If you’d never seen a photo of Tod Browning and I showed you a couple portraits of him, you might be forgiven for thinking he was an average 1920s Joe, maybe someone who worked as an accountant or a store manager. Would you have ever guessed he was one of the legends of horror film whose name was practically synonymous with “grotesque”? That the gothic Dracula (1931) and the shocking Freaks (1932) were concocted by this somber man, who probably looked fifty ever since he was 25?
Yet a legend of horror he was, and given his attraction to mysterious themes it might be fitting that his conventional appearance was also bit of a head-scratcher. Lest you think his early life was equally conventional, his background was actually one of the most colorful in the business–indeed, the kind that he’d often give to characters in his own films. In Browning’s case, art was very much drawn from life.
Born Charles Albert Browning Jr. in 1880 in Louisville, Kentucky, by all accounts he had a comfortable, middle-class childhood. His father worked variously as a carpenter, mechanic and bricklayer, and he had an older brother, Avery, who would one day become a coal merchant. The Browning family also had a celebrity connection: an uncle was the baseball champion Pete “The Gladiator” Browning, said to be the recipient of the first “Louisville Slugger” bat.
Browning displayed signs of showmanship early on, singing in the choir at the Christ Church Cathedral and staging amateur shows in his family’s backyard shed for other local kids. Writing, directing, and starring in these shows himself, they were surprisingly elaborate and were soon bringing in a nice trickle of pennies–outgrossing any other amateur kids’ show in town. The love of theater was connected to his deep fascination with the carnivals and circuses that abounded at the time, Louisville being a popular stop. There was a mystery to these travelling spectacles that would arrive and set up their colorful tents in the dead of night, and hawk exciting acrobatics and bizarre sideshows by day. Circus performers and carnies seemed to have their own respective, close-knit cultures forever hovering on the edges of polite society. Roma caravans also came to town around Kentucky Derby time, and Browning spent long hours hanging around their encampments, intrigued by their similar “outsider” status and disdain for conventional authority.
Home was starting to look too prosaic for Charles, who was certainly the rebel of the family, and at age 16 he decided to quite literally run away and join the circus. Rumor has it that an infatuation with a beautful dancer made up his mind. He dived wholeheartedly into the colorful outsider world that fascinated him so much, and soon, as writer David Skal put it, “His resume amounted to a crazy quilt.” After working his way up from being a general laborer, he was in turns a sideshow barker for a “Wild Man from Borneo” act, a song-and-dance man on river showboats, a contortionist, a Houdini-style escape artist, even a clown in the Ringling Brothers Circus. Most sensational was his live burial act, “The Living Hypnotic Corpse,” that he performed for two years. It involved his being literally buried alive in a coffin for 1-2 days, accompanied only by a hidden ventilation system and a stash of malted milk balls. His adoption of the name “Tod Browning”– “Tod” being the German word for “death”–was certainly on brand.
In the mid-1900s Browning married Any Louis Stevens, but he soon left her for another fascination: vaudeville. Working for several years in comedy and magic acts, he would clown alongside comedian Charlies Murray in a sketch based on the comic strip characters Mutt and Jeff. By 1913, like many stage actors he had begun transitioning to the entirely new medium of film–and funnily enough, the future master of the grotesque would get his start in slapstick comedies. Hired by the Biograph studio in New York, Browning was put to work in its “Komic Comedies” unit that was supervised by D.W. Griffith. His fellow performers included Fay Tincher, Max Davidson, Elmer Booth and Edward Dillon, who was also the director. Their fast paced schedule resulted in one comedy short a week, and Browning learned about the filmmaking process very quickly, ultimately deciding he wanted to start directing himself. His first effort is thought to have bee The Lucky Transfer (1915), about two robbers who accidentally give away the hiding place of their loot.
But a tragic event in 1915 forever influenced Browning’s leanings towards the dark and grotesque. Browning had a reputation for liking fast cars and hard liquor, and while driving drunk one night with friends Elmer Booth and George Siegmann he collided with a railroad flat car loaded with steel rails. Booth, thrown directly into the ends of the rails, was killed instantly, and both Browning and Siegmann were badly injured. Browning needed months of slow recovery, and eventually turned to screenwriting. He would start directing again in 1917, but his acting days were now behind him. One bright spot was marrying Alice Watson (this marriage would last until her death in 1944), who would turn out to be helpful to his career in the ’20s.
One of Browning’s post-accident writing projects was a spectacularly non-subtle nudge towards the bizarre: the scenario The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) a two-reel comedy starring Douglas Fairbanks as the Sherlock Holmes-like detective Coke Ennyday that revolved around cocaine and opium. One wonders if Browning was inspired by the painkillers he took during his recovery period. (It’s worth noting that Fairbanks later denied appearing in two-reelers, preferring to gloss over Leaping Fish‘s existence.)
Following this cinematic non sequitur Browning would lean heavily towards drama in his directing career, with themes of guilt, moral or sexual frustration, criminality, hypocrisy, and freakishness popping up repeatedly. He directed films for Fine Arts/Triangle, Metro Pictures, and Bluebird Photoplays with titles like The Jury of Fate (1917) and The Eyes of Mystery (1918). These films were consistently profitable and gave him the reputation of being a successful director. Moving over to Universal, where he would direct until 1923, some of his most popular films starred Priscilla Dean, often in “underworld dame” types of roles. Universal was also where Browning worked with the great Lon Chaney for the first time, starting with The Wicked Darling (1919), and followed a couple years later by Outside the Law (1921), where Chaney played a dual role of both a virtuous character and a villain. Chaney, with his sensitive acting skills, flair for grotesque characters, and tough features that lent themselves well to crime stories, was an excellent match for Browning’s kind of films, and the two “clicked” very quickly.
Browning started drinking more heavily in the ’20s, which lead to him falling off the Hollywood radar in 1923 and 1924. When he managed get his drinking more or less under control, his wife Alice helped negotiate a new contract with MGM–fortunately the studio had recently hired former Universal vice president Irving Thalberg. Chaney followed Browning and their eight collaborations at MGM would prove to be some of the finest of their careers. The plots would revolve around the circuses and carnivals that had fascinated Browning since boyhood, a smattering of “freakish” characters, and more of those criminal underworlds. “O. Henry once remarked that more people would gather to look at a dead horse in the street than would assemble to watch the finest coach pass by,” Browning once said in a telling interview, “and this homely observation comes very close to representing the actual fact.”
Examples include The Unholy Three (1925), their first MGM, which had Chaney playing a cross-dressing ventriloquist who teams up with a dwarf performer and a strongman to become jewel thieves–a brazenly eclectic start. In The Blackbird (1926) Chaney played a criminal known as “The Blackbird” who creates a saintly (and physically deformed) alter ego called “The Bishop.” The shocking The Unknown (1927), probably the best of the Browning/Chaney collaborations, presented Chaney as a circus performer in love with his beautiful assistant, who has a pathological fear of being embraced by men’s arms. He makes the extreme sacrifice of having his arms amputated for her, but the results are tragic in more ways than one.
Today, however, the most famous Browning/Chaney film also happens to be the most famous lost silent of all time: London After Midnight (1927). Chaney plays a detective investigating a murder at a London mansion. Events turn surreal when the bizarre “Man in the Beaver Hat” and a pale, goul-like woman take up residence in the abandoned mansion and start frightening the neighbors. Ah, but could there be a connection between the detective and the Man in the Beaver Hat? Much of the lost film’s mystique revolves around Chaney’s iconic spooky makeup, where he widened his eyes with wires and added shark-like teeth. While the film itself was tepidly reviewed back in the day, tantalizing stills of Chaney amid creepy, quasi-German Expressionist surroundings make London After Midnight the most eagerly sought-after lost silent to this day.
Browning’s last silent was Where East is East (1929), starring Chaney as an animal trapper in Laos. He worked with Chaney in one talkie, Outside the Law (1930), a remake of his own 1921 film. But sadly, Chaney would pass away from lung cancer during the filming of Dracula (1931) and was famously replaced as the lead by Bela Legosi. Persistent alcoholism and the loss of Chaney may have been partly to blame, but Browning reportedly took a back seat through much of the troubled film’s production. Perhaps he was also still finding his footing in the talkies–in a 1931 interview he said: “The addition of sound may increase suspense, but I think sound and dialogue should be used sparingly, perhaps 25 per cent sound and 75 per cent silence. This means that the bits and touches we used to put in our silent pictures and since have dropped–the speed, pantomime, and subtlety of earlier days–need to be reinstated on the screen once more.”
Being a shocking tale for 1931, Dracula was a controversial hit, but Browning’s 1932 offering made it seem tame in retrospect (Irving Thalberg recalled, “I asked for something horrifying, and I got it.”) Freaks (1932) revolved around a trapeze artist who agrees to marry the midget performer Hans, scheming to take his inheritance and run off with a strongman. IT starred a number of actual sideshow performers like the Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton and Schlitzie, a man who had microcephaly (called a “pinhead” back then). The story is sympathetic towards the “freaks,” presented by Browning as a misunderstood, close-knit community, but the lurid ending certainly packed a punch. Freaks would be censored down to a mere 64 minutes and some areas banned it entirely, leading to it being a box office failure.
The Mark of the Vampire (1935) would be an attempt to remake London After Midnight, with copious throwbacks to Dracula. Browning’s last two films were the bizarre The Devil-Doll (1936), where an ailing scientist reveals a secret for transforming humans into puppet-like miniatures, and the murder mystery Miracles for Sale (1939). The latter, where a former magician reveals the murder suspects’ sleight-of-hand tricks and psychic quackery, has been called a surprisingly fitting coda for Browning’s singular career.
After retiring from the industry in 1942 and then losing his wife Alice to pneumonia in 1944, Browning spent the next twenty years living a reclusive life in Malibu, quietly drinking away his days. Neighbors recalled he was never even spotted enjoying the beach. In the sort of dark twist he might’ve inserted into one of his films he was stricken with throat cancer, eventually getting a laryngectomy that rendered him completely mute. Reportedly, at his own brother Avery’s funeral he insisted on staying in a private room at the funeral home, not even allowing his family to see him. He died in 1962, voluntarily isolated from the Hollywood establishment that once thought of him as “the Edgar Allan Poe of the cinema.”
This piece was partially based on a similar article on Browning I wrote for my column at Classic Movie Hub. Other sources:
Davis, Lon. Silent Lives: 100 Biographies of the Silent Film Era. Albany, GA: BearManor Media, 2008.
Massa, Steve. Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2013.