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Tod Browning (born Charles Browning, Jr. on July 12, 1880, in Louisville, Kentucky) began developing his skills of showmanship at an early age. At five and blessed with a beautiful singing voice, he sang solos in the church choir, on Sundays, to the pleasure of the congregation. On Saturday he performed in his own backyard neighborhood show charging a penny for admission and taking most of the business from the other kid's backyard penny shows.
At sixteen, the allure of the traveling sideshow beckoned and he ran away from home to answer the call. It also helped that he fell in love with an exotic dancer, The Queen of the Manhattan Fair and Carnival Company. After joining the show he took on the name of Tod (perhaps after R.F. "Toddy" Hamilton, press agent for the Barnum and Bailey Circus who was famous for his use of bombastic euphemisms) and started as a barker for the Wild Man of Borneo (actually a black man from Mississippi in outlandish make-up), before becoming an escape artist. He eventually worked his way up to the major crowd-drawer, "The Hypnotic Living Corpse." One night, he would be presented to crowds as a recently deceased corpse and then buried. He would then wait in the well-venilated coffin eating malted milkballs for 24 hours, until he was dug up and shown to be alive to the amazed audience. For two years he performed the macabre stunt until authorities in Madison, Indiana shut the show down for violating the Sabbath and perpetrating fraud.
Still, Tod Browning was a man of many talents. Undaunted by one setback, he took his fine singing voice and went into Vaudeville, adding a few dance steps and a bit of slapstick to his act. Browning met with famed film director D.W. Griffith in 1913. Griffith opened opportunities for Browning to perform in two reel comedies at his Biograph Studio in New York City. When Griffith became Production Chief for the Reliance and Majestic Company, he took Tod Browning with him to Hollywood. In 1915, Tod began directing one-reel comedies that were produced on a weekly basis.
Though Browning’s new career held much promise, a self-destructive streak threatened his success. The director enjoyed life in the fast lane. Flashy cars and booze were his weakness. Almost a month before his thirty-fifth birthday, he and some friends were involved in an automobile accident. Returning from a night of reverie from the Vernon Country Club Road House, Browning failed to heed the warning signal from a train conductor at a railroad crossing. Their car collided with a flat bed loaded with iron rails. Browning received numerous injuries, a shattered right leg lacerations on his face and arms and internal injuries. Passengers with him included George A. Seigmannn, who sustained four broken ribs, and up-and-coming comic actor Elmer Booth, who was killed. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote "The impressions on his [Booth's] skull as even and regular as a waffle iron." There were also rumors that there were two women in the car. Browning himself was not expected to live. But as in 1900, the Living Corpse would rise again for another show.
Browning directed his first feature length film Jim Bludso, a riverboat action-drama, in 1917. Around this time, he married Alice Wilson, an actress he had known and performed with in vaudeville and two reel comedies. Browning’s first major commercial hit as a director came in 1920 with The Virgin of Stamboul, a desert drama that began a film industry trend of exotic-set films like The Sheik (1921) with Rudolph Valentino. The Virgin of Stamboul starred the popular ingenue Priscilla Dean who played in other movies for Browning such as Outside the Law (1920), which also starred Lon Chaney.
Old personal demons and alcoholism put Browning’s marriage and career in jeopardy. In 1923-24 he was on the studios' blacklist because of his drinking habits. During his recovery period, he and Alice reconciled and she was instrumental in his comeback. Irving Thalberg of MGM assigned Browning to direct The Unholy Three, a crime-thriller of a group of circus performers who perpetuate a crime spree. It starred Lon Chaney as a ventriloquist who disguised himself in drag, Victor McLaglen as the strong man, and Harry Earles (later to star in Browning’s Freaks) as a midget masquerading as a baby.
After The Unholy Three, Browning frequently used his past work in carnivals and sideshows to inform the settings of a number of films, often starring Chaney, Lionel Barrymore, or both. In The Unknown (1927), a crook (Chaney) pretends to be an armless knife-thrower at a circus, but later becomes the victim of his own charade. The Show (1927) stars John Gilbert as a sideshow impresario who is framed for murder by Barrymore. 1928’s West of Zanzibar featured Chaney as Phroso, a stage magician who uses the tricks of his trade to control an African tribe and gain revenge on Crane (Barrymore), the man who stole his wife.
In 1927, Browning teamed with Chaney to explore a different type of the fantastic -- the vampire – in London After Midnight. Chaney starred as a detective who disguises himself as a vampire to catch a real murderer. This film is sadly lost, available today only as a recreation put together from archival stills and photographs.
When Browning signed on to direct a film adaptation of Dracula for Universal, his obvious first choice for the title role was Lon Chaney. Unfortunately, cancer cut his frequent star’s life short. After an extensive search, Browning cast Bela Lugosi (who had played the part on stage) in the role. Universal Studios, in financial trouble, trifled over budget demands with Browning. However, the movie was a surprise hit and not only made money but rescued Universal from near bankruptcy. Dracula was also a trendsetter and opened the door for Universal and other studios to explore the lucrative field of horror movies.
Perhaps Browning’s true masterpiece was the macabre chiller Freaks, released in 1932. It is a bizarre story with an equally strange cast of genuine sideshow freaks -- midgets including Harry and Daisy Earles, Johnny Eke the half-boy, Martha the Armless Wonder, Cuu-Coo the birdwoman, Prince Randian the armless and legless “Living Torso”, and five pinhead women. The plot follows a vain aerialist who marries a midget (Harry Earles) to steal his money and plot to murder him. Under the suspicions of the other freaks, her plot is foiled and in an act of solidarity the freaks band together on an eerie stormy night and come after her (one of the scariest scenes in horror history), making her truly one of them. MGM, the producing studio, was reluctant to make a horror film with real sideshow performers. However, Irving Thalberg fought in Browning's corner to get the movie made. On its initial release the movie was effectively scary enough to send some audience members running screaming from the theater. MGM quickly pulled it from theaters and re-released it in an edited version, but the film was never a financial success. Fortunately, audiences of the sixties rediscovered Freaks and Browning’s magnum opus gained a well-deserved reputation as a classic masterpiece.
After Freaks the studios would never allow Browning the liberty of autonomy with his films. He did make other contributions to the genre. In 1935, he did Mark of the Vampire, a remake of his own London After Midnight, with Chaney’s role split between Bela Lugosi, Lionel Barrymore, and Lionel Atwill. He followed this a year later with The Devil Doll, starring Lionel Barrymore as an escaped criminal who shrinks people to doll size to seek revenge on those who framed him.
Browning’s last film behind the camera was Miracles for Sale, a mystery set in the world of magic and illusion. After this, he chose to retire in 1939, living his remaining years in seclusion. He died in 1962 at the age of eighty-two, leaving a great legacy of films, both within the horror genre and without. Not only were his movies classics, many were milestones. Tod Browning’s contributions to horror, specifically, allowed many more great directors to explore the thrills and chills of the macabre. In many ways, he began the Golden Age of Horror Films.
Revised and expanded 03/2008 by Nate Yapp.
Skal, David J. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen. Faber & Faber, 2004.
Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. Faber & Faber, 2001.