Amid all the dreamers, showmen, sermon-sayers, artistes, and middle managers that came to Hollywood in its first half-century to make movies for the masses, Tod Browning was the outsider’s outsider, the Man from Elsewhere, the swamp thing obsessively refocusing the American gaze on the scorned, the criminal, the mutant, the rejected. From The Unholy Three (1925) to Freaks (1932) and beyond, that’s the way history has pegged him, as the premier auteur of the shadowlands, driven by a passion for physical and psychic distortion.
Look at the landscape around him: So much in American silent films typically revolved around the Christian-conservative evolution of the nation’s small towns — most, by the ’20s, far less than a century old — and the defensive moral rectitude those communities mustered in order to survive. This was not where Browning lived; wholly disinterested in the homilies of piety and authority, his world was south of the tracks and lost in the sideshows, where sound Christian judgment goes to drink, fuck, and die.
Or, maybe we’ve got it backward — maybe Browning was the clear-seeing herald, exploring the real America he knew in his bones. It’s all a matter of perspective. The D.W. Griffith template of red-cheeked heroes, virginal damsels, and sins paid for with your life may have been prevalent onscreen, in front of audiences packed with churchgoers and children, but it’s certainly an idea of 19th-to-20th-century America that conveniently overlooked a lot about real life on the ground, from frontier genocide and slavery to institutional misogyny to the raging popularity of sideshow exploitation that Browning famously lived in as a teen. Not to mention the very visible hypocrisy and goldbricking usury of American Christianity itself, from revival tents to early megachurches. Perhaps Browning’s films, whenever they were set, merely limned an authentic America, where identities were elusive, bodies were unsacred, and God was gone.
Does either perspective fully plumb the physiological panic attack and norm incineration of Freaks? However you take him, Browning is a more or less incidental figure for culturati concern in 2023 — isn’t he? What does this strange man — a genre journeyman armed with a distinctive set of perverse post-Victorian fascinations — have to offer us in our age of cool-casual bodily transmogrification? Silent cinema itself — the industrial mass culture in which Browning worked, and not just the few dozen international masterpieces everyone remembers — might require a reevaluation to warrant space on our burners these days. Film culture, taken as a totality, has writhed and morphed its way through so many ideological stages in the past half century that it seems far from certain silent film, excluding again the achievements of major stylists (Murnau, Keaton, Lang, Dreyer, etc.), hasn’t become a ghetto cult, like Delta blues and Imagist poetry. The era’s American movies, with their high-handed sanctimony and skin-surface stars, are no longer the adjacent country they were in the ’60s and ’70s; by now, they have for most people as much to do with “movies” as pinball has to do with Call of Duty. Maybe we’ll see a fresh-generational resurgence of ardor for the form someday, but one’s wagers on it should be modest.
Not that we aren’t allowed to love silent movies for themselves, if that’s our jam, and it’s not as though Browning didn’t make talkies, 10 of them, including Dracula (1931), one of the most culturally infectious films ever made. But he remains a ghost of the pantomime era, as does his famed partner in crime Lon Chaney, who died just in time to seal his silent-film legacy in amber, and whose brooding gargoyle energy still leaps out of the films as something unsafe and unstable. Browning’s amperage today is helplessly tied up with his being a figment of a lost past, a fringe-dweller who couldn’t stop lifting rocks and loving what he found there, even though it eventually rendered him auteur non grata.
At 16, Browning joined the traveling carnival world of the 1890s, a semi-lawless demimonde the impact of which on a rowdy teen we can only imagine. He worked as a barker, a contortionist, a magician, an escape artist, a singer-dancer, and a “living corpse” (actually being buried alive for one or two days at a time, then to be theatrically resurrected), for 15 years or so, until D.W. Griffith gave him an acting part in a two-reeler, then took him to Hollywood as a production manager. By 1915, he was directing, and injecting his off-road, off-color, and alcohol-saturated sensibility into piles of routine shorts and features, most now considered lost, which delivered a then-unusual payload of Browningian grime: downward class mobility, deadly poverty, devious crime, underworld gangs, alter egos, opium, passion killings.
The Film at Lincoln Center retro properly starts with a handful of the extant earlier features, including the rather creaky The Wicked Darling (1919), the first collaboration with Chaney, and Outside the Law (1920), the first film in which Chaney commandeers two roles, one of them a Chinaman who manages to shoot the other Chaney, a homicidal crook, during a climactic Chinatown firefight. Chaney became a star on his own with the rather Browning-ish The Penalty (1920), A Blind Bargain (1922), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), all three directed by Wallace Worsley, who may need a retrospective of his own. But the tide also rose for Browning with The Unholy Three (1925), a high-concept grift drama (it’s hard to find a Browning silent not revolving around ardent griftery) with a creepy sense of masquerade, as old-lady-drag ventriloquist Chaney, strongman Victor McLaglen, and dwarf-as-toddler Harry Earles set out to scam the rich by posing as a fake family. (The scenario was remade as a talkie in 1930, and parodied in the Our Gang short Free Eats, in 1932.) The film, co-written by frequent collaborator Waldemar Young, begins in one of Browning’s first depictions of a carnival sideshow, reconstituting his own backstage experience of it as a human roach motel, constructed entirely out of predation and illusions. It suits this sense of the American grain that Earles, in baby clothes but sporting a cigar, is the cold-blooded menace of the trio (early on, he kicks a real kid in the teeth during a show, spraying blood and giving the film a queasy feeling of risk) and that their smushed identities eventually destroy the gang.
There’s an almost surreal feeling to The Unholy Three, a discombobulating scramble of body size, personas, and thrown voices (illustrated by animated speech balloons), climaxing with a nightmarish confrontation with a very real, old, and scary chimpanzee, shot on two-thirds scale sets to make the chimp look as large as McLaglen. But the movie does date — part of the problem with Browning’s reputation as an aboriginal auteur is that he didn’t think visually, but conceptually. The films tend to lean into the weird dramatic whiplash of the stories, without mustering inventive or expressive ways to shoot them. (The image of that too-large ape tearing through a wooden door is a rare and disturbing formal flourish.) Certainly, however huge a hit the talkie Dracula was in ’31, Browning was shamed as a Gothic stylist, and as an actor’s director, that same year by James Whale’s Frankenstein.
Browning had only his passion for the soft white underbelly of the interbellum to guide him, and he and Chaney went exploring. You could say that Chaney — his glowering visage as well as his compulsive mutability — was all the style horsepower Browning thought he needed. The Blackbird (1926), West of Zanzibar (1928), and Where East Is East (1929) are all lurid melodramas keening with sexual malevolence or Oedipal fury or both, with Chaney twisting identities and his body like a man trying to self-exorcise.
But of Browning’s silent period, it’s The Unknown (1927) that melts your face — a return to the circus sideshow in a Grimm-ish tale ingeniously concocted by Browning and Young, in which Chaney’s Alonso is a murderer disguising himself as an armless knife-thrower. Hiding his extant arms — which means Chaney eats, smokes, and throws knives with his feet — becomes literally a double bind: In love with his target/assistant (a teen Joan Crawford), Alonso has to stay incognito because not only has he strangled her abusive father, as a result of such abuse, she has a phobic dread of being touched by men’s hands. A lust-crazed circus strongman (Norman Kerry) raises the stakes, and the pressure cooker of masochistic desire and body-horror disquiet builds until Alonso decides to blackmail a surgeon into amputating his own arms for real — a catastrophic plot turn that feels natural, if still pretty much Holy Shit, only in a Browning film.
Much has been written about Browning’s and Chaney’s vexed, tortuous, and undeniably exploitative use of physical anomaly — whether performed by Chaney or inherent in actors’ genuine birth defects. In the ’20s and ’30s, it was Otherness made gallingly real, just as it was in actual freak shows, easily read as a symptom of social prejudice and unenlightenment that reduced physical differences to mere objectified spectacle. But to dismiss Browning and Chaney’s work as simply a remainder of 19th-century supremacist baggage is to miss how acutely the films, like so much deft pop culture, target the anxieties we have about our own bodies: their uncontrollable growths, their secret engines, their random changes, their catastrophic vulnerability.
Freak shows didn’t fascinate people who have real dwarfs in their lives — only the 99.9% of the audience who didn’t, and for whom extreme physical difference was an irrational and “uncanny” reflection of how little dominion we actually have over our own meat machines. You can pierce and tat and meta-genderize all you want — that anxiety is still there, and films like Browning’s can be read as enraged elegies to our universal struggle with the runaway body.
In fact, for Browning and Chaney, the Other was never “them,” but us — a fact Browning proved by pushing all his chips in on the reward project he got to make after Dracula’s seminal success: Freaks, inarguably the most troublesome Hollywood film of the entire Golden Age, and probably the most original. Which is to say, it is an experience that’s difficult to prepare for, even today. Plunging us into a sideshow community stacked with, shall we say, bodily nonconformities, including the armless-legless Prince Randian (who rolls and lights a cigarette with his lips), the film simultaneously normalizes the un-normal (no other film in history spends as much time on the simple humanity of the limbless, the microcephalic, the conjoined, the hermaphroditic) and uses them as a funhouse-mirror metaphor for “normal” society and family. That the pulp scenario ends up, in one of cinema’s chilling passages, with the tribal sideshow workers turning feral in the rain feels terrifyingly wrong and yet apt, echoing the “normal” ardor for group hate, blood feuds, and vengeance.
In fact, Browning’s “freaks” — none of them required Chaney-style craft — are the film’s heroes. It’s Olga Baclanova’s conniving, contemptuous trapeze artist who’s the villain — but in that same instant the film itself is a movie vision that makes our Cro-Magnon brain squirm with discomfort. The climactic image — “the human duck,” accomplished prosthetically — is both appalling and satisfying to our own tribal lusts, creating for us a moment of inescapable moral entanglement that Browning had been leading up to his whole career.
It’s no accident that the film, loathed and shunned and censored for decades, should have eventually been accepted as a lusty celebration of Otherness — the chant of “One of us, one of us!” is today virtually an anthem of Other-feeling. It’s still a hard film to watch, no matter how far from the “normal” mean you think you are. Browning may actually emerge more clearly these days as an influencer than as a notable artist. Even once you put aside Dracula and its pivotal role in the ’30s-’40s horror wave that followed, the river of American alt-culture that took Browning’s idiosyncratic lead going forward runs from William Gaines’s EC Comics, in the ’50s, and the Mexican films of Luis Bunuel to the oeuvres of John Waters, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Werner Herzog, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Tim Burton, and Guy Maddin (and their many acolytes), Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo (1989), and the entire stretch of post–Texas Chain Saw Massacre gore sagas, ruminating as they have, obsessively and crudely, on the body’s assailable weaknesses and inconstancy.
Freaks, as it happened, made Browning something of a pariah, although his sensibility came to seem less modern, generally, with each passing year in the ’30s. He struggled to fit in with projects like Mark of the Vampire (1935), a spoofy Scooby-Doo riff full of actory energy (far more so than the comparatively undead perfs in Dracula, four years earlier), real bats (and a possum!), and a mystery tale equals parts ironic farce and Gothic mood-making. Once WWII began, the Industry gave up on Browning and he gave up on it, retiring in 1939 at 59 years old and then, after his wife died, in 1944, living in boozy solitude in Malibu Beach for years until dying, in 1962. The carnival sideshow outlived him, but scarcely — already on the wane when Browning dropped his Freaks bomb on unsuspecting audiences, the grungy itinerant tradition continued to dwindle after the war and became what it still is today, here and there: a campy, nostalgic vestige of a bygone day, when secrets could still be kept on the American fringe, when a different body was an uncanny thing of wonder, and when identities could be discarded like stories you’re tired of. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.