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 UNHOLY THREE (1925)

In 2011 Warner Brothers has finally released a series of Lon Chaney films on DVD. Of these, the 1925 Unholy Three, directed by Tod Browning, is of considerable interest. The Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaborations, The Unknown (1927) and the photo still reconstruction of the legendary, lost London After Midnight (1927) were released  a few years ago on a box set highlighting the actor. Before that, Kino previously released the first two films Browning made with Chaney, The Wicked Darling (1919) and Outside the Law (1920). Their The Big City (1928)  also seems to be forever lost, which leaves four neglected films; Where East is East (1929), West of Zanzibar (1928), The Road to Mandalay (1926 in truncated and badly deteriorated form), and The BlackBird (1926).  Hopefully, the release of The Unholy Three is a sign that the studio will release the remaining films of  the strangest collaboration between director and actor in cinema history.

Tod Browning The Unholy Three Poster

Among the new Lon Chaney DVD releases is the 1930 sound remake of The Unholy Three with Jack Conway directing Chaney and a mostly different cast. The only interest with the latter film is the novelty of hearing Chaney’s voice.  As in the silent film, the actor took on various disguises, this time allowing 1930 audiences to potentially envision the famed “Man of a Thousand Faces” as, additionally,  the “Man of a Thousand Voices.”  It was not to be. Chaney died shortly after filming and the resulting one and only film to feature the actor’s voice does not bear that potential out.   Chaney, dying of throat cancer, is horse throughout the film. To make matters worse, actor Harry Earles was far more magnetic and compelling in the silent film art form.His thick, German accented voice in the sound remake is an epic distraction.

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