Tod Browning - 10/14 (Daytime)

September 29, 2020
Tod Browning - 10/14 (Daytime)

A pioneering director who helped create the horror film genre, Tod Browning made his mark on cinema via his 10-film collaboration with actor Lon Chaney, the first sound version of "Dracula" (1931), starring Bela Lugosi, and most particularly his master work, "Freaks" (1932). So grotesque and frightful was "Freaks," that some 20 minutes were cut from the U.S. version, while Great Britain banned the film for three decades. But it was his work with Chaney during the silent era that stood the test of time, which started with "The Wicked Darling" (1919) and ended with "Where East is East" (1929). In between, he had Chaney portray a transvestite in "The Unholy Three" (1925), a cripple in "The Black Bird" (1926) and a vampire in "London After Midnight" (1927). He had slated "Dracula" to star Chaney, but the actor fell ill and died of cancer, leaving Browning to reluctantly hire Lugosi. Meanwhile, after "Freaks," he helmed "Mark of the Vampire" (1935), a remake of "London After Midnight," "The Devil Doll" (1936) and "Miracles for Sale" (1939), before calling it a career. Following his death in 1962, film historians re-evaluated his career and helped rehabilitate him with contemporary audiences, elevating his status as a trailblazing horror director.

Born on Oct. 6, 1962 in Louisville, KY, Browning was raised by his father, Charles, and his mother, Lydia; he was also the nephew of Pete Browning, a star in the early days of Major League Baseball and the inspiration for the famed Louisville Slugger bats. Though he displayed some interest in sports as a youth, Browning found deeper inspiration producing and performing theatricals in his back yard. An accomplished singer, he ran away from home at 16 years old and joined the circus, working in various capacities from carnival barker to contortionist to headliner; one of his more popular acts was "The Living Corpse," in which he was buried alive for up to two days at a time. Browning later turned to vaudeville as a singer, dancer and comedian, earning attention for playing the popular comic strip character Mutt of "Mutt and Jeff" fame in the burlesque show "The Whirl of Myth" (1913). After a brief billing as a clown with the Ringling Brothers Circus, Browning was introduced to director D.W. Griffith, who was working for Biograph, and began appearing in a number of bit roles, including his film debut as an undertaker in "Scenting a Terrible Crime" (1913).

Browning's versatility and physical prowess made him ideal for demanding comic roles. When Griffith decided to head West, Browning followed. Once in Hollywood, he began to work behind the cameras helming a series of one- and two-reel comedies. His career was nearly ended in 1915, however, when he was in an automobile accident in which he was driving while intoxicated and smashed full speed into a moving train. One passenger, comic actor Elmer Booth, was killed and another, George A. Seigmann, was seriously injured. Browning had suffered massive injuries and spent a long convalescence, during which he penned screenplays. When he had recovered sufficiently, Griffith put him to work as one of the many assistant directors on the epic, "Intolerance" (1916). The following year, in tandem with star Wilfred Lucas, he co-directed the Civil War drama "Jim Bludso" (1917), his first feature. Over the next seven years, Browning directed a string of now-lost films for MGM and Universal, many of which starred Edith Storey and were described as routine melodramas, doing little to advance his career. It was a fortuitous collaboration with actor Lon Chaney, beginning with "The Wicked Darling" (1919), that pulled him from the rank and file into a position as one of Hollywood's bankable directors.

Much of Browning's reputation as one of the top directors of horror films rested largely on the silent pictures he made with Chaney, however most remained largely inaccessible or completely lost to contemporary audiences. "The Unholy Three" (1925), made under the seal of approval of MGM production boss Irving Thalberg, was built around a trio of criminals - a transvestite ventriloquist (Chaney), a dwarf (Harry Earles) and a strongman (Victor McLaglen) - and was perhaps the best and most successful of this partnership. Still, film historians were divided over whether it was the brilliance of Chaney that made the films with Browning so stunning or the direction itself. For his part, the director sensed a kindred spirit in the actor and the duo crafted fascinating character studies of damaged men filled with emotional anguish. "The Black Bird" (1926) gave Chaney an opportunity to transform himself into a cripple merely by contorting his body, while "London After Midnight" (1927) was Browning's first flirtation with the vampire myth. Meanwhile, "The Unknown" (1927) was a truly disturbing tale of a circus knife-thrower who pretends to have no arms and undergoes an amputation to avoid detection as a murderer. Browning's mastery was in the idea that physical mutilation of his characters often mirrored a similar mental or spiritual mutation that led to their eventual destruction.

Without Chaney, Browning directed "The Show" (1927), an upsetting tale of carnival performers (Renee Adoree and John Gilbert) who nightly re-enact the story of Salome and John the Baptist while a jealous rival (Lionel Barrymore) plots to win the woman. Browning's use of camera angles and shifts in perspective heightened the tension and prefigured many techniques later commonplace in suspense films. Contemporary audiences, however, failed to respond and it flopped. He went over to Universal Pictures to make "Outside the Law" (1930), the studio chose him to helm "Dracula" (1931), which was intended as a starring vehicle for Lon Chaney. But the actor died from throat cancer that year and left Browning without his favored actor. Their final film together was the silent adventure "Where East is East" (1929). Browning clashed with Universal over hiring Bela Lugosi to recreate his popular stage role and his vision for the story. The resulting film played as slightly plodding, with Lugosi's distant, stylized portrayal of the vampire lending a particular elegance. But Browning's camera remained static, as if waiting for the actors to bring the piece alive, clearly demonstrating his discomfort with the new technology of sound; the infusion of that element seemed to confound his technique. Regardless, the film became an instant classic for generations to follow.

In undertaking "Freaks" (1932), Browning achieved notoriety and later cult status. The film, which employed and even celebrated real circus performers via voyeuristic appeal, unfortunately suffered from the amateurism of its cast. With the exception of the leading lady (Olga Baclanova), few were trained actors, while its limited camera angles and woodenly-delivered dialogue made "Freaks" look like a later 1950s B-grade horror movie. With the film, Browning was making a statement: his collaborations with Chaney portrayed a normal man who becomes mutilated and turns into a monster, with "Freaks," the process was reversed and the grotesque are not monsters. Some critics argued that the film exploited its subjects, while others thought they were humanized. Though quaint and dated by contemporary standards, "Freaks" was an agitating film that caused quite a stir, from patrons running screaming down the aisles, to Great Britain banning it for three decades. As punishment, the studio assigned Browning to the routine "Fast Workers" (1933), a romance drama starring John Gilbert.

Browning's later work in sound horror films was often obscured by the reputations of "Dracula" and "Freaks." His "Mark of the Vampire" (1935), a remake of "London After Midnight," maintained a consistently eerie atmosphere and had several understated scenes of chilling beauty featuring Lugosi and Carol Borland as a vampire couple. Despite the fact that the film's supernatural elements gave way to a standard mystery story by the end, Browning nonetheless displayed more control and visual polish than in his previous work. He next directed "The Devil Doll" (1936), in many ways a standard revenge melodrama, which starred Lionel Barrymore as a Devil's Island escapee who shrinks the partners that framed him for embezzlement to the size of toys. But the director makes inventive use of a wide variety of cinematic tools - a moving camera, montages - to enhance the suspense. With tastes in the movie business changing rapidly, Browning intuited that his era had passed and after making his last film, "Miracles for Sale" (1939), announced his retirement in the early 1940s. Although he received screen credit for the story to "Inside Job" (1946), he spent his remaining years as a recluse. When his wife died in 1944, it was erroneously reported that he also had passed. Browning developed throat cancer in the 1950s and underwent an operation on his tongue, but died on Oct. 6, 1962 at age 82.

Featured Films

The Unholy Three (1925)
The Unknown (1927)
The Blackbird (1926)
The Thirteenth Chair (1929)
Freaks (1932)
Mark of the Vampire (1935)
The Devil-Doll (1936)