Friday, June 12, 2015

Tod Browning

Maybe I should have waited until Halloween to write about Tod Browning. Though I didn't know much about the director prior to writing this post, I associate him with films dealing with the macabre and the weird. He spent most of his career in the silent era, when the medium was still very much in its incubation period, but it's his talkies that he may be best remembered for - in particular, two films that may not be as shocking now as they were in his day, but remain memorable and influential over eighty years later... but we'll get to those in a moment.

The Louisville native spent the early 1910s acting in single-reel nickelodeon comedies under the direction of fellow Louisville native D.W. Griffith, at Biograph in New York, and continued working with Griffith when the director left Biograph and moved to California. (He had a bit part in Intolerance.) Browning tried his hand at writing and directing, alternating back and forth with acting and eventually moving back to New York later in the decade.

Browning made ten films with Lon Chaney Sr. during the silent era. I think it's safe to say that there's never been another actor quite like Chaney, before or since. Long before CGI and sophisticated makeup transformed modern actors like Andy Serkis and Johnny Depp from one bizarre role to another, Chaney was able to do the same thing with an uncannily flexible body and a marvelously expressive face, in conjunction with his own makeup techniques.

Monstergirl at The Last Drive In wrote a long and detailed piece about one of the greatest Browning/Chaney collaborations, The Unknown, from 1927, which also featured a young Joan Crawford. She goes into extensive analysis about the themes of amputation and Freudian sexual anxiety which inform the story, about the bizarre relationship between the daughter of a circus ringmaster and one of the performers, an armless knife thrower who is not what he seems. In her essay, Monstergirl includes this observation about The Unknown and Browning:
...While Freud had his pseudoscience fix for every mental ailment boasted, but discontents but [sic] Tod Browning favored themes of a visceral sexually charged plot surrounding resentment and revenge. He screened [scenes of] overt manipulation of disturbing sexual symbolism in order to shock his audience into consciousness. The threat of castration is a particularly violent notion and [a] repressed emotional impulse. Freud’s Uncanny (which I seem to love films that echo this work), the idea of disembodied limbs, severed heads, hands cut off at the wrists all have something particularly uncanny about them. Especially when they are show [sic] as capable of independent movement. It all springs from the castration complex. [Link added by me.]
Browning (l), with Lon Chaney Sr.
A couple of years ago, I had the great privilege of seeing Dracula with a live score by Philip Glass, and as I mentioned when I wrote about it, seeing this all-time classic on a big screen made me more aware of it as a movie, and I had a greater appreciation for elements of it that I had taken for granted for years, having only seen it before on television.

Browning started production on Dracula after Chaney's death in 1930. Browning had worked with Bela Lugosi on the former's first talkie, The Thirteenth Chair, from 1929. Also, he had made a silent vampire film called London After Midnight, with Chaney. Lugosi had played Dracula on Broadway, to rave reviews, but Browning thought an unknown would be more appropriate for the film version. Lugosi had to lobby for the part and accept a mere $500 a week. 

Browning was distraught over the death of his friend Chaney at the time of production and had turned to drink, and as a result cinematographer Karl Freund became an uncredited co-director, taking over whenever Browning would leave the set. In the end, the film was re-cut by producer Carl Laemmle Sr., to Browning's dismay.

When Browning was sixteen, he literally ran away to join the circus. He had developed a fascination for the circus and its denizens. The Unknown was set in one, as was another Browning/Chaney film, The Unholy Three. Browning also made The Show, set in a sideshow. Nothing, however, prepared audiences for his 1932 circus movie Freaks.

ClassicBecky recently wrote a piece about Freaks, in which she discusses the film's impact and its legacy. Here she talks about Browning's motivation for making it, as well as the film's initial reception:
...In his production, Browning filmed this fictional story of circus freaks using not actors, but real men and women who had been born with deformities and made their living traveling the sideshow circuit. In many ways, the movie was a source of pride for most of its stars. They had lived their lives being stared at and vilified, and made their living in the only way open to them -- as circus attractions. The idea of being wanted for a mainstream Hollywood movie appealed to most of those who appeared in Freaks. Browning himself believed not only in the monetary interests of a shock value movie, but also in spotlighting the fact that these are human beings with the same feelings as anyone else, kindness, love, anger, bitterness and rage. His intentions met with complete failure in 1932. Stories abounded of people fainting and running screaming up the aisles during the first few minutes of the movie. Freaks was considered so disgusting that theatres throughout the country pulled it and refused to show it. It was definitely a box office dud, and only decades later was it met with interest and perceptive observation.
One of the most unique-for-its-time things about Freaks, which I alluded to when I wrote about it, is its depiction of physically deformed individuals forming a community of their own, despite being looked down upon by the rest of society. Circumstances force them to become the unlikely heroes of this story, and though individuals like these seemed repulsive to audiences once, time and society have changed people's attitudes, to the point where a man can change his gender and not only receive public support for it, but make the cover of a major magazine.

In this and other ways, Browning was ahead of his time with his films, and now that he has received the credit due him, more people have come to appreciate him as a director of great vision.

Next: Edith Head

Films directed by Tod Browning:

Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno
Frank Capra
Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell
James Dean
Ethel Waters
William Powell


  1. I've recently seen Freaks at one of my local cinemas, you're totally right that it was ahead of it's time, I can imagine it would have been quite shocking! A shame that it ended his career though.

  2. And this was a mainstream Hollywood movie, too. No mainstream studio would come anywhere near a movie like this today.

  3. I wonder what Browning's career would have been like in the 21st century.

    PS: I am sending you a Liebster (check CW). Have fun with it, if you choose.

  4. For me? Aw shucks...

    I would hope Browning would use CGI judiciously, and not just for its own sake. But that's just a guess.

  5. You are absolutely right: there will never be an actor like Lon Chaney!
    Tod Browning was really ahead of his time - except for that weird mustache.

  6. It makes him look very European, doesn't it? Maybe it was the style at the time.


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