Tod Browning was born on July 12, 1880. At the age of sixteen he ran away from home and joined a circus where he worked for several years as a clown, acrobat, contortionist and ringmaster. His experiences in the circus greatly influenced his later career in Hollywood and echoes of those years can be found in many of his films. After the circus Browning went into vaudeville as a comedian and toured the world with various companies.
He arrived in Hollywood in 1914 and appeared in many short films as a comedy lead. During this period he became friendly with D. W. Griffith and was one of that great director's assistants on Intolerance (1916). By this time Browning had also started to write scripts, having realized that his future lay behind the camera rather than in front of it. He learned a lot from working with Griffith and in 1917 he directed his first full-length film, Jim Bludso but it wasn't until 1920 that he established a reputation within the industry. That was when he directed, for Carl Laemmle at Universal, a melodrama set in Turkey called The Virgin of Stamboul.
His next film for Laemmle, Outside the Law (1921), starred Lon Chaney but Browning then left Universal for two years. During that period he worked only sporadically, spending most of his time trying to cope with a drinking problem. But in 1925, at the age of forty-five, he made a fresh start and had soon re-established himself as a major director. With the assistance of Laemmle's legendary young protoge, Irving Thalberg, he convinced Universal to film The Unholy Three, a story that contained many ingredients close to his heart, concerning, as it did, the activities of three ex-circus performers who, in varied disguises, run a pet store as a front for their criminal activities. It was a big success for Universal and Laemmle decided that the teaming of Browning with Chaney was a guaranteed formula for making money.
During the remaining five years of Chaney's life they made several more films together, including The Road to Mandalay (1926), The Unknown (1927) and London After Midnight (1927). Browning used, with a certain amount of pride, London After Midnight as an example of how to get audiences to accept supernatural events. "The audience was not asked to believe the horrible impossible, only the horrible possible. The plausibility increased rather than lessened the chills and thrills." Yet within two years of that interview he directed Dracula (1931), and a more implausible story it would be hard to find. It demonstrates the speed with which American audiences adjusted themselves to the "horrible impossible."
Browning was not really a horror director in the traditional sense and his version of Dracula is evidence of that. He had no real feel for the supernatural or the creation of a Gothic atmosphere, neither was he a very visual director (it's a film legend that Dracula was one of his pet projects, but there is no evidence to support that--he became involved in the picture at a late stage of its development). Whatever visual style Dracula possesses is due to cinematographer Karl Freund's influence; His main attribute as a director was his effective handling of actors. Bela Lugosi, during the making of Dracula, found Browning to be extremely helpful.
Despite the success of Dracula, and the boost it gave his career, Browning's chief interest continued to lie not in films dealing with the supernatural but in films that dealt with the naturally grotesque and bizarre. So, after Dracula, he returned to his beloved circus setting with a rather controversial idea--a film about a group of circus freaks, using real freaks--and it was this that proved the cause of his professional undoing. Not surprisingly, the executives at Universal were not very enthusiastic about the project, but once again Thalberg, then at MGM, came to Browning's assistance and persuaded a doubtful Louis B. Mayer to accept the idea.
Freaks (1932) was about a beautiful but evil trapeze artist called Cleopatra (played by the Russian-born Olga Baclanova) who marries one of the circus midgets when she discovers that he will inherit a large amount of money. (The midget, called Hans, was played by an old friend of Browning's, Harry Earles, who had also appeared in both versions of The Unholy Three.) After they marry she plots with the circus strongman, her lover, to poison Hans slowly. The midget is part of the circus freak show and when the others learn of the plot they take drastic action, turning the once beautiful Cleopatra into a horribly disfigured part of the freak show.
Critical reception to Freaks was mixed but not entirely adverse. The real damage to the film was done both by the cinema managers and by cinema audiences themselves. Their horrified reaction ensured that the film was a financial flop (it had a good run in a couple of American cities but not enough to make any difference--and in Britain it was banned for over thirty years). People were willing to take the make-believe horror of Boris Karloff lurching around as an animated corpse but they weren't willing to endure a close-up view of some of reality's more unpleasant aspects, especially in 1932 when they considered that their own lives were grim enough. The film has never been widely shown and the reaction from audiences even today would still probably be a mixed one.
Freaks became one of MGM's worst failures and a saddened, and surprised, Browning realized he had made a serious error of judgment. His next film for MGM (he was under contract to them) made the following year was about a very different subject--riveters working on skyscrapers--and was called Fast Workers. Surprisingly enough, MGM did give him further horror assignments (probably on the insistence of Thalberg). In 1935 it was The Mark of the Vampire, a rather flaccid remake of London After Midnight with Lugosi in the Chaney role.
More interesting was The Devil Doll in 1936 which had Lionel Barrymore as a man wrongly convicted of a crime. He escapes from prison and encounters an old scientist who has invented a process by which he can shrink animals and people so that, while inanimate, they resemble dolls. When brought to life the tiny people have no will of their own and will follow any command. Barrymore steals several of the "dolls" and returns to New York where he opens a doll's shop, then proceeds to send his tiny creatures on missions to kill the men who framed him. To avoid detection he dresses up as an old woman--a favorite Browning device--and much of the film's enjoyment comes from watching Barrymore's amusing portrayal of this unlikely character.
Browning's last film for MGM was in 1939, a light-hearted mystery about stage magicians called Miracles for Sale. He retired from the industry then and spent the remainder of his life living on his ample savings and, according to Carlos Clarens in his book Horror Movies, "gently deprecating the films that had made him rich and celebrated." He died on October 6, 1962, while recovering from a cancer operation.
--JOHN BROSNAN, from
The Horror People.
A selection of Tod Browning films.
Find Tod Browning on eBay.com
A selection of Tod Browning in books.
A History of Horror
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