The Films of Tod Browning
Film Forum, Mondays from May 11-June 8
A teen runaway turned circus barker and vaudevillian, Tod Browning’s sideshow life on the fringes of society foreshadowed the outcasts that would become the epicenter of his films. Whether theatrical performers themselves (such as in The Unknown and Freaks) or criminals who use theatricality as part of their schemes (The Blackbird and The Devil Doll), Browning’s characters are linked by a shared anguish which manifests itself physically. It is only fitting that Browning learned filmmaking under the guidance of D.W. Griffith, for whom he was an actor. Whereas Griffith’s innovative close-ups of Lillian Gish’s face to reflect her pure soul, Browning used Lon Chaney’s entire body to convey the impurity of his. And for five consecutive Mondays beginning May 11th, sin and lust will rule the big screen as Film Forum celebrates macabre master Browning.
From the 1910s to the 1930s, Browning created a gloriously gruesome body of work that romanticized villainy and perversity as no other director previously had, and few have since (fellow Griffith-trainee Erich von Stroheim is a close rival). As opposed to the virtuous, idealistic heroes of Douglas Fairbanks that were so popular at the time, Browning focused on anti-heroes who were often criminals, or otherwise licentious, unsavory characters. Consider Chaney’s role in The Unknown (1927): he’s a vicious strangler hiding out in a circus, posing as an armless knife-thrower, who falls in love with the lovely lady who performs as his target (a young Joan Crawford). Like author Fredric Brown (whose twisted, carnivalesque Madball would have been perfect for Browning had he not stopped making movies in the late 1930s), Browning had a twisted, paradoxical sense of justice. The punishment always fits the criminal (rather than just the crime), and in The Unknown, Crawford suffers a sexual neurosis that makes her afraid of all men — except for Chaney, that is, because (she thinks) he has no arms and can never lay a hand on her.
Known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” Chaney’s brilliance was hardly limited to facial expressions, and his malleable physique and fearlessness of playing villains made him the perfect model for Browning. They would go on to make eight pictures together, and the The Unknown is arguably the apex of their collaboration, which was too soon cut short by Cheney’s untimely death of lung cancer in 1930. Lesser-known and ripe for rediscovery is West of Zanzibar (1928), Browning’s Heart of Darkness, about an actor spurned by love who moves to Africa and spends decades plotting his revenge against his deceased wife, her lover, and their child. Sweaty with colonialist perversion, pent-up sexual rage, and incestuous desires, Cheney’s paraplegic “Dead-Legs” is one of his most unsettling characters.
Though he was less prolific after the end of the silent era, Browning’s talkies are no less warped and no less wonderful. The eerie silence of Dracula (1931), matched with the elegant camera movement of Karl Freund, rebels against the dominant strain of overly talkative, static Hollywood films of the time, and shows that a lack of sound is sometimes most effective. The irony of the title Freaks (1932), a masterpiece of the bizarre and the most notorious of Browning’s films, is that “the circus freaks” are the only characters in the movie with any traces of humanity – and the ending is among the most disturbing and haunting examples of poetic justice in film history. And then there is The Devil Doll (1936), in which Lionel Barrymore (“Mr. Potter” and great-uncle of Drew) cross-dresses as a grandma and sells shrunken humans as dolls which, using mind control, become his army of thieves and killers. Delightfully macabre and sporting finely tuned miniaturization photography, The Devil Doll shows that Browning’s lighter side is no less abnormal and fiendish than his darkest journeys.
The death of Chaney, the limiting strictures of the Production Code of 1934, and MGM’s pulling of Freaks from theaters due to poor reception were only part of the problems weighing down on Browning. As Elliott Stein revealed in his entry on the director in Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, “The last two years at MGM were beset by frustration – none of Browning’s horror or mystery projects met with executive approval… He complained of nepotism in the industry – veteran directors who had earned millions for their studios, pushed aside to make room for young incompetents.” His last film, Miracles for Sale, was made in 1939. Browning’s career began and ended with him on the fringes of an industry of which he could never just “fit in.” It would have been interesting to see what Browning would have done had he continued to work into the late 1940s and 1950s, when slackening censorship and film noir put the darker areas of humanity directly in the path of projector. But, then again, that was ground Browning had already covered in the course of his twenty-five year career. In his day he may have been an outsider, but the ensuing decades have irrefutably proved he was well ahead of the game.