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
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
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.
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
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
In an interview for "Motion Picture Classic" magazine, Tod
"That isn't publicity. [Chaney] will do anything, permit almost anything to
be done to him for the sake of his pictures".
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.
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'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
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
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.
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
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 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'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
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
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
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 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.
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.
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