The acclaim bestowed on director Tod Browning has always been divided. One corner hails him as a stylist with a flair for the macabre, others will contend that although his concepts were engaging, his technical execution of these ideas left something to be desired. Either way, what does remain is that Browing was without question, a key player in developing the artistic and commercial viability of the horror movie.
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Tod BrowningThe Ringmaster...


The cast of Dracula (1931)Tod Browning was born Charles Browning Jnr. on July 12th. 1880, (although some sources list this as 1882), in Louisville, Kentucky, the second son to Charles and Lydia Browning. His older brother Avery later became a successful coal merchant, but even in his early years the young Charles showed an aptitude for performing by setting up amateur plays from his backyard shed. He was soon drawing crowds from other neighbouring children's rival penny shows, learning early on to pander to public taste.
Later Charles Browning was enrolled at an all boys high school, but the lure of the sideshow was too strong and the young Browning left the school to fulfill his love for the carnival. At the time Louisville was the centre for all the touring river shows and Charles would frequently meet the travelling performers to whom he felt an immediate attraction. In the summer of 1896 he ran away to be with a show queen of the Manhattan Fair & Carnival Company and adopted the name of Tod to begin his career in the carnivals.
Tod initially worked as a barker for the "Wild Man of Borneo", who was actually a black man in make-up from Mississippi, but he soon turned his hand to any job to remain in the sideshows. Later on Tod perfected an act in which he was billed as "The Living Corpse". He would be buried alive for sometimes up to two days with the vital assistance of a hidden breathing apparatus after audiences would pay 25 cents to witness his burial and then were issued return tickets to see him being "revived" again. Tod's act became one of the top attractions and by 21 years of age he had worked at every carnival and sideshow job imaginable including a time with Ringling Brothers Circus as a clown. Furthermore he appeared in vaudeville with such acts as "Mutt and Jeff" and "The Lizard and the Coon" for the Willard & King Company and then for Chicago's Whallen & Martel Burlesque Company where he appeared as an illusionist, an acrobat, a singer and dancer, and in a blackface routine called "The Whirl of Mirth" with comedian Charlie Murray who later became a favourite of Mack Sennett. The acts took young Tod on tours of Europe, the Far East and Africa.

In New York during 1913, while still with the Burlesque Company, Tod was introduced to fellow Kentuckian, filmaker D.W. Griffith who offered him a role as an undertaker in a two reel comedy for Biograph titled SCENTING A TERRIBLE CRIME. After this appearance, Tod went to work as a comedian for Majestic/Reliance Pictures featuring in AN EXCITING COURTSHIP and THE WILD GIRL, amongst many others.
By the Spring of 1915, Tod followed Griffith from Biograph to the west coast where the young comedian turned his hand at directing. His comedy short for Mutual, THE LUCKY TRANSFER was moderately received, but it was in June of 1915 that he hit the headlines when the car that he was driving collided at full speed with a railway carriage. Established film actor Elmer Booth was killed instantly. The other passenger George A. Seigmann sustained serious injuries, while Tod was considered to be in a critical condition with internal injuries, cuts, bruises and a shattered right leg. It wasn't until 1917 that Tod returned to active film work after limiting himself to writing scenarios during his long convalescence.
Griffith cast Tod as a car-owner for a contemporary sequence in his classic epic INTOLERANCE and also gave him the responsibility of being one of the several assistant directors he had employed.
In 1917 Tod directed his first feature length production titled JIM BLUDSO for Fine Art/Triangle Productions which is a riverboat drama based on a popular stageplay. In June, Tod married actress Alice Wilson who he had worked with during his vaudeville days and in his new vocation in the film industry.

During 1918, Tod signed with Metro and directed a total of nine features, most of which were routine dramas except for THE EYES OF MYSTERY which is set in a "house in the mist" where relatives gather to hear the reading of a strange will.
In 1919 Tod left Metro to join Universal Studios where he was assigned to direct THE WICKED DARLING from a story by Evelyn Campbell and starring Universal's top female star Priscilla Dean, however, the film is better remembered as the first time Tod established contact with Lon Chaney who was cast as Stoop Connors, the film's lead villain.
Tod went on to score his first commercial success with THE VIRGIN OF ISTAMBUL, a lavish melodrama about a Turk whose love for a beggar is thwarted by the intervention of an American. The following year Tod again worked with Chaney in OUTSIDE THE LAW (1921), a crime drama set in San Francisco and again starring Priscilla Dean with Chaney in a dual role as the vile Black Mike Sylva and as the Oriental, Ah Wing.
Tod's last film for Universal is THE WHITE TIGER, another crime melodrama adapted from Tod's own story.Tod on set with Chaney in The Unholy Three (1925)

While working on films for minor studios Goldwyn and FBO, including SILK STOCKING SAL (1923) starring his wife Alice, Tod's alcohol problems increased leading to a blacklisting by the studios and his wife to walk out on him. When Tod resolved to cure his dependency on drink, Alice returned and was instrumental in negotiating his comeback assignment with Irving Thalberg at MGM. This gave birth to The Unholy Three (1925), an adaptation of a thriller novel penned by Clarence "Tod" Robbins in 1917.
A dwarf jewel thief named Tweedledee, (Harry Earles), teams up with a circus strongman named Hercules, (Victor McLagen), and Echo, (Lon Chaney), a ventriloquist who poses as an old lady to enter people's houses with her "baby" portrayed by Tweedledee and steal their valuables.
Despite the initial belief that Thalberg had a flop on his hands, his uncanny ability to spot a film's potential proved all the critics wrong and The Unholy Three became a major box office success while firmly re-establishing Browning as a top director in the industry.

After The Mystic (1925), a tale of a reformed gangster, and DOLLAR DOWN (1925), a drama made when he was out on loan to Truart, Tod began work on his fourth collaboration with Lon Chaney originally titled THE MOCKINGBIRD, but later re-titled as THE BLACKBIRD (1926).
Chaney appears as a crook who frequents the Limehouse District masquerading as his ficticious twin named The Bishop, a kindly cripple who runs a rescue mission. The crook's attempts to break up the courtship between wealthy con-man West End Bertie, (Owen Moore), and Fifi, (Renee Adoree), a French cabaret singer, proves to be his undoing.
Again Tod put to use a theme that became typical of the Browning/Chaney collaborations which always seemed to involve a grotesque character whose downfall is the love of an unobtainable woman. Browning saw Chaney as the perfect embodiment of the type of chracters that interested him most. Chaney had a reputation of completely immersing himself in his roles, a dedication and intensity that was central to the credibility of Browning's creations.
In an interview for "Motion Picture Classic" magazine, Tod remarked,
"That isn't publicity. [Chaney] will do anything, permit almost anything to be done to him for the sake of his pictures".Tod Browning on the set of The Show (1927)
Browning next cast Lon Chaney as Singapore Joe in MGM.'s THE ROAD TO MANDALAY (1926). Filmed in a record breaking 30 day schedule, Singapore Joe struggles in vain to prevent the marriage of his daughter, (Lois Moran), to his smuggler partner The Admiral, (Owen Moore).
A rare fragment of Chaney's make-up screen tests for the film still exists today.
Browning then directed and produced THE SHOW (1927) as a John Gilbert vehicle who portrays an illusionist performing at "The Palace of Illusions" as John the Baptist. His act consists of severing his head every night after Salome's dance played by Renee Adoree. A jealous rival plans to cause the illusionist's head to be severed for real during his performance.

Tod Browning with Lon Chaney on the set of The Unknown (1927) It was during production of THE SHOW that Tod had already conceived of his next project originally called ALONZO THE ARMLESS which would be later titled The Unknown (1927). Tod loosely based the story on a real event of his days in the circus and a man who masqueraded as an acrobat to evade the police.
The film proved to be one of their most lurid collaborations. Alonzo, (Lon Chaney), poses as an armless knife-thrower to evade the law, but falls in love with Nanon, (Joan Crawford), who has an extreme phobia about men's arms embracing her. Believing that she will never truely love him, Alonzo has his arms amputated, but then discovers in a heart-wrenching scene that Nanon has overcome her fear and has fallen in love with Malabar, the circus strongman, (Norman Kerry).
The same love triangle would later be adapted for the Hans/Cleopatra/Hercules relationship in Freaks (1932).
Despite what the studio press releases stated, Tod, as usual, gave very little coaching on the set. With Chaney, he felt that he didn't need to give any input.
"When I am working on a story for Chaney, I never think of the plot. That follows itself after you have conceived a characterisation."Tod, Marcelline Day and Lon Chaney on the set of London After Midnight (1927)

Tod's next production is now regarded as one of the most lamented of lost films. Shot under the title of THE HYPNOTIST, London After Midnight is America's first adaptation of the vampire myth. Lon Chaney appears as Inspector Burke who believes that the murderer of Roger Balfour will confess to his crime while under hypnosis. To aid the hypnotic suggestion, Burke poses as a phoney yet chilling vampire to help entice the suspect to identify himself.
Tod co-wrote the film with his favourite collaborator Waldemar Young who worked on nine Browning films, seven of which starred Lon Chaney.
Following THE BIG CITY (1928), another lost film in which Chaney portrays a gangster and for once he gets the girl in the finale, Browning cast Chaney in West of Zanzibar (1928) based on the stageplay "Kongo" by Charles de Vonde and Kilburn Gordon. This tale of cruel obsession demonstrates a grotesque and lurid series of characterisations that epitomises the Browning and Chaney credo and was so impressive that MGM saw fit to remake the film in 1932.
Tod with Chaney in the "duck" suit for West of Zanzibar (1928)Phroso, (Chaney), an English music-hall magician, becomes paralysed after an altercation with his wife's lover, (Lionel Barrymore). Now known as "Dead-Legs", Phroso follows his enemy to Africa to plot his macabre revenge.
Released with a synchronised soundtrack, the public response was overwhelming and further validated that Tod's fascination for characters with physical deformities appealed to working class audiences who had by then built up a healthy appetite for the Browning/Chaney collaborations.
In a 1928 interview Tod said that "Chaney would amble into my office and say "What's it gonna be boss?" I'll say this time a leg comes off, or an arm, or a nose, whatever it may be".
Tod also conceived of the horror films primarily in visual terms,
"The thing you have to be most careful of in a mystery story, is not to let it verge on the comic. If a thing gets too gruesome and too horrible, it gets beyond the limits of the average imagination and the audience laughs. It may sound incongruous, but mystery must be made plausible".

Tod's tenth and final teaming with Chaney is WHERE EAST IS EAST (1929), but although today the remaining print is incomplete, this is considered to be the poorest of their collaboration. The success of the "talkies" certainly didn't help the chances of this already disappointing film set in Indo-China with Chaney cast as Tiger Haynes, an animal trapper whose former wife returns causing misery to those around her. Even a re-release with an added synchronised soundtrack couldn't arouse public interest.
As is usually the case, the ten films in which Browning cast Chaney have become more renowned for their star than their director, but without Tod's undeniable talent to direct, produce and develop scenarios, many of these films would have been impossible to create.Gretchen Holland, Bela Lugosi and Holmes Herbert in The Thirteenth Chair (1929)
In 1929 Tod began work on his first "talkie" The 13th. Chair, a remake of a 1919 film by Leonce Perret. A third treatment was made by MGM in 1937 directed by George B. Seitz. The plot focused on a spiritualist, played by Margaret Wycherly in her only screen role, summoned by Inspector Delzante to restage a seance and trap a murderer. Lugosi is billed sixth in his role as the inspector and gives one of the more interesting performances of his career.
In 1930, Tod directed and co-scripted with Garrett Fort a remake of his 1921 crime melodrama OUTSIDE THE LAW, this time dispensing with the character of Ah Wing and casting Edward G. Robinson in Chaney's old role.

Extremely saddened upon the death of Lon Chaney to throat cancer in August of 1930, Tod was called to Universal to direct their hottest new property, Dracula. Initially Browning wanted to cast a complete unknown from Europe in the lead role and not divulge his name to the public, but at the last moment Lon Chaney in London After Midnight (1927)Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931)Universal cast Bela Lugosi in the role as he was known for the part that he had played on stage many times since 1927. Unfortunately the resulting film was hindered by inattentiveness and budget constraints. Universal were less than pleased with the results, preferring instead the Spanish version that was shot simultaneously on the same sets at night. According to William S. Hart Jnr., Browning's close friend for many years, Browning also had the intention of keeping the vampire a shadowy and largely unseen presence. As a point of interest Tod provides the voice-over of the harbour master when Renfield emerges from the hold of the ship.
Again Tod gave little coaching on the set. He once remarked "if I do this, I can get the actor to visualise it himself. Otherwise I would only inspire him to visualise the director trying to play the role". Unfortunately this technique was not always successful, especially when not all the actors were as committed to their art as Lon Chaney had been. Almost sixty years later, David Manners, who portrayed the hero in the film recalled that cinematographer Karl Freund had more than a hand in the film's direction, while Browning remained a dim figure in the shadows. Since no other principal performers survive, it is difficult to ascertain just how much Tod did direct.Tod Browning and Olga Baclanova on the set of Freaks (1932)
Tod's next project was THE IRON MAN (1931) for Universal, a ringside melodrama starring Jean Harlow and Lew Ayres before he began work on the infamous Freaks.
Unfortunately Tod found it hard to launch any new projects at MGM. after the release of this notorious film, and realised that the controversy surrounding Freaks (1932) effectively ended his status as a director and shook the studio's confidence in him. After refusing his request to film Horace McCoy's novel "They Shoot Horses Don't They?", MGM. relegated him to direct a routine drama titled FAST WORKERS (1933) with John Gilbert, and then only allowed him to direct a remake of London After Midnight.

Bela Lugosi and Carroll Borland in Mark of the Vampire (1935)VAMPIRES OF PRAGUE later became Mark of the Vampire (1935) and changed the original film by splitting Chaney's dual role into two characters. Lionel Barrymore was cast as the investigator and Bela Lugosi, who by this time was already lampooning his Dracula image, portrayed the phoney vampire. MGM. avoided any censorship by drastically cutting the film and removing any implication of the vampire's incestuous relationship with his daughter Luna memorably portrayed by Carroll Borland. The film is chiefly a triumph for cinematographer James Wong Howe whose almost luminous lighting of the sets virtually defines the gothic Hollywood style of the Thirties.
Tod's next planned project was a voodoo picture written by himself called THE WITCH OF TIMBUCTOO, but because of overseas censorship concerns, the script was severely altered. Britain requested the removal of all black characters for fear that the witchcraft scenes would stir up trouble amongst blacks under British colonial rule. Eventually the film was realised as The Devil Doll (1936) with Lionel Barrymore as an escapee from Devil's Island, who, disguised as a kindly old lady, (something Tod borrowed from The Unholy Three), employs the use of animated miniaturised people to carry out his revenge on those who imprisoned him.
Erich von Stroheim, who had also been blackballed from the studios, shares a credit for the screenplay, although it is evident that he contributed much more to the film than that.
Three years later, Tod received his final screen credit with Miracles For Sale (1939), a murder mystery about a magician who exposes a fake medium starring Robert Young and Florence Rice. Ironically, it is the only film that Tod made that resembles the polish of most other MGM releases.Tod Browning and Lionel Barrymore on the set of The Devil Doll (1936)

Tod Browning then announced his retirement. "When I quit a thing, I quit. I wouldn't walk across the street now to see a movie!" He did, however, do some scenario work for MGM, but in 1942 he retired to Malibu, never having given a thorough interview and leaving behind a bizarre assortment of film characters.
Shortly after the death of his wife in 1944 "Variety" mistakenly published his obituary, but even though he was very much alive, hardly anyone saw him. Maureen O'Sullivan, co-star of Browning's The Devil Doll, lived near the Browning home in Malibu and reportedly she never ever saw him even once. In the late Fifties Tod developed throat cancer, (similar to the problems that took Lon Chaney to his grave), and underwent a tongue operation. When his brother Avery died in Louisville in 1959, Tod attended the funeral from a private room refusing to let any of his family members see him after his surgery.

As Dracula and Frankenstein found new audiences through the medium of television, Tod reportedly acquired a television set and would watch until the early hours of the morning his past glories flash before him.
On October 6th. 1962, Tod Browning was found dead in the bathroom of some friends who took him in. Ironically he died the year before a screening of Freaks at the Venice Film Festival spurred new interest in the man and his unique career.
Tod's speciality was to create films that blended together the ordinary and the perverse, either by placing the bizarre events in a common setting, or by putting ordinary characters in bizarre situations.
Horrordom's most enigmatic and prolific director provided audiences then, and now, with enough grotesques to satiate even the most hungry of horror movie audiences.

Filmography

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