Icon Of The Month: Tod Browning

That’s right, this month the legendary Tod Browning, is my icon of the month.

Born Charles Albert Browning Jr on July 12, 1880, in Louisville, Kentucky, the second son of Lydia Browning and Charles Albert Sr, a bricklayer, carpenter and machinist who provided his family with a middle-class and Baptist household. He was also the nephew of baseball star Pete ‘Louisville Slugger’ Browning. As a young boy, he put on amateur plays in his backyard. He was fascinated by the circus and carnival life, and at the age of 16 he ran away from his well-to-do family to become a performer.

Initially hired as a roustabout, he soon began serving as a ‘spieler’ (a barker at sideshows) and by 1901, at the age of 21, was performing song and dance routines for Ohio and Mississippi riverboat entertainment, as well as acting as a contortionist for the Manhattan Fair and Carnival Company. Browning developed a live burial act in which he was billed as “The Living Hypnotic Corpse”, and performed as a clown with the renowned Ringling Brothers circus. He would later draw on these early experiences to inform his cinematic inventions.

In 1906, the 26-year-old Browning was briefly married to Amy Louis Stevens in Louisville. Adopting the professional name “Tod” Browning (tod is the German word for death), Browning abandoned his wife and became a vaudevillian, touring extensively as both a magician’s assistant and a blackface comedian in an act called “The Lizard and the Coon” with comedian Roy C. Jones. He appeared in a Mutt and Jeff sketch in the 1912 burlesque revue The World of Mirth with comedian Charles Murray.

In 1909, after 13 years performing in carnivals and vaudeville circuits, Browning, age 29, transitioned to film acting. Browning’s work as a comedic film actor began in 1909 when he performed with director and screenwriter Edward Dillon in film shorts. In all, Browning was cast in over 50 of these one- or two-reeler slapstick productions. Film historian Boris Henry observes that “Browning’s experience as a slapstick actor [became] incorporated into his career as a filmmaker.” Dillon later provided many of the screenplays for the early films that Browning would direct. A number of actors that Browning performed with in his early acting career would later appear in his own pictures, many of whom served their apprenticeships with Keystone Cops director Max Sennett, among them Wallace Beery, Ford Sterling, Polly Moran, Wheeler Oakman, Raymond Griffith, Kalla Pasha, Mae Busch, Wallace MacDonald and Laura La Varnie.

In 1913, the 33-year-old Browning was hired by film director D. W. Griffith at Biograph Studios in New York City, first appearing as an undertaker in “Scenting a Terrible Crime” (1913). Both Griffith and Browning departed Biograph and New York that same year and together joined Reliance-Majestic Studios in Hollywood, California. Browning was featured in several Reliance-Majestic films, including “The Wild Girl” (1917). Film historian Vivian Sobchack reports that “a number of one- or two-reelers are attributed to Browning from 1914 to 1916” and biographer Michael Barson credits Browning’s directorial debut to the one-reeler drama “The Lucky Transfer”, released in March 1915.

Browning’s career almost ended when, intoxicated, he drove his vehicle into a railroad crossing and collided with a locomotive. Browning suffered grievous injuries, as did passenger George Siegmann. A second passenger, actor Elmer Booth was killed instantly. Film historian Jon Towlson notes that “alcoholism was to contribute to a major trauma in Browning’s personal life that would shape his thematic obsessions…After 1915, Browning began to direct his traumatic experience into his work – radically reshaping it in the process.” According to biographers David J. Skal and Elias Savada, the tragic event transformed Browning’s creative outlook:

“A distinct pattern had appeared in his post-accident body of work, distinguishing it from the comedy that had been his specialty before 1915. Now his focus was moralistic melodrama, with recurrent themes of crime, culpability and retribution.”

The thirty-one films that Browning wrote and directed between 1920 to 1939 were, with few exceptions, melodramas. Browning’s injuries likely precluded a further career as an actor. During his recupiration, Browning turned to writing screenplays for Reliance-Majestic. Upon his recovery, Browning joined Griffith’s film crew on the set of “Intolerance” (1916) as an assistant director and appeared in a bit part for the production’s “modern story” sequence. In 1917, Browning wrote and directed his first full-length feature film, “Jim Bludso”, for Fine Arts/ Triangle film companies, starring Wilfred Lucas in the title role. The story is based on a poem by John Hay, a former personal secretary to Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. Browning married his second wife Alice Watson in 1917; they would remain together until her death in 1944.

Returning to New York in 1917, Browning directed pictures for Metro Pictures. There he made “Peggy, the Will O’ the Wisp” and “The Jury of Fate”. Both starred Mabel Taliaferro, the latter in a dual role achieved with double exposure techniques that were ground breaking for the time. Film historian Vivian Sobchack notes that many of these films “involved the disguise and impersonations found in later Browning films.” Browning returned to Hollywood in 1918 and produced three more films for Metro, each of which starred Edith Storey: “The Eyes of Mystery”, “The Legion of Death” and “Revenge”, all filmed and released in 1918. These early and profitable five, six and seven-reel features Browning made between 1917-1919 established him as a successful director and script writer. In the spring of 1918 Browning departed Metro and signed with Bluebird Photoplays studios (a subsidiary of Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures), then in 1919 with Universal where he would direct a series of “extremely successful” films starring Priscilla Dean.

During his tenure at Universal, Browning directed a number of the studio’s top female actors, among them Edith Roberts in “The Deciding Kiss” and “Set Free” (both 1918) and Mary MacLaren in “The Unpainted Woman”, “A Petal on the Current” and “Bonnie, Bonnie Lassie”, all 1919 productions. Browning’s most notable films for Universal, however, starred Priscilla Dean, “Universal’s leading lady known for playing ‘tough girls'” and with whom he would direct nine features. Browning’s first successful Dean picture -a “spectacular melodrama” – is “The Virgin of Stamboul” (1920). Dean portrays ‘Sari’, a “virgin beggar girl” who is desired by the Turkish chieftain ‘Achmet Hamid’ (Wallace Beery). Browning’s handling of the former slapstick comedian Beery as ‘Achmet’ reveals the actor’s comedic legacy and Browning’s own roots in burlesque. Film historian Stuart Rosenthal wrote that the Dean vehicles possess “the seemingly authentic atmosphere with which Browning instilled his crime melodramas, adding immeasurably to later efforts like “The Black Bird” (1926), “The Show” (1927) and “The Unholy Three”. (1925).”

The Dean films exhibit Browning’s fascination with ‘exotic’ foreign settings and with underworld criminal activities, which serve to drive the action of his films. Dean is cast as a thieving demimonde who infiltrates high society to burgle jewellery in “The Exquisite Thief” (1919); in “Under Two Flags” (1922), set in colonial French Algiers, Dean is cast as a French-Arab member of a harem – her nickname is ‘Cigarette’ – servicing the French Foreign Legion; and in “Drifting” (1923), with its “compelling” Shanghai, China scenes recreated on the Universal backlot, Dean plays an opium dealer. In Browning’s final Dean vehicle at Universal, “White Tiger”, he indulged his fascination with “quasi-theatrical” productions of illusion – and revealed to movie audiences the mechanisms of these deceptions. In doing so, Browning – a former member of the fraternity of magicians – violated a precept of their professional code. Perhaps the most fortuitous outcome of the Dean films at Universal is that they introduced Browning to future collaborator Lon Chaney, the actor who would star in Browning’s most outstanding films of the silent era. Chaney had already earned the sobriquet “The Man of a Thousand Faces” as early as 1919 for his work at Universal. Universal’s vice-president Irving Thalberg paired Browning with Chaney for the first time in “The Wicked Darling” (1919), a melodrama in which Chaney played the thief ‘Stoop Conners’ who forces a poor girl (Dean) from the slums into a life of crime and prostitution.

In 1921, Browning and Thalberg enlisted Chaney in another Dean vehicle, “Outside The Law”, in which he plays the dual roles of the sinister ‘Black Mike’ Sylva and the benevolent ”Ah Wing. Both of these Universal production exhibit Browning’s “natural affinity for the melodramatic and grotesque.” In a special effect that drew critical attention, Chaney appears to murder his own dual character counterpart through trick photography and “with Thalberg supporting their imaginative freedom, Chaney’s ability and unique presence fanned the flames of Browning’s passion for the extraordinary.” Biographer Stuart Rosenthal remarks upon the foundations of the Browning-Chaney professional synergy:

“In the screen personality of Lon Chaney, Tod Browning found the perfect embodiment of the type of character that interested him… Chaney’s unconditional dedication to his acting gave his characters the extraordinary intensity that was absolutely essential to the credibility of Browning’s creations.”

When Thalberg resigned as vice-president at Universal to serve as production manager with the newly amalgamated Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1925, Browning and Chaney accompanied him.

After moving to M-G-M in 1925 under the auspices of production manager Irving Thalberg, Browning and Chaney made eight critically and commercially successful feature films, representing the zenith of both their silent film careers. Browning wrote or co-wrote the stories for six of the eight productions. Screenwriter Waldemar Young, credited on nine of the M-G-M pictures, worked effectively with Browning. At M-G-M, Browning would reach his artistic maturity as a filmmaker. The first of these M-G-M productions established Browning as a talented filmmaker in Hollywood, and deepened Chaney’s professional and personal influence on the director: “The Unholy Three”. In a circus tale by author Tod Robbins – a setting familiar to Browning – trio of criminal ex-carnies and a pickpocket form a jewellery theft ring. Their activities lead to a murder and an attempt to frame an innocent bookkeeper. Two of the criminal quartet reveal their humanity and are redeemed; two perish through violent justice. “The Unholy Three” is an outstanding example of Browning’s delight in the “bizarre” melodramas (though here, not macabre) and its “the perverse characterizations” that Browning and Chaney devise anticipate their subsequent collaborations.

Film historian Stuart Rosenthal identifies “the ability to control another being” as a central theme in “The Unholy Three”. The deceptive scheme through which the thieves manipulate wealthy clients, demonstrates a control over “the suckers” who are stripped of their wealth, much as circus sideshow patrons are deceived: ‘Professor Echo’ and his ventriloquist’s dummy distract a “hopelessly naive and novelty-loving” audience as pickpocket ‘Rosie’ relieves them of their wallets. Browning ultimately turns the application of “mental control” to serve justice. When bookkeeper ‘Hector’ takes the stand in court, testifying in his defence against a false charge of murder, the reformed ‘Echo’ applies his willpower to silence the defendant, and uses his voice throwing power to provide the exonerating testimony. When ‘Hector’ descends from the stand, he tells his attorney “That wasn’t me talking. I didn’t say a word.” Browning employs a set of dissolves to make the ventriloquists role perfectly clear Film historian Robin Blyn comments on the significance of Echo’s courtroom confession:

Professor Echo’s [moral] conversion represents one of the final judgement on the conversion of the cinema of sound attractions to a sound-based narrative cinema disciplined to the demands of realism. ‘Echo’s decision to interrupt the proceedings and confess, rather than ‘throwing voices’ at the judge or the jury, conveys the extent to which the realist mode had become the reigning aesthetic law. Moreover, in refusing his illusionist gift, ‘Echo’ relinquishes ventriloquism as an outmoded and ineffective art…

With “The Unholy Three”, Browning provided M-G-M with a huge box-office and critical success.

While Lon Chaney was making “The Tower of Lies (1925) with director Victor Sjöström Browning wrote and directed an Aileen Pringle vehicle, The Mystic”. The picture has many of the elements typical of Browning oeuvre at M-G-M: Carnivals, Hungarian Gypsies and séances provide the exotic mise-en-scene, while the melodramatic plot involves embezzlement and swindling. An American con man ‘Michael Nash’ (Conway Tearle) develops a moral conscience after falling in love with Pringle’s character, ‘Zara’, and is consistent with Browning’s “themes of reformation and unpunished crimes.” and the couple achieve a happy reckoning. Browning, a former sideshow performer, is quick to reveal to his movie audience the illusionist fakery that serves to extract a fortune from a gullible heiress, played by Gladys Hulette. “Dollar Down” (1925): Browning followed “The Mystic” with another “crook melodrama involving swindlers” for Truart productions. Based on a story by Jane Courthope and Ethyl Hill, “Dollar Down” stars Ruth Roland and Henry B. Walthall. Following these “more conventional” crime films, Browning and Chaney embarked on their final films of the late silent period, “the strangest collaboration between director and actor in cinema history; the premises of the films were outrageous.”

Browning and Chaney were reunited in their next feature film, “The Blackbird” (1926), one of the most “visually arresting” of their collaborations. Browning introduces Limehouse district gangster ‘Dan Tate’ (Chaney), alias ‘The Blackbird’, who creates an alter identity, the physically deformed Christian missionary ‘The Bishop.’ Tate’s purported ‘twin’ brother is a persona he uses to periodically evade suspicion by the police under “a phony mantle of Christian goodness” – an image utterly at odds with the persona of ‘The Blackbird’. According to film historian Stuart Rosenthal, “Tate’s masquerade as the ‘Bishop’ succeeds primarily because the ‘Bishop’s face so believably reflects a profound spiritual suffering that is absolutely foreign to the title character [The Blackbird].” Film historian Stuart Rosenthal identifies Browning’s characterization of ‘Dan Tate’/’the Blackbird’ as a species of vermin lacking in nobility, a parasitic scavenger that feeds on carrion and is unworthy of sympathy. In death, according to film critic Nicole Brenez, ”The Blackbird “is deprived of [himself]…death, then, is no longer a beautiful vanishing, but a terrible spiriting away.” Though admired by critics for Chaney’s performance, the film was only modestly successful at the box office.

Any comprehensive contemporary evaluation of Browning’s “The Road to Mandalay” is problematic. According to Browning biographer Alfred Eaker only a small fraction of the original seven reels exist. A 16mm version survives in a “fragmented and disintegrated state” discovered in France in the 1980s. In a story that Browning wrote with screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz , “The Road to Mandalay” (not related to author Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 poem), is derived from the character “dead-eyed” ‘Singapore Joe’ (Lon Chaney), a Singapore brothel operator. As Browning himself explained:

“The [story] writes itself after I have conceived the characters… the same for The Road to Mandalay. The initial idea was that of a man so frightfully ugly that he was ashamed to reveal himself to his own daughter. In this way one can develop any story.”

The picture explores one of Browning’s most persistent themes: that of a parent who asserts sexual authority vicariously through their own offspring. As such, an Oedipal narrative is established, “a narrative that dominates Browning’s work” and recognized as such by contemporary critics. Film critic Alfred Eaker observes: “The Road to Mandalay is depraved, pop-Freudian, silent melodrama at its ripest. Fortunately, both Browning and Chaney approach this hodgepodge of silliness in dead earnest.” Religious imagery commonly appears in Browning’s films, “surrounding his characters with religious paraphernalia.” Browning, a mason, uses Christian iconography to emphasize Joe’s moral alienation from Rosemary. As in all of the Browning-Chaney collaborations, “The Road to Mandalay” was profitable at the box office.

Whereas Browning’s “The Road to Mandala” (1926) exists in a much deteriorated 16mm abridged version, “London After Midnight” is no longer believed to exist, the last print destroyed in an M-G-M vault fire in 1965. “London After Midnight” is widely considered by archivist’s the Holy Grail and “the most sought after and discussed lost film of the silent era.” A detailed photo reconstruction, based on stills from the film was assembled by Turner Classic Movies’ Rick Schmidlin in 2002. Based on Browning’s own tale entitled “The Hypnotist”, “London After Midnight” is a “drawing room murder mystery’ – its macabre and Gothic atmosphere resembling director Robert Wiene’s 1920 “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. Lon Chaney’s make-up to create the menacing ‘Man with the Beaver Hat’ is legendary. Biographer Alfred Eaker writes: “Chaney’s vampire…is a make-up artist’s delight, and an actor’s hell. Fishing wire looped around his blackened eye sockets, a set of painfully inserted, shark-like teeth producing a hideous grin, a ludicrous wig under a top hat, and white pancake makeup achieved Chaney’s kinky look. To add to the effect Chaney developed a misshapen, incongruous walk for the character.” “London After Midnight” received a mixed critical response, but delivered handsomely at the box office grossing over $1,000,000 in 1927 dollars against a budget of $151,666.14.

In 1926, while Lon Chaney was busy making “Tell It to the Marines” with filmmaker George W. Hill, Browning directed “The Show”, “one of the most bizarre productions to emerge from silent cinema.” (“The Show” anticipates his subsequent feature with Chaney, a “carnival of terror”: “The Unknown”). Screenwriter Waldemar Young based the scenario on elements from the author Charles Tenny Jackson’s “The Day of Souls”. “The Show” is a tour-de-force demonstration of Browning’s penchant for the spectacle of carnival sideshow acts combined with the revelatory exposure of the theatrical apparatus and techniques that create these illusions. “The Show” received generally good reviews, but approval was muted due to Gilbert’s unsavoury character, ‘Cock Robin’. Browning was now poised to make his masterwork of the silent era, “The Unknown” (1927).

“The Unknown” marks the creative apogee of the Tod Browning and Lon Chaney collaborations, and is widely considered their most outstanding work of the silent era. More so than any of Browning’s silent pictures, he fully realizes one of his central themes in “The Unknown”: the linkage of physical deformity with sexual frustration. Lon Chaney said on his creation of the character ‘Alonzo’ in “The Unknown”: “I contrived to make myself look like an armless man, not simply to shock and horrify you but merely to bring to the screen a dramatic story of an armless man”. “The Unknown” is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the late silent film era. Film critic Scott Brogan regards “The Unknown” worthy of “cult status.”

A lost film, “The Big City” stars Lon Chaney, Marceline Day and Betty Compson, the latter in her only appearance in an M-G-M film. Browning wrote the story and Waldemar Young the screenplay concerning “A gangster Lon Chaney who uses a costume jewellery store as a front for his jewel theft operation. After a conflict with a rival gang, he and his girlfriend Marceline Day reform.” Film historian Vivian Sobchack remarked that “The Big City concerns a nightclub robbery, again, the rivalry between two thieves. This time Chaney plays only one of them—without a twisted limb or any facial disguise.'” Critic Stuart Rosenthal commented on “The Big City”: “…Chaney, without makeup, in a characteristic gangster role.” “The Big City” garnered M-G-M $387,000 in profits.

In 1928, Browning and Lon Chaney embarked upon their penultimate collaboration, “West of Zanzibar”, based on Chester M. De Vonde play Kongo (1926). scenario by Elliott J. Clawson and Waldemar Young, provided Chaney with dual characterizations: the magician ‘Pharos’, and the later paraplegic ‘Pharos’ who is nicknamed ‘Dead Legs.’ A variation of the “unknown parentage motif” Browning dramatizes a complex tale of “obsessive revenge” and “psychological horror.” Biographer Stuart Rosenthal made these observations on Chaney’s portrayals:

“Dead Legs is one of the ugliest and most incorrigible of Browning’s heroes…Chaney demonstrated great sensitivity to the feelings and drives of the outcasts Browning devised for him to play. Browning may well be the only filmmaker who saw Chaney as more than an attention-getting gimmick. While many of Chaney’s films for other directors involve tales of retribution, only in the Browning vehicles is he endowed with substantial human complexity.”

Diekmann and Knörer also place “West of Zanzibar” in the within the realm of the Grand Guignol tradition:

“As far as plots are concerned, the proximity of Tod Browning’s cinema to the theatre of the Grand Guignol is evident…From the castrating mutilation of The Unholy Three (1925) to the sadistic cruelty and bestial brutality intermingled with the orientalising chinoiserie of Where East Is East (1929); from the horribly misdirected revenge ploy of West of Zanzibar (1928); to the no less horribly successful revenge plot of Freaks (1932); from the double-crossing gunplay of The Mystic to the erotically charged twists and turns of The Show: on the level of plot alone, all these are close in spirit and explicitness to Andre de Lorde’s theatre of fear and horror.”

Despite being characterized as a “cess-pool” by the censorious Harrison’s Reports motion picture trade journal, “West of Zanzibar” enjoyed popular success at the box office.

Adapted by Waldemar Young from a story by Browning and Harry Sinclair Drago, “Where East Is East” borrows its title from the opening and closing verses of Rudyard Kipling’s 1889 poem “The Ballad of East and West”: “Oh! East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet…” Film historian Stefan Brandt writes that this verse was commonly invoked by Western observers to reinforce conceptions stressing “the homogeneity and internal consistency of ‘The East'” and points out that Kipling (born and raised in Bombay, India) was “far from being one-dimensional” when his literary work “dismantles the myth of ethnic essentiality”:

Browning’s Where East Is East…playfully re-enacts the symbolic dimension contained in Kipling’s phrase. The expression not only emerges in the movie’s title; the vision of the East that is negotiated and shown in all its absurdity here is very much akin to that associated with Kipling.

The last of Browning-Chaney collaborations with an “outrageous premise” and their final silent era film, “Where East Is East” was marketed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer “as a colonial drama in the mold of British imperialist fiction.” Upon completing “Where East Is East”, M-G-M prepared to make his first sound production, “The Thirteenth Chair” (1929). The question as to Browning’s adaptability to the film industry’s ineluctable transition to sound technology is disputed among film historians.

Biographers David Skal and Elias Savada report that Browning “had made his fortune as a silent film director but had considerable difficulties in adapting his talents to talking pictures.” Film critic Vivian Sobchack notes that Browning, in both his silent and sound creations, “starts with the visual rather than the narrative” and cites director Edgar G. Ulmer: “until the end of his career, Browning tried to avoid using dialogue; he wanted to obtain visual effects.” Biographer Jon Towlson argues that Browning’s 1932 “Freaks” reveals “a director in full control of the [sound] medium, able to use the camera to reveal a rich subtext beneath the dialogue” and at odds with the general assessment of the filmmakers post-silent era pictures. Browning’s sound oeuvre consists of nine features before his retirement from filmmaking in 1939. Browning’s first sound film, “The Thirteenth Chair” is based on a 1916 “drawing room murder mystery” stage play by Bayard Veiller first adapted to film in a 1919 silent version and later a sound remake in 1937.

Set in Calcutta, the story concerns two homicides committed at séances. Illusion and deception are employed to expose the murderer. In a cast featuring some of M-G-M’s top contract players including Conrad Nagel, Leila Hyams and Margaret Wycherly Hungarian-American Bela Lugosi, a veteran of silent films and the star of Broadway’s “Dracula” (1924) was enlisted by Browning to play ‘Inspector Delzante’, when at time Lon Chaney declined to yet embark on a talking picture. The first of his three collaborations with Lugosi, Browning’s handling of the actor’s role as ‘Delzante’ anticipated the part of ‘Count Dracula’ in his “Dracula” (1931). Browning endows Lugosi’s ‘Delzante’ with bizarre eccentricities, including a guttural, broken English and heavily accented eyebrows, characteristics that Lugosi made famous in his film roles as vampires. Film historian Alfred Eaker remarks: “Serious awkwardness mars this film, a product from that transitional period from silent to the new, imposing medium of sound. Because of that awkwardness The Thirteenth Chair is not Browning in best form.” In 1930 a remake of Browning’s 1921 silent version of “Outside the Law” was made, starring Priscilla Dean and Lon Chaney who appeared in dual roles. “Outside the Law” concerns a criminal rivalry among gangsters. It stars Edward G. Robinson as ‘Cobra Collins’ and Mary Nolan as his moll ‘Connie Madden’. Film critic Alfred Eaker commented that Browning’s remake “received comparatively poor reviews.”

Browning’s “Dracula” initiated the modern horror genre, and it remains his only “one true horror film.” Today the picture stands as the first of Browning’s two sound era masterpieces, rivalled only by his “Freaks” (1932). The picture set in motion Universal Studios’ highly lucrative production of vampire and monster movies during the 1930s. Browning approached Universal’s Carl Laemmle Jr. in 1930 to organize a film version of Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel “Dracula”, previously adapted to film by director F. W. Murnau in 1922. In an effort to avoid copyright infringement lawsuits, Universal opted to base the film on Hamilton Deane’s and Louis Bromfield’s melodramatic stage version “Dracula” (1924), rather than Stoker’s novel. Actor Lon Chaney, then completing his first sound film with director Jack Conway in a remake of Browning’s silent “The Unholy Three” (1925), was tapped for the role of ‘Count Dracula’. Terminally ill from lung cancer, Chaney withdrew early from the project, a significant personal and professional loss to long-time collaborator Browning. The actor died during the filming of “Dracula”. Hungarian expatriate and actor Bela Ferenc Deszo Blasco, appearing under the stage name Bela Lugosi, had successfully performed the role of ‘Count Dracula’ in the American productions of the play for three years. According to film historian David Thomson, “when Chaney died it was taken for granted that Lugosi would have the role in the film.”

Lugosi’s portrayal of ‘Count Dracula’ is inextricably linked to the vampire genre established by Browning. As film critic Elizabeth Bronfen observes, “the notoriety of Browning’s Dracula within film history resides above all else in the uncanny identification between Bela Lugosi and his role.” Browning quickly establishes what would become Dracula’s – and Bela Lugosi’s – ine qua non: “The camera repeatedly focuses on Dracula’s hypnotic gaze, which, along with his idiosyncratic articulation, was to become his cinematic trademark.” Film historian Alec Charles observes that “The first time we see Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning’s Dracula…he looks almost directly into the camera…Browning affords the audience the first of those famously intense and direct into-the-camera Lugosi looks, a style of gaze that would be duplicated time and again by the likes of Christopher Lee and Lugosi’s lesser imitators…” Lugosi embraced his screen persona as the preeminent “aristocratic Eastern European vampire” and welcomed his typecasting, assuring his “artistic legacy”.

Film critic Elizabeth Bronfen reports that Browning’s cinematic interpretation of the script has been widely criticized by film scholars. Browning is cited for failing to provide adequate “montage or shot/reverse shots”, the “incoherence of the narrative” and his putative poor handling of the “implausible dialogue” reminiscent of “filmed theatre.” Bronfen further notes critic’s complaints that Browning failed to visually record the iconic vampiric catalogue: puncture wounds on a victims necks, the imbibing of fresh blood, a stake penetrating the heart of ‘Count Dracula’. Moreover, no “transformation scenes” are visualized in which the undead or vampires morph into wolves or bats. Film critics have attributed these “alleged faults” to Browning’s lack of enthusiasm for the project. Actor Helen Chandler, who plays ‘Dracula’s mistress, ‘Mina Seward’, commented that Browning seemed disengaged during shooting, and left the direction to cinematographer Karl Freund. Bronfen emphasizes the “financial constraints” imposed by Universal executives, strictly limiting authorization for special effects or complex technical shots, and favouring a static camera requiring Browning to “shoot in sequence” in order to improve efficiency. Bronfen suggests that Browning’s own thematic concerns may have prompted him – in this, ‘the first talkie horror picture’ – to privilege the spoken word over visual tricks.”:

“Browning’s concern was always with the bizarre desires of those on the social and cultural margins. It is enough for him to render their fantasies as scenic fragments, which require neither a coherent, nor a sensational story line… the theatricality of his filmic rendition emphasizes both the power of suggestion emanating from Count Dracula’s hypnotic gaze and Professor Van Helsing’s will power, as well as the seduction transmitted by foregrounding the voices of the marginal and monstrous… even the choice of a static camera seems logical, once one sees it as an attempt to savour the newly discovered possibilities of sound as a medium of seductive film horror.”

The scenario follows the vampire ‘Count Dracula’ to England where he preys upon members of the British upper-middle class, but is confronted by nemesis ‘Professor Van Helsing’, (Edward Van Sloan) who possesses sufficient will power and knowledge of vampirism to defeat “Count Dracula”. Film historian Stuart Rosenthal remarks that “the Browning version of Dracula retains the Victorian formality of the original source in the relationships among the normal characters. In this atmosphere the seething, unstoppable evil personified by the Count is a materialization of Victorian morality’s greatest dread.”

Browning employs “a favorite device” with an animal montage early in the film to establish a metaphoric equivalence between the emergence of the vampires from their crypts and the small parasitic vermin that infest the castle: spiders, wasps and rats. Unlike Browning’s previous films, “Dracula” is not a “long series of [illusionist] tricks, performed and explained” but rather an application of cinematic effects “presenting vampirism as scientifically verified ‘reality’.” Despite Universal executives editing out portions of Browning’s film, Dracula was enormously successful. Opening at New York City’s Roxy Theatre, “Dracula” earned $50,000 in 48 hours, and was Universal’s most lucrative film of the Depression Era. Five years after its release, it had grossed over one million dollars worldwide. Film critic Dennis Harvey writes: “Dracula’s enormous popularity fast-tracked Browning’s return to MGM, under highly favourable financial terms and the protection of long time ally, production chief Irving Thalberg.”

The last of Browning’s three sound films he directed for Universal Studios, “Iron Man” (1931) is largely ignored in critical literature. Described as “a cautionary tale about the boxer as a physically powerful man brought down by a woman”, Browning’s boxing story lacks the macabre elements that typically dominate his cinema. Film historian Vivian Sobchack observes that “Iron Man, in subject and plot, is generally regarded as uncharacteristic of Browning’s other work.” Thematically, however, the picture exhibits a continuity consistent with his obsessive interest in “situations of moral and sexual frustration.” Film critic Leger Grindon cites the four “subsidiary motifs” recognized by Browning biographer Stuart Rosenthal: “appearances hiding truth (particularly physical beauty as a mask for villainy), sexual frustration, opposing tendencies within a protagonist that are often projected onto alter egos and finally, an inability to assign guilt.” These themes are evident in “Iron Man”.

Rather than relying largely upon “editing and composition as expressive tools” Browning moved away from a stationary camera “toward a conspicuous use of camera movement” under the influence of Karl Freund, cinematographer on the 1931 “Dracula”. “Iron Man” exhibits this “transformation” in Browning’s cinematic style as he entered the sound era. Leger Grindon provides this assessment of Browning’s last picture for Universal:

“Iron Man is not an anomaly in Tod Browning’s career; rather, it is a work that testifies to the continuity of his thematic concerns, as well as showcasing his growing facility with the camera after his work with [cameraman] Karl Fruend…”

Though box office earning for “Iron Man” are unavailable, a measure of its success is indicated in the two remakes the film inspired: “Some Blondes Are Dangerous” (1937) and “Iron Man” (1950). Browning returned to M-G-M studios after completing “Iron Man” to embark upon the most controversial film of his career: “Freaks” (1932).

After the spectacular success of “Dracula” (1931) at Universal, Browning returned to M-G-M studios, lured by a generous contract and enjoying the auspices of production manager Irving Thalberg. Anticipating a repeat of his recent success at Universal, Thalberg accepted Browning’s story proposal based on Tod Robbins’ circus-themed tale “Spurs” (1926). The studio purchased the rights and enlisted screenwriter Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon to develop the script with Browning. Thalberg collaborated closely with the director on pre-production, but Browning completed all the actual shooting on the film without interference from studio executives. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s president, Louis B. Mayer, registered his disgust with the project from its inception and during the filming, but Thalberg successfully intervened on Browning’s behalf to proceed with the film. The picture that emerged was Browning’s “most notorious and bizarre melodrama.”

A “morality play”, “Freaks” centres around the cruel seduction of a circus sideshow midget ‘Hans’ (Harry Earles) by a statuesque trapeze artist ‘Cleopatra’ (Olga Baclanova). She and her lover, strongman ‘Hercules’ (Henry Victor), scheme to murder the diminutive Hans for his inheritance money after sexually humiliating him. The community of freaks mobilizes in ‘Hans’ defence, meting out severe justice to ‘Cleopatra’ and ‘Hercules’: the former trapeze beauty is surgically transformed into a sideshow freak. Browning enlisted a cast of performers largely assembled from carnival freak shows – a community and milieu both of which the director was intimately familiar. The circus freaks serve as dramatic and comedic players, central to the story’s development, and do not appear in their respective sideshow routines as novelties.

Two major themes in Browning’s work – Sexual Frustration and Reality vs. Appearances – emerge in “Freaks” from the conflict inherent in the physical incompatibility between ‘Cleopatra’ and ‘Hans’. The guileless ‘Hans’ self-delusional fantasy of winning the affection of ‘Cleopatra’ – “seductive, mature, cunning and self-assured” – provokes her contempt, eliciting “cruel sexual jests” at odds with her attractive physical charms. Browning provides the moral rationale for the final reckoning with ‘Cleopatra’ before she has discovered ‘Hans’ fortune and plans to murder him. Film historian Stuart Rosenthal explains:

“It is here that Browning justifies the disruption of an individual’s sexual equanimity as a cause for retaliation. Cleopatra’s decision to wed the dwarf for his wealth and then dispose of him is not, in itself, a significant advance in villainy…her most heinous crime is committed when she teases Hans by provocatively dropping her cape to the floor, then gleefully kneels to allow her victim to replace it upon here shoulders…This kind of exploitation appears more obscene by far than the fairly clean act of homicide.”

Browning addresses another theme fundamental to his work: “Inability to Assign Guilt”. The community of freaks delay judgement on ‘Cleopatra’ when she insults ‘Frieda’ (Daisy Earles), the midget performer who loves ‘Hans’. Their social solidarity cautions restraint, but when the assault on ‘Hans’ becomes egregious, they act single-mindedly to punish the offender. Browning exonerates the freaks of any guilt: they are “totally justified” in their act of retribution. Stuart Rosenthal describes this doctrine, the “crux” of Browning’s social ideal:

“Freaks is the film that is most explicit about the closeness of equability and retribution. The freaks live by a simple and unequivocal code that one imagines might be the crux of Browning’s ideal for society: ‘Offend one of them, and offend them all’…if anyone attempts to harm or take advantage of one of their number, the entire colony responds quickly and surely to mete out appropriate punishment.”

Browning cinematic style in “Freaks” is informed by the precepts of German Expressionism, combining a subdued documentary-like realism with “chiaroscuro shadow” for dramatic effect. The wedding banquet sequence in which ‘Cleopatra’ and ‘Hercules’ brutally degrade ‘Hans’ is “among the most discussed moments of Freaks” and according to biographer Vivian Sobchack “a masterpiece of sound and image, and utterly unique in conception and realization.” The final sequence in which the freaks carry out their “shocking” revenge and ‘Cleopatra’s fate is revealed “achieves the most sustained level of high-pitched terror of any Browning picture.”

“Freaks” was given general release only after 30-minutes of footage was excised by Thalberg to remove portions deemed offensive to the public. Though Browning had a long history of making profitable pictures at M-G-M “Freaks” was a “disaster” at the box office, though earning mixed reviews among critics. Browning’s reputation as a reliable filmmaker among the Hollywood establishment was tarnished, and he completed only four more pictures before retiring from the industry after 1939. According to biographer Alfred Eaker “Freaks, in effect, ended Browning’s career.” In the aftermath of the commercial failure of his 1932 “Freaks”, Browning was assigned to produce and direct (uncredited) an adaption of John McDermott’s play “Rivets”.

The script for “Fast Workers” by Karl Brown and Laurence Stallings dramatizes the mutual infidelities, often humorous, that plague a ménage à trois comprising a high-rise construction worker and seducer ‘Gunner Smith’ (John Gilbert), his co-worker and sidekick, ‘Bucker Reilly’ (Robert Armstrong) and ‘Mary’ (Mae Clarke), an attractive “Gold digger” seeking financial and emotional stability during the Great Depression. Browning brings to bear all the thematic modes that typically motivate his characters. Film historian Stuart Rosenthal writes:

“In Fast Workers the four varieties of frustration are so well integrated among themselves that it is difficult, if not impossible to say where one ends and another begins. These interrelations make it one of the most perplexing of Browning’s films, especially with regard to morality and justice.”

The betrayals, humiliations and retaliations that plague the characters, and the moral legitimacy of their behaviours remains unresolved. Rosenthal comments on Browning’s ambivalence: “Fast Workers is Browning’s final cynical word on the impossibility of an individual obtaining justice, however righteous his cause, without critically sullying himself. Superficially, things have been set right. Gunner and Bucker are again friends and, together are equal to any wily female. Yet Gunner, the individual who is the most culpable, finds himself in the most secure position, while the basically well-intentioned Mary is rejected and condemned by both men.” An outstanding example of Browning’s ability to visually convey terror – a technique he developed in the silent era – is demonstrated when ‘Mary’ perceives that ‘Bucker’, cuckolded by Gunner, reveals his homicidal rage. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer committed $525,000 to the film’s production budget, quite a high sum for a relatively short feature. Ultimately, MGM reported earnings of only $165,000 on the film after its release, resulting in a net loss of $360,000 on the motion picture.

Browning returned to a vampire-themed picture with his 1935 “Mark of the Vampire”. Rather than risk a legal battle with Universal Studios who held the rights to Browning’s 1931 “Dracula”, he opted for a reprise of his successful silent era “London After Midnight” (1927), made for M-G-M and starring Lon Chaney in a dual role. With “Mark of the Vampire”, Browning follows the plot conceit employed in “London After Midnight”: An investigator and hypnotist seeks to expose a murderer by means of a “vampire masquerade” so as to elicit his confession. Browning deviates from his 1927 silent film in that here the sleuth, ‘Professor Zelen’ (Lionel Barrymore), rather than posing as a vampire himself in a dual role, hires a troupe of talented thespians to stage an elaborate hoax to deceive the murder suspect ‘Baron Otto von Zinden’ (Jean Hersholt). Bela Lugosi was enlisted to play the lead vampire in the troupe, ‘Count Moro’. As a direct descendant of Browning’s carnival-themed films, Browning offers the movie audience a generous dose of Gothic iconography: “hypnotic trances, flapping bats, spooky graveyards, moaning organs, cobwebs thick as curtains — and bound it all together with bits of obscure Eastern European folklore…”

As such, “Mark of the Vampire” leads the audience to suspend disbelief in their scepticism regarding vampires through a series of staged illusions, only to sharply disabuse them of their credulity in the final minutes of the movie. Browning reportedly composed the conventional plot scenes as he would a stage production, but softened the static impression through the editing process. In scenes that depicted the supernatural, Browning freely used a moving camera. Film historian Matthew Sweney observes “the [special] effects shots…overpower the static shots in which the film’s plot and denouement take place…creating a visual tension in the film.” Cinematographer James Wong Howe’s lighting methods endowed the film with a spectral quality that complimented Browning’s “sense of the unreal”. Critic Stuart Rosenthal writes:

“The delicate, silkily evil texture [that characterizes the imagery] is as much a triumph for James Wong Howe’s lighting as it is for Browning’s sense of the unreal. Howe has bathed his sets in the luminous glow which is free of the harsh shadows and contrasts that mark Freund’s work in Dracula.”

“Mark of the Vampire” is widely cited for its famous “tracking shot on the stairwell” in which ‘Count Mora’ (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter ‘Luna’ (Carol Borland) descend in a stately promenade. Browning inter-cuts their progress with images of vermin and venomous insects, visual equivalents for the vampires as they emerge from their own crypts in search of sustenance. Rosenthal describes the one-minute sequence:

“…Bela Lugosi and the bat-girl [Carol Borland] descend the cobweb-covered staircase of the abandoned mansion, their progress broken into a series of shots, each of which involves continuous movement of either the camera, the players, or both. This creates the impression of a steady, unearthly gliding motion…the glimpses of bats, rats and insects accent the steady, deliberate progress of the horrific pair…the effect is disorienting and the viewer becomes ill-at-ease because he is entirely outside his realm of natural experience.”

In another notable and “exquisitely edited” scene Browning presents a lesbian-inspired seduction. ‘Count Mora’, in the form of a bat, summons Luna to the cemetery where ‘Irene Borotyn’ (Elizabeth Allan) (daughter of murder victim Sir Karell, awaits in a trance.) When vampire ‘Luna’ avidly embraces her victim, ‘Count Moro’ voyeuristically looks on approvingly. Borland’s ‘Luna’ would inspire the character ‘Morticia’ in the TV series “The Addams Family”. The soundtrack for “Mark of the Vampire” is notable in that it employs no orchestral music aside from accompanying the opening and closing credits. Melodic passages, when heard, are provided only by the players. The sound effects provided by recording director Douglas Shearer contribute significantly to the film’s ambiance. Film historian Matthew Sweney writes:

“The only incidental music…consisting as it does with groans and nocturnal animal sounds is perhaps minimalistic, but it is not used minimally, occurring throughout film expressly to score the vampire scenes…frightening scenes are not punctuated with orchestral crescendos, but by babies crying, women screaming, horses neighing, bells striking.”

The climatic coup-de-grace occurs when the murderer’s incredulity regarding the existence of vampires is reversed when Browning cinematically creates an astonishing illusion of the winged ‘Luna’ in flight transforming into a human. The rationalist ‘Baron Otto’, a witness to this legerdemain, is converted into a believer in the supernatural and ultimately confesses, under hypnosis, to the murder of his brother ‘Sir Karell’. In the final five minutes of “Mark of the Vampire”, the theatre audience is confronted with the “theatrical trap” that Browning has laid throughout the picture: none of the supernatural elements of film are genuine – the “vampires” are merely actors engaged in a deception. This is made explicit when Bela Lugosi, no longer in character as ‘Count Moro’, declares to a fellow actor: “Did you see me? I was greater than any real vampire!”

In this, the penultimate film of his career, Browning created a work reminiscent of his collaborations with actor Lon Chaney during the silent era, in the “bizarre melodrama” “The Devil-Doll”. Based on the novel “Burn, Witch, Burn” (1932) by Abraham Merritt, the script was crafted by Browning with contributions from Garrett Fort, Guy Endore and Erich von Stroheim (director of “Greed” (1924) and “Foolish Wives” (1922)), and “although it has its horrific moments, like Freaks (1932), The Devil-Doll is not a horror film.” In “The Devil-Doll”, Browning borrows a number of the plot devices from his 1925 “The Unholy Three”. ‘Paul Lavond’ (Lionel Barrymore) has spent 17 years incarcerated at Devil’s Island, framed for murder and embezzlement committed by his financial associates. He escapes from the prison with fellow inmate, the ailing ‘Marcel’ (Henry B. Walthall). The terminally ill scientist divulges to ‘Lavond’ his secret formula for transforming humans into miniature, animated puppets. In alliance with ‘Marcel’s widow ‘Malita’ (Rafaela Ottiano), the vengeful ‘Lavond’ unleashes an army of tiny living “dolls” to exact a terrible retribution against the three “unholy” bankers. Biographer Vivian Sobchack acknowledges that “the premises on which the revenge plot rest are incredible, but the visual realization is so fascinating that we are drawn, nonetheless, into a world that seems quite credible and moving” and reminds viewers that “there are some rather comic scenes in the film…”

Barrymore’s dual role as ‘Lavond’ and his cross-dressing persona, the elderly ‘Madame Mandilip’, a doll shop proprietor, is strikingly similar to Lon Chaney’s ‘Professor Echo’ and his transvestite counterpart “Granny” ‘O’Grady’, a parrot shop owner in “The Unholy Three” (1925). Film critic Stuart Rosenthal notes that Browning recycling of this characterization as a plot device “is further evidence for the interchangeability of Browning’s heroes, all of whom would act identically if given the same set of circumstances.” Thematically, “The Devil-Doll” presents a version of Browning “indirect” sexual frustration. Here, ‘Lavond’s daughter ‘Lorraine’ (Maureen O’Sullivan), ignorant of her father’s identity, remains so. Stuart Rothenthal explains:

“Lionel Barrymore in The Devil-Doll makes an attempt [as did Lon Chaney in The Road to Mandalay (1926) and West of Zanzibar (1928) to protect his daughter from embarrassment and unhappiness by concealing his identity from her even after he has been cleared of embezzlement. In an ironic way, by denying himself his daughter, he is punishing himself for the crimes he committed in the course of his self-exoneration…Clearly, the most deplorable consequence [of his frameup] was not the years he spent in prison, but the alienation of his daughter’s love and respect.”

Rosenthal points out another parallel between “The Devil-Doll” and “The Unholy Three” (1925): “Lavond’s concern for his daughter and refusal to misuse his powers mark him as a good man…when his revenge is complete, like Echo [in The Unholy Three], Lavond demonstrates a highly beneficent nature.” Browning proficient use of the camera and the remarkable special effects depicting the “miniature” people are both disturbing and fascinating, directed with “eerie skill.” Film historians Stefanie Diekmann and Ekkehard Knörer report that the only direct link between Browning’s fascination with “the grotesque, the deformed and the perverse” and the traditions of the French Grand Guignol is actor Rafaela Ottiano who plays doll-obsessed scientist ‘Matila’. Before her supporting role in “The Devil-Doll”, she enjoyed “a distinguished career as a Grand Guignol performer.” Shortly after the completion of “The Devil-Doll”, Browning mentor at M-G-M Irving Thalberg died at the age of 37. Browning received no screen credit for the film. It would be two years before his final film: “Miracles for Sale” (1939).

“Miracles for Sale” (1939) was the last of the forty-six feature films Browning made for Universal and M-G-M studios since he began directing in 1917. Browning’s career had been in abeyance for two years after completing “The Devil-Doll” in 1936. In 1939, he was tasked with adapting Clayton Rawson’s locked-room mystery, “Death from a Top Hat” (1938). Robert Young appears as ‘The Amazing Morgan’, a conjurer and “purveyor of magic show equipment.” Florence Rice plays the ingenue, ‘Judy Barkley’. In this, his cinematic “swan song”, Browning “revisits obsessive, familiar themes of fake spiritualism, magic acts and transformation through disguises…” and, as with virtually all of Browning’s explorations of the arts of illusion and the “realms of theatrical magic”, his denouement provides “an impirical solution” to the mystery murder. “Miracles for Sale” opens with a startling sequence that includes a graphic illusion depicting a “below-the-waist mutilation.” Film critic Stuart Rosenthal writes:

“On the sideline of a battlefield, an Oriental military officer chides a beautiful female spy for having dispatched intelligence that has led to the bombing of a schoolhouse. He orders her placed in a child’s coffin (‘You understand why we only have small coffins available’ he sneers) with her head and feet protruding from either end, and tells his men to machine-gun the casket in half. After the grisly order has been carried out, to the [movie] viewer’s amazement, it is revealed that the execution is merely a variation on the traditional ‘sawing-a-woman-in-half’ stunt. The illusion is being offered for sale by ‘The Amazing Morgan’ [Robert Young], a purveyor of magician’s paraphernalia…”

Despite this “inspired jolt” at the film’s outset, “Miracles for Sale” is the most “studio bound” of Browning’s sound oeuvre, and according to film critic Stuart Rosenhal “the only Browning production that really looks like an M-G-M studio job…” “Miracles for Sale” lost money at the box-office, returning only $39,000 to M-G-M on a $297,000 investment. Critical evaluation was generally positive.

By the early 1940s, Browning’s macabre sensibilities were no longer welcome in a Hollywood that was striving for “glamour and prestige.” Browning was summarily terminated at M-G-M by producer Carey Wilson after the release of “Miracles for Sale” and was, by the director’s own account “blackballed” from Hollywood as a filmmaker. Stephanie Diekmann and Ekkehard Knörer offer this assessment of Browning’s final cinematic effort:

“Browning’s post-Freaks films were themselves close to parodies of what had made him one of the great directors of the 1920s. The one exception is his marvellous swan song, Miracles for Sale, which in the farcical form of screwball comedy conjures up a world of traps and sleights-of-hand, of crookery and trickery — in short, the world of Tod Browning’s theatre, one last time. His is a career that ended neither with a bang nor a whisper, but a performance that makes fun of an audience that believes what it sees.”

Film historian Alfred Eaker adds that “the entire structure of Miracles for Sale is an illusion itself, making it a sublime curtain call for the director…” Browning occasionally offered screenplays to M-G-M, but eventually disengaged entirely from the film industry and in 1942 retired to his home in Malibu, California.

Browning’s wife Alice died in 1944 from complications from pneumonia, leaving him a recluse at his Malibu Beach retreat. By that time Browning had become so isolated from the Hollywood establishment that Variety mistakenly published an obituary that year for Browning, confusing his spouses’ death for the former director. In 1949, the Director’s Guild of America bestowed a life membership on Browning; at the time of his death, the honour had been enjoyed by only four of Browning’s colleagues. Browning, now a widower, lived in isolation for almost 20 years, “an alcoholic recluse.” In 1962 he was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. The surgical procedure performed to correct the condition rendered him mute.

Tod Browning died alone at his Malibu home on October 6, 1962. He was 82 years old. Tod was cremated at Woodlawn cemetery, and inured in Rosedale Cemetery.

“…Browning was sometimes called the Edgar Allan Poe of the cinema’ [and] much admired by the surrealists. Browning’s creations were, of course, a commercial cinema as well. The films suggest a man of humor and compassion who had a dark and melancholic fascination with physical deformity and with the exotic and extraordinary, and yet who observed the oddities of life with unprejudiced objectivity and some delight. A Southerner who ran away with the circus; a former Vaudevillian and magician who traveled the world before he became a filmmaker, a [literary] aesthete and a beer drinker, above all a storyteller, Browning was both a poet and a pragmatist.” – Vivian Sobchack

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