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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A BELA LUGOSI RETROSPECTIVE

13TH CHAIR (Tod Browning 1930) lobby card. Bela Lugosi

According to Bela Lugosi‘s official bio, before coming to America he had been a star on the Hungarian stage, appearing in major Shakespeare productions.  However, several biographers  have disputed Lugosi’s “star” ranking during that period.  It seems most of his roles had actually been small ones.  Regardless, Lugosi enlisted in the Hungarian army during the First World War, was wounded several times, and later had to flee Hungary during a tumultuous political climate which was unfriendly to his leftist leanings.  After a stay in Germany, Lugosi arrived penniless in the States.  Eventually, he made his way to the New York stage and began appearing in plays and silent films.  In 1927, Lugosi was cast in the role of Dracula in Hamilton Dean’s famous stage play. With that, Lugosi became a major star of the stage, and stardom brought him numerous female fans, including Clara Bow, with whom he had a brief affair.

13TH CHAIR (Tod Browning 1930) lobby card. Bela Lugosi
In 1929, director Tod Browning, shopping around for the lead of the film version of Dracula, cast Lugosi as a vampire-like inspector in The Thirteenth Chair (1929).  Although Lugosi was not a great actor in the conventional sense, he did have an undeniably magnetic screen presence and brought an air of European mystery to the most rudimentary melodramas. Browning capitalized on this as few directors could and it worked, leading to Lugosi landing the career-making role of Bram Stoker’s Count in Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula.  The 49 year old Lugosi was perfect for the part.  His idiosyncratic mannerisms, unique mangling of the English language (which, despite rumor, he did not deliver phonetically), and otherworldly persona made for a compelling figure, a point made all the more obvious when compared to Carlos Villarias’ laughable performance in the Spanish language version of Dracula (shot at the same time on the same sets as Browning’s classic). Years later, Lugosi bitterly complained about the typecasting which resulted from the film, but realistically, Dracula was the best thing that happened to the actor. With his limited acting skills and heavy accent, Lugosi never could have been successful  in the romantic matinee roles he desired.

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TOD BROWNING’S DRACULA (1931) IN MEMORIAM CARLA LAEMMLE (1901-2014)

In memoriam  Carla Laemmle, a reprint of “Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931).” Carla Laemmle, Actress and Niece of Universal Studios Founder, Dies at 104 The Hollywood Reporter June 13, 2014 One of the last links to Hollywood’s silent-film era, she appeared in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and spoke the first line in Bela Lugosi’s ‘Dracula.’ Carla Laemml Dracula scene https://www.yahoo.com/movies/carla-laemmle-actress-and-niece-of-universal-studios-88704573997.html Dracula1931 sepia one sheet Tod Browning’s Dracula is often unfairly compared to Murnau’s unauthorized Nosferatu, and it is an unfair comparison because the two are very different films, which merely happen to share the same literary inspiration. (Neither are mere adaptations. The only film to fairly compare to Murnau’s would be Herzog’s remake with Kinski and, indeed, it compares very favorably). The vampire of Murnau and Schreck is an accursed, repulsive animal, the carrier of a dreaded plague and the beast fights fiercely to sustain it’s life, like a rodent in it’s death throes. The Dracula of Browning and Lugosi is an outsider, a mesmerizing and intensely austere intruder, who comes to nourish on the aristocratic London Society, who he, paradoxically, yearns to join (fittingly, for a genuine outsider, it is to no avail of course; he makes rather pronounced overtures and goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfill his ambition there). Dracula promo Dwight Frye’s pre-bitten Renfield is nearly as strange an outcast as he is after his transformation, albeit in a far dracula1different light. Renfield is a bizarre, urban effeminate in an old meat, potatoes and superstition land. The villagers are outcasts too, but among them, Renfield is the doomed jester, misguidedly blinded by his foolhardy feeling of superiority over them and stubbornly oblivious to the peasants’ warnings. Continue reading

TOD BROWNING’S MIRACLES FOR SALE (1939)

Tod Browning’s final film, Miracles For Sale (1939) has been made available on home video for the first time in 2011. It is part of the Warner Archive Collection and rather oddly hidden in a Robert Young double feature package. Nothing against Young, but one is tempted to ask the Warner Marketing team an incredulous “what were you thinking?” The list of Robert Young devotees would seem to spark quite little interest today. Comparatively, the marketing team would probably generate far more interest in collections of directors such as a Tod Browning or James Whale, both of whom  still have considerable followings among classic film fans,  genre fans, film students, and film historians.

Although Browning was on his brand of “best behavior” following the debacle of Freaks (1932) and was forced into caution within the Will Hays Code Universe, he stubbornly only made compromises which still allowed him to be Tod Browning, retaining thematic continuity up to this, his last work. Miracles For Sale begins with a typical Browning scenario: mutilation. A young woman has been captured and awaits military execution for political crimes. She is placed in a large box and shot in half. This stark opening is followed by another Browning theme: the illusion. This below the waist mutilation is merely a staged “Miracle for Sale.” According to the magician and seller of magic tricks,  Mike Morgan (Robert Young), “The hand is faster than the eye” (with a slight of hand now, watch that sugar bowl). The structure of Miracles For Sale takes Morgan’s credo to heart. It is kinetically paced like a screwball comedy, reminding us that Browning’s earliest ventures into film were slapstick.

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TOD BROWNING’S THE MYSTIC 1925

Tod Browning‘s frequent collaborator Waldemar Young wrote the screenplay for The
Mystic
from Browning’s story, and it is clearly part their family of work
together which includes The Unholy Three (1925), The Blackbird1926), The
Show 1927), The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight 1927), West
of Zanzibar
(1928), and Where East is East  (1929). The early knife-throwing act
seen here could be a blueprint for the same act in The Unknown. The
Mystic
(1925) opens in a Hungarian gypsy carnival. The main attraction of
the carnival is “The Mystic,” Zara (Aileen Pringle). Zara is part of a trio,
which includes Poppa Zazarack (Mitchell Lewis) and Zara’s lover Anton (Robert
Ober). Of course, Zara’s clairvoyant act is all illusion and Browning, as
usual, lets his audience in on the trickery almost from the outset.

Tod Browning The Mystic

Conman Michale Nash (Conway Tearle) approaches the trio with a proposal to
take their act to America, where they can bilk naive, rich Manhattanites out of
their fortunes. The New Yorkers make Zara’s seances a hit, although not all of
the natives are so gullible, and the police are secretly investigating the
scam. To complicate matters, Nash puts the moves on Zara, and Anton is pushed
aside. Love does funny things, and soon Nash develops a conscience. He becomes
reluctant to swindle a young heiress. The ever-jealous Zara believes Nash must
want her for himself; but Nash simply wants to reform and make a better, honest
life for Zara. Their relationship is reminiscent of the one between Priscilla
Dean and Wheeler Oakman in Browning’s Outside The Law 1920), as are
the familiar Browning themes of reformation and unpunished crimes.

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TOD BROWNINGS OUTSIDE THE LAW 1920

Tod Browning Outside The Law one sheet

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 plays Silky Moll, daughter of mobster Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis), and
both are attempting to reform under the guidance of Confucian Master Chang Lo
(E. Alyn Warren).

Tod Browning Outside The Law Dean

Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) interrupts the reformation by framing Silent Madden
for murder, so that Silky Moll, like Lorraine Lavond in The Devil Doll
(1939), now has a wrongly imprisoned father. 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 Mike.

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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 WHITE TIGER (1923)

Tod Browning’s White Tiger (1923) finds the director re-visiting  intimate motifs and has an unusual connection to Edgar Allan Poe (Browning, who has often been referred to as the Poe of cinema, listed the classic author as his favorite).  In 1836, Poe wrote  an expose of the touring “Mechanical Chess Player” Automaton. In the expose Poe revealed that inside this mechanical chess player was a concealed, quite human operator. Poe’s article was the seed for Browning’s film, which Browning co-wrote with screenwriter Charles Kenyon.

White Tiger stars Browning regular Priscilla Dean, Raymond Griffith and Walter Beery. Griffith, who got his start with Mack Sennett,  was once considered a rival to both Chaplin and Keaton. However, due to a childhood injury to his vocal cords, Griffith was practically mute, quashing any chance he might have later had for surviving sound film. Most of Griffith’s films are lost, but his most celebrated film, Hands Up (1926), a civil war comedy, survives, and is thought, by some, to be nearly as good as Keaton’s (somewhat overrated)The General from the same year. Although that comparison is highly debatable,  Hands Up is a unique film and worth seeing. It is available from Grapevine Video, but otherwise it is hard to find.

Griffith’s screen persona was that of a debonair comedian, ala Max Linder, but  Browning, of course, used him quite differently. Griffith plays Roy Donovan. Sylvia (Dean) is Roy’s sister, but they are separated at childhood when Hawkes (Beery) betrays their father, Mike Donovan (Alfred  Allen), which results in Mike’s murder. Hawkes takes Sylvia with him. She believes her brother has also died and is unaware that Hawkes was her father’s Judas.

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TOD BROWNING’S THE DEVIL DOLL (1936)

In his next to last film, Tod Browning revisits The Unholy Three (1925) territory, with a surreal twist.  The Devil Doll (1936) is based off Abraham Merritt’s  novel “Burn, Witch, Burn” with the screenplay by  Guy Endore, Erich von Stroheim, and Browning.  Lionel Barrymore, who had a long collaborative history with Browning, stars as escaped convict Paul Lavond.

17 years earlier, Lavond had been sent to prison after being framed by three banking partners. Lavond has escaped with a fellow convict, Marcel (Henry Walthall, another Browning regular) who just happens to be a mad scientist. Together, they make it to Marcel’s home and wife, Malita (the hammy Rafaela Ottiano), who also is, conveniently, a mad scientist. Marcel dies, but not before showing Lavond the scientific discovery that he and Malita have been working on for years. They are able to shrink animals and people to a sixth of their normal size. Considering all the problems with world food shortage, anyone could see the value of this discovery(!). Anyone, except Lavond, who is a bit leery when he finds out the shrinking process wipes out memory cells and self-will.

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TOD BROWNING’S THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (1929)

OPENING SCREEN SHOT 13TH CAHIR

The Thirteenth Chair (1929) is a real curio and Browning’s  first sound film. Like a lot of early sound films, it is bogged down with that wax museum-like staging. This is yet another drawing room murder mystery, taken from an antiquated stage play, but being a Tod Browning production, the film cannot resist its own latent, deviant infrastructure in the acutely bizarre casting of  Bela Lugosi as the well-dressed Inspector Delzante.

Tod Browning publicity still 13th chairTod Browning 13thchair newspaper review

In the original play, the character of the inspector had a different name and was played for laughs. The Thirteenth Chair was an all around testing of the waters type of film, namely, in handling that new invention called sound, which neither Browning nor the production team were comfortably with (all too clearly). However, the main testing was the upcoming role of Dracula and for that reason Browning grabbed Lugosi, who had made the role a mega hit on the stage circuit.

13TH CHAIR (Tod Browning 1930) lobby card. Bela Lugosi

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