Warm-weather good vibrations threaten New York City—as an antidote, every Monday for the next five weeks, the Film Forum is offering Tod Browning double features.
Through the ’20s, Browning issued cinematic Guignols from sepulchral sets, untouched by natural light. A contemporary critic crowned him “The First Diabolist of the Cinema.” His name on a titlecard was a carnival spiel invitation to step right up to a personal cabinet of curiosities: Hungarians, amputees (gaffed and real), mad apes, sneak-thieves, incest, armadillos, knife throwers. . . .
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1880, Browning was a contemporary of local D.W. Griffith, who, years later, recruited him from a Brooklyn variety show and eventually lured him West. In his youth, he left home for the showbiz life—he shticked, blackfaced, and had a stint as the “Hypnotic Living Corpse,” buried alive for public amusement in sleepy river towns. Like W.C. Fields, he revisited the turn-of-the-century sawdust fairground of youth throughout his career.
Browning’s best filmmaking began when he found the perfect accomplice: gravestone-chinned vaudeville vet Lon Chaney, a child of Colorado mutes who shared Browning’s interest in extravagantly maimed, vengeance-sick Ahabs. The Unholy Three (1925) established them. The title refers to a trio of defected carnies: a midget, a strongman, and Chaney’s ringleading, cross-dressing ventriloquist. Thereafter, Chaney and Browning repeat offended with boldly illogical crimes set in faraway ports-of-call. The Blackbird (1926) revels in the “stream of (mashed) human faces” and music halls of London’s Limehouse; malarial-delirious West of Zanzibar (1928) stars Chaney as a paralyzed magician playing White God to Congo cannibals; and their last collaboration, Where East Is East (1929), is a downriver Indo-Chinese idyll capsized by Estelle Taylor’s vamping. Such ersatz exoticism was the rage in the ’20s and suited Browning’s love of Little Egypt hootchie-coo. (He also did his part for race relations in an affair with underage discovery Anna May Wong.)
Chaney died in 1930 without having to adjust to the Talkies; Browning soldiered on. His smash, Dracula (1931), is secure in its legend; he allayed its success into 1932’s Freaks. This, his masterpiece, was preceded by the finest surviving Browning-Chaney film, 1927’s circus-set The Unknown, which had gypsified Lon self-mutilating in a vain show of love for Joan Crawford. Freaks likewise invited the audience into the wagons of traveling showpeople, but made a huge leap of veracity: Its anomalies, caught in one of Browning’s old payback scenarios, were real sideshow stars: “half-boy” Johnny Eck, the “Siamese” Hilton sisters, and Unholy Three‘s little man, Harry Earles, who pitched Browning the story. Freaks disregarded every bit of unspoken decorum as to what could be shown—when most wouldn’t film a black man unless a Pullman porter was called for, Browning gave close-ups to one without limbs, “Living Torso” Prince Randian.
Browning was publicly reviled by moralists who preferred to sympathize with the carnies without having to see them. His reputation may have wilted regardless. Never accustomed to sound, his films—rarely kinetic, even during the silent “unchained camera” vogue—felt increasingly boxed in, surpassed by Universal’s foggy pictorialism. Mark of the Vampire (1935) is an unfunny spoof, crowded by mustachioed old men, good only for Carroll Borland’s sloe-eyed vampiress. The trick photography of The Devil Doll (1936) is an improvement—and also The End.
Only fragments remain of our gimcrack Poe. He was over-fond of bourbon; when this derailed his career, he switched to Coors. He followed the Cincinnati Reds (his uncle was legendary slugger Pete Browning). A Freaks cast photo shows him nestling “pinhead” Schlitzie with sincere paternal tenderness—but those quick to praise Browning’s humanism should remember that his plots presume only a pudding-skin of difference between love/loyalty and primordial hate. In his Malibu semi-retirement, the old sadist’s hobby was watching contestants faint out of dance marathons.