Where to begin with Tod Browning

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: Tod Browning’s pioneering horror movies

Martyn Conterio

Freaks (1932)

Freaks (1932)

Why this might not seem so easy

The offbeat cinema of Tod Browning (1880-1962) offers an astonishing pulp-fiction assortment of carnies, crooks, deadbeats, impostors, lowlifes, miscreants, magicians, pickpockets, pimps, vamps, vampires and weirdos. He specialised in the outré, the macabre and the perverse, and successfully capitalised on the appetite for lurid stories.

Browning, however, routinely tempered grotesque and transgressive elements with safe conclusions (villains nearly always received their comeuppance, wrongs were righted), leaving patrons to go home relatively undisturbed. Like Tim Burton or David Lynch today, Tod Browning’s eccentric imagination found a home in the mainstream, his run of films with Lon Chaney playing a vital role in the development of the American horror movie.

His popular but controversial photo-plays unfolded in seedy or exotic climes: San Francisco’s Chinatown (Outside the Law, 1920), the rookeries of Limehouse (The Blackbird, 1926); an ivory trading outpost in colonial Congo (West of Zanzibar, 1928); a big top in Madrid (The Unknown, 1927), the jungles of Laos (Where East Is East, 1929) – all evocatively and ingeniously recreated on Hollywood soundstages. Fixated on human disfigurement and underworld figures, the films are marked by a stark, obsessive aesthetic and themes of compulsion.

A fair chunk of the silent-period filmography has vanished, making a total assessment of his output impossible. 1927’s mystery chiller, London after Midnight, is one of the most famous lost movies of all. The last known print was destroyed in the 1965 MGM vault fire. Also missing from his 10-film collaboration with Chaney is The Big City (1928), while The Road to Mandalay (1926) exists in severely abridged form. Other titles are hidden away in archives and rarely screened.

Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932) – his two most famous and enduring titles – were altered by Universal and MGM, to avoid offending the public and religious groups. Up to 30 minutes was chopped from Freaks, while Dracula was recut for its 1936 rerelease, shorn of roughly 10 minutes and tweaks made to the soundtrack (the muting of Dracula’s death sigh, for example). 

The best place to start – The Unknown

The masochism involved in Lon Chaney’s performances made him a major star of the silent screen. The actor’s legacy is readily found in John Hurt’s Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980) and Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989). Audiences responded positively to watching Chaney torture himself for his art – and their entertainment. “He will do anything, and permit almost anything to be done to him, for the sake of his pictures,” Browning explained to the press and, by extension, the fans.

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown (1927)

Generally considered to be the pair’s best film together, and Browning’s masterpiece, in The Unknown Chaney played Alonzo the Armless, a circus performer and killer, who falls in love with Joan Crawford’s deeply neurotic Nanon. The young girl cannot bear the touch of men. “Hands! Men’s hands! How I hate them!” one intertitle declares, for all the world sounding today like it’s fit for a banner at a feminist march. 

The Unknown is a sublime fusion of sadomasochist imagery, male self-loathing, misandry, castration symbolism and nightmarish irony. Browning and Chaney concocted their films in experimental fashion. They began with a character concept and then built a narrative. Mucking around together with makeup effects and dreaming up all sorts of unpleasantness, they settled on a thief who pretends he’s an amputee. Only, once he’s fallen in love with a woman who cannot bear to be touched, he bribes a doctor into performing drastic surgery.

Surprise, surprise, Alonso returns to the carnival and finds Nanon has miraculously gotten over her phobia and is dating arch-rival, Malabar the Strongman. The Unknown is truly out-there stuff. 

What to watch next

The Unholy Three (1925) and West of Zanzibar (1928) are the other two Browning-Chaney corkers. The Devil-Doll (1936), co-written by Erich von Stroheim, and the director’s penultimate film, stars Lionel Barrymore as an escaped convict returning home to Paris and exacting revenge against a trio of colleagues who helped send him to Devil’s Island on bogus corruption charges. To do this, he enlists a mad scientist’s Lilliputian creations (adult-sized folk who have been miniaturised) and dons the guise of an old lady toymaker.

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

1935’s Mark of the Vampire, an atmospheric remake of London after Midnight, reteamed Browning with Bela Lugosi. James Wong Howe’s spectral use of light bathes gothic sets in an eerie glow. 

1933’s Fast Workers, made in the wake of the Freaks debacle, is also one of Browning’s finest. It’s a bromance drama centred on two construction workers working and partying hard in New York, its title very much a double entendre, with the Great Depression setting and outrageously promiscuous characters taking the director’s pet themes for a rare foray outside the confines of the gangster movie and proto-horror yarns.

Starring John Gilbert, Mae Clarke and Robert Armstrong, Fast Workers crackles with homoeroticism, derived from the portrayal of intense male friendship and closeness, while the cynical dialogue and ménage-à-trois dynamic has lost none of its risqué Pre-Code charm.

Where not to start

Dracula and Freaks. The former is a landmark horror full of iconic moments, but decades of negative revisionist assessment has left its reputation looking like “the crumbled castles of a bygone age,” to partly quote the film’s opening line. Starting with Dracula is not recommended because it’s far from Browning’s best effort and many will find it an absolute grind to sit through.

Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931)

Freaks – his notorious picture about sideshow performers, played by actors with real disfigurements – is a different kind of challenge. It’s best approached with a fuller understanding of Browning’s work, specifically, the director’s emotionally complicated interest in human abnormality and the severely disabled.

Deep down, it may be that Browning was as repulsed as he was moved by physical disability. Freaks is far from humanist or body-positive, but it is sympathetic. But then what to make of Browning’s films that draw distinct visual and psychological associations between disability and villainy?

It’s precisely this conflict that make him a rare kind of filmmaker, one who elevated ugliness for chills, thrills, with subversive intent or simply for his own morbid requirements. The films are pioneering and boundary-pushing, amounting to repeat attacks on Hollywood’s standardised images of beauty and glamour. In this regard, Browning (and Chaney’s) influence on genre and art cinema appears seismic.

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