TOD BROWNING: DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE

Tod Browning

As a child of the 60s and 70s, I grew up reading about Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), but having been banned in several countries, it was never shown on television and remained-for me-something akin to a “lost film,” achieving mythical status. Then, in the early 80s, with the advent of VCRS, video stores, and VHS, Freaks suddenly was rediscovered. Costing $100.00, I ordered my copy. It was the full feature movie I purchased (excluding the 8MM Chaplin shorts we used to order from Blackhawk Films). When a work of art achieves legendary status, it can fail to live up to its reputation. The Ghoul (1933) with Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger (both from Bride Of Frankenstein, 1935) was such an example when I finally viewed it after having read about it for twenty years. Freaks was different. It retained its power and became an anthem; a source of identification to a young art school student. I had previously read of Browning’s uncomfortability with sound and agreed that it would have been even more shocking as a silent, but the awkward line-reading of non-actor freaks (Harry Earles, etc) rendered it powerfully authentic. From there, I explored the films of Tod Browning, discovering his body of art that lead to Freaks, lifetime obsessions, and one of the most unsetlling actor/director collaborations in the history of cinema.

Outside The Law (Tod Browning)Outside The Law (Tod Browning)

Although Lon Chaney has two roles in Outside the Law (1920), he is
not the star; rather, the film features early Tod Browning favorite Priscilla
Dean who plays Silky Moll, daughter of mobster Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis). Both are attempting to reform under the guidance of Confucian Master Chang Lo
(E. Alyn Warren). Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) interrupts the reformation by framing Silent Madden for murder. Silky, like Lorraine Lavond in Browning’s later The Devil Doll (1939), now has a wrongly imprisoned father.

Outside The Law (Tod Browning)Outside The Law (Tod Browning)

Silky and Dapper Bill Ballard plan a jewel heist with Black Mike. Unknown to Mike, Silky is aware of his betrayal of her father and, with Bill, she double-crosses her father’s Judas. Escaping with the heisted jewels, Silky and Bill hole up in an apartment and the time spent in such a  claustrophobic setting is awash with religious symbolism, which points to transformation. Browning, a Mason, repeatedly used religious imagery and themes: In West of Zanzibar (1928) Phroso stands in for the self-martyred Christ and calls upon divine justice under the image of the Virgin. In The Show (1927), the sadomasochistic drama of Salome is reenacted and almost played out in the actors’ lives (Martinu’s
opera ‘The Greek Passion’ would explore that possibility to a more jarring, degree). East is East 1929) utilizes Buddhist and Catholic symbology. Priests and crucifixes play important parts in The Unholy Three (1925), Road to Mandalay (1926), Dracula (1931-
possibly the most religious of the Universal Horror films) and Mark of the
Vampire
 (1935).

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TOD BROWNING’S THE SHOW 1927

Tod Browning The Show John Gilbert

The screenplay for The Show (1927) was written by frequent  Tod
Browning collaborator Waldemer Young (with uncredited help from Browning). It
is (very loosely) based on Charles Tenney Jackson’s novel, “The Day of
Souls.” Originally titled “Cock O’ the Walk,” The Show is one of the
most bizarre productions to emerge from silent cinema, nearly on par with the
director’s The Unknown from the same year.

Tod Browning The Show poster

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TOD BROWNING’S THE SHOW (1927)

Tod Browning's The Show poster

The screenplay  for The Show (1927) was written by  frequent Browning collaborator Waldemer Young (with uncredited help from Browning). It is  (very loosely) based  on Charles Tenney Jackson’s novel, “The Day of Souls.”  Originally titled  “Cock O’ the Walk”, The Show is one of the most bizarre productions to emerge from  silent cinema, nearly on par with the director’s The Unknown from the same year.

John Gilbert plays Cock Robin, the ballyhoo man at the Palace of Illusions.  A frequent Browning trademark is a character with the name of an animal and Gilbert’s Robin is a proud Cock indeed, both in character and in the actor playing the character. The Show amounted to punishment for star Gilbert who had made what turned out to be a fatal error. When co-star and fiancee Greta Garbo failed to show up at their planned wedding, Gilbert was left humiliated at the alter when boss Louis B. Mayer made a rather loud derogatory remark for all to hear. Gilbert responded by thrashing Mayer. Mayer swore revenge, vowing to destroy Gilbert’s career, regardless of cost (at the time Gilbert was the highest paid star in Hollywood).  Mayer’s revenge began here and climaxed with the coming of sound when Mayer reportedly had sound recording manipulated in order to wreck Gilbert’s voice and career.  Whether Mayer’s tinkering with Gilbert’s voice is legendary or not, Mayer did intentionally  set out to give Gilbert increasingly unflattering roles and the consequences were devastating for Gilbert. Having fallen so far, so fast, Gilbert took to excessive drink. He actually had a  fine voice and starred in a few sound films, including Tod Browning’s Fast Workers (1933) and with Garbo in Queen Christina (1933. She insisted on Gilbert, over Mayer’s strenuous objections). Gilbert died forgotten at 37 in 1936, and became the inspiration for the Norman Maine character in a Star is Born (1937). The Show was the first film after Gilbert’s aborted wedding incident and instead of playing his usual role of swashbuckling matinee idol, Gilbert is cast as a cocky lecher.

Mermaid from Tod Browning's %22The Show.%22

 

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TOD BROWNING’S LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) & MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)

Tod Browning LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT poster lost film

London After Midnight (1927) is the most sought after and discussed lost film of the silent era.  Whether it actually deserves to be the most sought after has been intensely debated, but the fact that London After Midnight is lost is solely the fault of MGM.

MGM head Louis B. Mayer was something akin to the devil incarnate.  For Mayer, film was strictly profitable,  escapist fare to corn feed an increasingly dumb down audiences.  At the opposite end of the spectrum was his in-house studio competitor, producer Irving Thalberg, who nurtured the Tod Brownings and Lon Chaneys of the world.  Thalberg was hardly infallible (he sided with Mayer, against Erich von  Stroheim’s 9-hour version of Greed [1925,] which resulted in the film being excised and led to an actual fistfight between Mayer and Stroheim).  However, Thalberg’s concern was to make quality films, as he saw quality.  Hardly the egoist, Thalberg never took a producer’s credit.  He could turn out escapist family fare, but he was eclectic in his tastes and had a penchant for edgy, risk taking films with only the side of his eye on the profit meter.

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