Greetings Brothers and Sisters of the Psychotronic Video World! Wes tells me these here little tribute articles I’ve been doing from time to time are pretty popular, and garner a lot of positive feedback. I hope you’ll do me the honor, then, of feasting your eyes and glutting your soul with tonight’s little offering, a tribute to America’s first prominent horror director.
I’m talking about Tod “DRACULA” Browning here. Y’know, Tod “FREAKS” Browning? “LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT” Browning? Yeah, you know him. We aren’t exclusively enamored with 70s and 80s-era films around here.
Born Charles Albert Browning on July 12th, 1880, at the age of 16 he changed his name to Tod and ran off to join the circus. Touring with circuses and carnivals, Browning held a number of jobs: He was the talker (a position frequently, though incorrectly, referred to as barker) for the Wild Man from Borneo, and performed an act in which he’d be billed as “the living corpse” and be buried alive. This act, on at least one occasion, got the carnival run out of town for blasphemy, Browning burying himself alive on Good Friday. In stark contrast to the intended horror of live burial, he also performed as a clown for the Ringling Brothers Circus. Before long he branched out into vaudeville, where he performed as a magician, dancer, and comedian.
Eventually, while working as the director of a variety theater, Browning made the acquaintance of filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who filmed Browning performing in a number of single-reel nickelodeon films. When Griffith went west, Browning followed, continuing his new-found career as a film actor. By 1919, he’d appeared in over 50 films.
That year, Browning would make the acquaintance of Lon Chaney, Sr., the “Man with a Thousand Faces.” Together, with Browning directing and Chaney starring, they made their first film together: THE WICKED DARLING (1919), in which Chaney corrupts a poor young girl into a life of sin and prostitution. It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and the two would go on to make several films together over the next decade.
Among these films were THE UNHOLY THREE (1925), about a trio of circus performers who concoct a daring scheme to con rich people out of their jewels through the use of disguises. Following this was THE UNKNOWN (1927), in which Chaney plays an armless circus knife-thrower holding a sinister obsession for a carnival dancer played by Joan Crawford. With it’s circus freak-beauty-strong man love triangle, THE UNKNOWN could be considered a precursor to a film Browning would become infamous for…but I’m getting ahead of myself. Also in 1927, Browning and Chaney made LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, a film now lost, in which Chaney plays a sinister, bug-eyed vampire as well as the detective hot on the vampire’s trail. To be perfectly blunt, I’d give both testicles for a copy of this film to be found in a vault somewhere.
Chaney would pass away in 1930, and in 1931 Browning would be hired by Universal to direct a film adaptation of a stage adaptation of a popular novel…DRACULA. Starring a charismatic young Hungarian immigrant by the name of Bela Lugosi, DRACULA would prove to be a smash hit, birthing the Universal Horror franchise and horror cinema in America as a whole.
Following his success with DRACULA (and the success of a boxing film called THE IRON MAN), Browning was given carte blanche to bring a project to life. Drawing on his own experience as a sideshow performer and the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, the screenwriter for THE UNKNOWN, Browning created his masterpiece, his most heartfelt motion picture…FREAKS.
FREAKS tells the story of Hans, a circus midget, who falls in love with Cleopatra, a bareback rider at the circus. She spurns his love, but she loves Hans’ money. She agrees to marry him, meanwhile carrying on an affair with the circus strongman. She begins to poison Hans, and when the other freaks catch wind of this, they make Cleopatra and her lover pay dearly.
The film was…unsuccessful, to say the least. It horrified the censors more than the movie-going public, and an outcry was raised against the film. Browning’s career was dashed.
He made only four movies after FREAKS, of which just two were horror films — THE MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935), starring Bela Lugosi, being a “talkie” remake of LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, and THE DEVIL-DOLL (1936), in which Lionel Barrymore plays an escapee from prison who uses a scientific sort of voodoo to avenge himself on those who imprisoned him. By 1940, Browning had retired from the film industry.
An intensely private man, following his retirement he would suffer cancer of the larynx and a stroke, which combined to rob him of his ability to speak. On October 6th, 1962, Browning passed away at the age of 82.
Tod Browning was clearly a remarkable individual, and an extremely talented filmmaker with an eye for delivering a moving, nuanced story. It’s such a shame his career derailed as it did; however, as in all things, we must be thankful for the films he did make, and not lament those he did not.
This beer’s for you, Mr. Browning. Gooble gobble, gooble gobble.