and ambitions fueled by turn-of-the-century dime novels, traveling circuses and music hall performances. As for jockeying, the closest the lanky six-foot Kentuckian came to working with horses was as a clerk in a harness company. When he was in his twenties, Browning found work in a traveling musical comedy troupe and eventually landed in Hollywood as a supporting comic actor, first at the Biograph Studios in 1913, then at the Mutual Film Corp., where he had a recurring role as "Mr. Hadley, The Boss" in a popular series of comedies about Bill the Office Boy.

Browning's biggest professional break came in 1925, when MGM producer Irving Thalberg signed him to direct a film, and allowed him near-complete freedom in selecting the property. His choice, an adaptation of Clarence Robbins's almost comically far-fetched novel The Unholy Three, seemed preposterous. But in the leading role Browning cast Lon Chaney, who had been a supporting player in two of the director's previous films. Browning's confident direction and Chaney's command of the screen transformed the ridiculous into the sublime and The Unholy Three became a critical and popular success.

With every subsequent film, Browning tested the limits of plausibility with outrageous tales of lust and revenge, set in African swamps (West of Zanzibar, 1928), among European gypsy camps (The Mystic, 1925), the wharves of London (The Blackbird, 1926), the jungles of Indochina (Where East Is East, 1929) and the American criminal underworld (The Big City, 1928). Throughout his career, Browning returned to the lowbrow amusements of his youth, with films centered around the circuses, sideshows, music halls and phony psychics that had fascinated him as a boy.

To illustrate the twisted obsessions of his characters, Browning encouraged Chaney to exploit every thespian technique at his disposal, from physical contortion (as Alonzo the Armless in The Unknown or "Dead Legs" Flint in West of Zanzibar) to dramatic makeup (the scar-faced, milky-eyed Singapore Joe in The Road to Mandalay, 1926 or the razor-toothed vampire of London After Midnight, 1927) to an excessive performance style. In ordinary films, these techniques would overwhelm the narrative, but they are the perfect complement to Browning's diabolical stories.

Of working with Chaney, Browning once said, "I'm particularly lucky in carrying out my ideas by having an artist like Lon to take on guises and disguises of the most grotesque nature. The more grotesque, the better Lon likes them."

In Browning's universe, the larger-than-life villains - as personified by Chaney, Lugosi and Barrymore - were usually more charismatic and interesting than the so-called heroes. From this unconventional formula emerged a new breed of film in which audiences reveled in the sadistic impulses of the morally ambiguous hero. Although he may not have recognized it as such at the time, Browning was giving birth to the modern day horror film.

His 1931 Dracula was among the first major American films to posit a supernatural premise. Prior to this, ghoulish creatures were revealed (at the dramatic climax) to be human creations, which was the case with Browning's legendary vampire film London After Midnight, a film that unfortunately no longer exists. The success of Dracula paved the way for Frankenstein and opened the floodgates of unnatural movie monsters.

During the 1930s, Browning's career fell into a slump. His brand of filmmaking did not adapt well to the rigidly organized factory-style system that was adopted by the major studios. At the same time, the influence of the Production Code Authority was intensifying, and Browning's films encountered much resistance both within the studio and with censors. After the release of his controversial Freaks, Browning's creative freedom was greatly restricted.

In 1939 he directed Miracles for Sale, a mystery thriller about a magician detective who exposes psychic fraud in the course of solving a bewitching murder. MGM's legal department forbade Browning to reveal the workings of any magic tricks - for fear of offending any professional magicians associations. This proved the final straw for Browning who, at 59, retired from filmmaking.

Browning lived quietly in his Malibu home with wife Alice (his wife since 1917). Suffering from heart disease and cancer of the larynx, he died in 1962, leaving no children.

by Bret Wood

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