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Tod Browning: From Sideshow to Big Screen

Published: 7/12/2011

Tod BrowningDirector Tod Browning made some of early cinema’s spookiest movies, including the classic 1931 version of "Dracula." On the day he was born, we take a look at the filmmaker’s life and work.

Born Charles Albert Browning, Jr. to a well-to-do family in Louisville, Ky. in 1880, Browning was a natural showman, often putting on plays in his backyard as a young boy. For his one-penny shows, The Louisville Herald-Post even called the young Browning "a Barnum in the making." At age sixteen, Browning followed his dramatic impulses by doing something most kids only dream about – he ran away and joined the circus.

Browning spent his formative years touring the country with sideshows and carnivals, first as a ballyhoo artist (carnival barker) charged with luring patrons in to witness "The Wild Man of Borneo." He later worked as a clown, an escape artist, a contortionist, a blackface comedian, and as The Hypnotic Living Corpse, a live burial act that sometimes required him to remain underground for up to 48 hours at a stretch.

After a carnival that employed him was busted for performing on the Sabbath, he became an assistant to the well-respected magician Leon Hermmann before returning to Louisville and, at age 26, marrying and settling into a career with L&N Railroad.

But the straight job didn’t last long. Soon he was back on the road performing vaudeville. One production took him to New York City where he met D.W. Griffith, who at the time was filming single-reel comedies to be shown in nickelodeons. Browning started working for Griffith as an extra and would appear in more than 50 pictures. When Griffith split from Biograph to start his own company in California, Browning followed, learning everything he could from the most respected director of the time.

His own six-reel directorial debut came in 1917 with Jim Bludso. Not long after, he met Universal producer Irving Thalberg who thought the director would make a good collaborator with an actor on the payroll named Lon Chaney. Browning and Chaney's first film together was the pickpocket melodrama The Wicked Darling. Though a success, it wouldn’t immediately lead to further collaboration.

Browning’s productivity began to suffer when the death of his father plunged him into a deep depression and he began abusing alcohol. After an affair with an underage Anna May Wong – who would become Hollywood’s first Chinese movie star – Browning’s wife left him and he was fired by Universal.

After sobering up and eventually reconciling with his wife, he was given a second chance by Thalberg, who had left Universal for MGM pictures. Browning brought him a lurid crime story called The Unholy Three and Thalberg agreed to finance the adaptation. Browning was again paired with Lon Chaney, now perhaps the biggest star in Hollywood on the strength of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera. A master of transformation who famously designed his own make-up, Chaney would play Professor Echo, a ventriloquist and thief who disguises himself as the grandmotherly Mrs. O’Grady when committing his crimes (it was a role Chaney would reprise in a remake five years later – his only performance in sound film).

Thalberg’s faith in Browning paid off and The Unholy Three became a smash hit, with Photoplay magazine praising it as "one of the finest pictures ever made, due to the able and clever direction of Tod Browning." Browning and Chaney would make a number of bizarre, often macabre crime and mystery films together, including The Blackbird, The Unknown and London After Midnight – the last their most commercially successful film together and now perhaps the most sought-after lost film of the silent era. Their final film together was Where East is East before Chaney’s death in 1929.

There's lots of speculation about whether Lon Chaney would have played Dracula in Browning’s 1931 classic had he lived, but instead it's Bela Lugosi who portrayed the iconic vampire. Though Dracula is Browning’s best remembered film, in many ways it was the movie he had the least hand in shaping – he didn’t come up with the scenario or write the script, he didn’t have final cut of the film, and the spooky atmospherics of the movie are largely the work of cinematographer Karl Freund, who even directed some of the picture. Browning felt slighted by the studio, not least of all because they let it be known they preferred the Spanish version of Dracula – filmed at night on the same sets – better than his own, which cost three times as much to produce.

Nonetheless the film was a massive hit, kicking off a decade of monster movies from Universal Studios (Frankenstein, The Mummy, Werewolf of London, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, etcetera ad nauseam), making Bela Lugosi a huge horror star and giving Browning virtual carte blanche for whatever film he wished to do next.

What came next was a film less spooky than genuinely shocking, one that sharply divided audiences and ruined Browning’s career. Drawing on his early years in the carnival, Freaks tells the story of a trapeze artist who marries a dwarf after she learns of the large inheritance coming to him. The wicked trapeze artists plots with the circus strongman to slowly poison the dwarf, but after drunkenly insulting the sideshow performers at a banquet, her murderous plot is exposed and the so-called "freaks" of the title enact their revenge. Controversial for casting real sideshow performers, the film was yanked after a short run and lost MGM a small fortune. The film was banned for 30 years in the U.K. and MGM was even sued (unsuccessfully) by one woman who said the picture caused her to suffer a miscarriage.

After the Freaks debacle, Browning directed a few more movies for MGM in order to see out his contract, but they were low prestige, low budget affairs. He retired from filmmaking in 1939 and moved to Malibu, becoming a recluse in his final years before his death in 1962 at 82.

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