Born Charles Albert Browning, Jr., director Tod Browning left behind a grotesque, carnivalesque film legacy that helped spawn the American horror genre. Though he was also an actor and a screenwriter with a lengthy, diverse career that spanned silent film and early talkies, Browning is primarily known for Dracula (1931), Freaks (1932), and an ten film collaboration with actor Lon Chaney that culminated in The Unknown (1927).
Browning’s career in the performing arts began when he ran away from home as a teenager, changed his name to Tod, and joined a traveling carnival. Though he did stints as a barker, clown, actor, dancer, and magician, among other things, his first act was a popular scam known as the Living Hypnotic Corpse, where he would be buried alive for a day (sometimes two) inside a secretly ventilated coffin. In addition to sideshows, carnivals, and circuses, he also did some work in vaudeville and became familiar with a number of acts, including magician’s escape tricks. The circus was also a major player in his films, beginning as early as 1916 with Puppets, a film where Browning used actors to stand in for harlequin puppets.
Browning got his start as an actor working with D.W. Griffith, in some of Griffith's silent films including his masterpiece Intolerance, and Browning soon followed Griffith to California. Here he began directing, primarily churning out short films, in addition to acting in almost fifty movies. During this period, in 1915, Browning was in a serious car crash where he suffered numerous injuries and killed one of his passengers, the actor Elmer Booth. Alcohol abuse and related depression was a lifelong issue for the director. Because of the accident, Browning was out of work for two years other than script writing until his feature length debut with Jim Bludso (1917), a melodrama about a heroic riverboat captain.
After his directorial career took off, he soon joined forced with Universal and one of their young producers, Irving Thalberg, who introduced him to Lon Chaney. The first film they made together was The Wicked Darling (1919), where Chaney plays a criminal who brings a young girl into his life of crime, establishing his pattern of starring as a villain and/or antihero. Together Browning and Chaney made ten films together, including The Unholy Three (1925) about criminal circus performers executing a jewel heist, which they remade five years later as Chaney’s only sound film, as well as The Black Bird (1926), The Road to Mandalay (1926), London After Midnight (1927), and The Unknown (1927). This is their finest film together and here Chaney plays an armless knife thrower who falls in love with a young circus performer (Joan Crawford). In nearly all of these, he plays characters who are deformed, handicapped, or mutilated.
Browning and Chaney were a sort of grotesque dream team and the incredibly versatile and protean character actor is likely the only person who could have brought Browning’s characters to life so enthusiastically and realistically. Chaney played characters that were armless (The Unknown), legless (West of Zanzibar), scarred (Road to Mandalay), and monstrous (the now lost London After Midnight).
Universal allegedly intended them to worth together for Dracula, but Chaney passed away from cancer. At the last minute Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi was hired to play the titular Count, a role he had already performed hundreds of times for the stage. Though Dracula is Browning’s most famous, successful, and iconic film, it is also one of his most controversial due to rumors that Browning didn’t inhabit the director’s chair very often. Allegedly he received assistance from talented cinematographer Karl Freund, who would go on to direct The Mummy (1932) and Peter Lorre-vehicle Mad Love (1935). Though Dracula lacks the elements of revenge, deformity, and criminality in many of Browning’s other films, it still bears his morbid style and, in typical Browning fashion, the primary antagonist is a more fascinating character than any of the protagonists.
Browning’s masterpiece and the film that lost him his career was Freaks (1932). Olga Baclanova stars as a beautiful but manipulative trapeze artist who marries a circus midget for his money and plans to kill him and run off with the strongman. Though the other circus freaks initially accept her, they soon learn of her devious plan to poison the unwitting midget. They hideously mutilate her, turning her into one of them, the half-woman, half-bird duck girl. Universal was horrified by the film and effectively took away Browning’s creative freedom after this and he retired a few years later.
He directed a number of other films in addition to Dracula and Freaks that fit in the horror genre or will be of interest to genre fans, such as The Thirteen Chair (1929). Mark of the Vampire (1935) is loose remake of the lost silent film he made with Chaney, London After Midnight, and though it involves Bela Lugosi as part of a creepy vampire couple, it is more mystery than horror. Revenge film The Devil Doll (1936), starring Lionel Barrymore, involves a man who escapes a prison island and gets revenge on those who framed him by shrinking them down to doll-size figures that he controls and manipulates. Browning’s films often have revenge or horror at their core, though he filmed a wide range of genres, including adventure, mystery, melodrama, and crime. He often focused on outsiders and many of his films are set in enclosed communities, such as a gypsy camp, a traveling circus, or the criminal underworld.
Tod Browning’s influence on early horror cinema is often overlooked - along with gangster and noir films - though he directed the granddaddy of American horror movies, Dracula, which is also the first major studio film in the U.S. to introduce truly supernatural horror. Earlier mystery-horror films, such as Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary, often began with a potentially supernatural premise, but explained the plot elements as being the result of human action. Browning’s obvious interest in and exploration of the grotesque was another, perhaps quieter influence on the developing horror genre. Most of Browning’s main characters are freaks, monsters, criminals, the deformed, and the mutilated. Villains were the stars of his films and were often the most charismatic and developed characters. All his films with Chaney exemplify this, and Dracula is another perfect case. Where Jonathan Harker is one of the primary protagonists in the novel, his role in Browning's film is milquetoast and effectively castrated. If you want to learn more about Browning, I highly recommend the biography Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning by Dracula scholar David Skal and Elias Savada, as well as his creative catalogue. Though many of his silent films are believed to be lost, check out as many of his Chaney collaborations as possible. And obviously, if you've neglected to see Freaks, this is the ideal place to start.
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