Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Shocktober Director of the Day: Tod Browning

From 1915 to 1939, Tod Browning made 62 films. But he is most remembered for two particular horror movies, which I'll talk about soon enough.

Not much is known about Browning's first film, a 1915 short called The Lucky Transfer, other than the date it was released and the names of some of its cast members. Browning made 11 short films that year, with titles like An Image of the Past; The Story of a Story; The Electric Alarm and Little Marie. His first full-length feature, 1916's The Fatal Glass of Beer starred Elmo Lincoln, the first actor to play Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan. Only stills and snippets remain of these early silent films, and little is known about their plots, though the titles are good indicators of what they were probably about. From 1917 to 1924, Browning cranked out another 27 movies that are mostly lost to history. 

Then, in 1925 he was assigned a film with the legendary "Man of a Thousand Faces," Lon Chaney. The Unholy Three was story about three circus performers (a theme Browning would explore more than once, having grown up in the circus) who escape their lives of servitude and set about creating a crime wave from a bird shop run by a ventriloquist disguised as an old lady (Chaney). Browning and Chaney collaborated on 8 films, including the long-lost vampire thriller London After Midnight, which Browning remade in 1935 as Mark of Vampire, starring the legendary Lionel Barrymore.

Of course, it wasn't until 1931 that Browning made his indelible mark on film history with his version of the Deane/Balderston stage adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, starring Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi reprising the role that had made him a star in America. While I personally find the Spanish-language version (filmed on the same sets after the American crew was done for the day) to be a better film, Browning's movie is still a masterful film, using light and shadow most effectively and exploiting the then charismatic Lugosi's talents most effectively. It is the first horror movie I can remember seeing and it turned Uncle P into the horror junkie he is today.

Almost 80 years have passed and the film remains a Classic. We may laugh at the hokey acting and decidedly quaint special effects, but Lugosi's performance and Browning's use of light  and shadow are still studied in film classes all over the world.

Browning's next film, Iron Man starred Lew Ayres as a boxer trying to win back the woman he loved. A rather standard early 30's melodrama, Iron Man pales in comparison to Browning's best works. 1932 saw Browning's most controversial (and probably best) film, Freaks.

Freaks tells the story of an ambitious trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) who marries Hans, a little person who is the star of the circus' sideshow. When Hans' fellow sideshow performers discover that she only married him for his money, they exact a terrible revenge on Cleopatra, transforming her into a sideshow freak named "The Feathered Hen." Using actual sideshow performers such as the microcephalic Schlitze and conjoined twins the Hilton Sisters (themselves the subject of the highly underrated musical Sideshow), Freaks was derided as exploitative and disturbing and was banned in the U.S. for almost 40 years. The trailer below is a fan-made remix, but it certainly conveys the surreal atmosphere Browning manages to impart in this bizarre and unsettling film:

After Mark of the Vampire, Browning made The Devil Doll, again starring Lionel Barrymore (who dons full drag as a kindly old doll-maker). The movie is about an escaped convict (Barrymore) who uses miniaturized humans to exact revenge against those who he thinks have wronged him.

Browning's last film, 1939's Miracles for Sale, tells the story of a magician's illusion designer (future 'Father Knows Best' star, Robert Young) who specializes in debunking fake psychics and mediums. It is mostly forgotten. Browning, who began his show business career as a circus dancer and clown, made his acting debut in D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. He died in 1962 at the age of 82. Dracula and Freaks remain among the most well-known horror films of all time and continue to influence writers and directors to this day.

More, anon.

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