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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,583

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This is the grave of Tod Browning.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1880, Charles Browning grew up middle class. His father was a respectable construction guy and a prominent local Baptist. In fact, as a matter of complete trivia, his uncle Pete was the Louisville Slugger who became famous for the baseball bat known by that name.

Browning grew up not very Baptist. He started drinking pretty young and liked to hang around circuses. He became enamored with one of the great weirdnesses of 19th century America–the display of “freaks,” which really meant disabled people for carnival atmospheres. The past is not a pretty picture and the history of the circuses is a great example of things getting real uncomfortable for modern people real fast. But he loved the circus and dropped out of high school and ran away from home to join one in 1896. He was a carnival barker in the early days, in the literal sense that he barked out advertisements for the circuses as they travelled around. Then he moved to song and dance routines and then learned contortionism. He had some sort of live burial act called “The Living Hypnotic Corpse.” I….have no idea. He started using the name Tod for some reason at this time. Better name for the circus I guess?

Browning briefly married, but this was not a man you wanted to try and have a stable relationship with. He bailed on the marriage very quickly and went into some blackface routine called The Lizard and the Coon on the road. Oh good lord; again, the past is gruesome. But by 1909, Browning had discovered the movies. He was an expert circus artist by this time, having done that work for the past 13 years. That year, the director Edward Dillon started casting him in shorts. All his work in slapstick and the atrocious comedy of the day translated well to the silent screen, where facial expressions mattered more than anything (and of course blackface, comedy gold that).

By 1913, Browning came under the tutelage of D.W. Griffith at Biograph and he followed the great director to Reliance-Majestic when the latter decided to move to Hollywood. He would start directing a few one reelers shortly after. His career and life nearly ended in 1914 when, as an incorrigible drunk, he drove a car onto train tracks where the vehicle was clipped by a train. One person died and Browning nearly did, but he recovered after a long hospital stay. The wreck changed Browning. He didn’t stop drinking, c’mon now. But he moved from being a comedy guy to someone exploring the darkest recesses of the soul. He also couldn’t act anymore because of his injuries, so that probably contributed to the switch in mood.

Well, for whatever you want to say about Browning the person–and there’s plenty of not great things to say–the move to darkness most certainly drove him from being a hack into being an artist, one of the greatest directors for a short period of time at the end of the silent era. He moved back to New York in 1917 and directed Mabel Taliaferro in a couple of films that pioneered new forms of double exposure to create a spookier scene. He eventually ended up back in Hollywood by 1919, doing melodramas for Universal.

I haven’t really seen many of the films Browning did in this era, so I am going to skip ahead here a bit for the real reason I am excited for this post. While at Universal, Browning got to know Lon Chaney, the legendary Man of a Thousand Faces. They became friends and collaborators. Like Browning, Chaney was all in on everything. His deep commitment to acting, his ability to contort his body, and his love of bizarro stories meant this was a match made in heaven, or maybe hell, depending on how one thinks about what was to come.

They worked together on The Unholy Three in 1925, a ventriloquist movie where Chaney played multiple roles. Like a lot of movies about the powers of the mind at this time (see Fritz Lang’s amazing Dr. Mabuse the Gambler for the peak of the form), it touched on the great fears psychology had brought to the public that evil people could engage in mind control. Browning had a bunch of films around these kind of things. In 1926, he and Chaney again collaborated on The Blackbird, which was a thief movie in which Chaney plays a supposedly disabled minister who is in fact a brilliant thief. Again, using the body was a Chaney thing and no one could bring it out of him in a compelling way like Browning. Then came the lost The Road to Mandalay, which got into both sexual control and depicting exotic locations in sets, two of Browning’s favorite things. London after Midnight is also lost except for stills and this is widely considered a massive tragedy, as it is supposed to be great.

This brings us to The Unknown, which is quite simply one of my favorite films of all time. Farley was in town recently and he hadn’t seen it and so we watched it and he was amazed too. It’s so weird. Here’s the plot. There’s a gypsy circus. Lon Chaney plays the man with no arms. He also is really good at throwing knives with his feet. He is in love with a very young Joan Crawford, who is the daughter of the circus owner and a girl who very clearly has suffered from sexual assault and is afraid of being touched by men’s hands and arms. Then there is the strongman, who also loves Crawford and who believes that being a strong man means wrapping your woman in those arms. But see–what is Lon Chaney actually has arms? And what if on one of his hands he has two thumbs? And what if Joan Crawford sees those hands with the two thumbs choke her father to death? And what if the only hope for Chaney to get her is to get those possible arms cut off? And what if he has some shit on a doctor from years ago that forces him to take off those arms? And what if, while in recovery, Crawford gets over her fear of arms and falls in love with the strongman? Let’s just say that this movie is completely, 100% batshit insane. And I love it so much.

Then there’s Freaks, which I never loved so much but is certainly a thing. This is a 1932 film that really doubled down on Browning’s circus years. Because he had directed a successful version of Dracula the year before, MGM gave him whatever money he needed for this. This film was so over the top, so insane, so complete 100% lunacy that Irving Thalberg was horrified, he cut a lot of the film, it was a financial disaster, and Browning’s star dimmed real fast. He worked on a few more films through the 30s, but by 1940, was basically out of the film industry.

After Browning’s wife died of pneumonia in 1944, he stayed at home and drank for the next 18 years, living in almost total seclusion, until he died in 1962 of cancer.

There is more to say about Browning and his films, many of which I have not even mentioned here, but this is already over 1200 words, so I will stop now.

Tod Browning is buried in Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.

If you would like this series to visit other silent film directors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Buster Keaton is in Hollywood and Harold Lloyd is in Glendale, California. I need more time in LA. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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