Sunday, January 2, 2011

Tod Browning

Tod Browning, the director behind such classic films as the original Bela Lugosi Dracula, was another good Kentucky boy who left the bluegrass for the bright lights of Hollywood, to bring civilization to the barbarians.

At the age of 16, Browning fled his home in Louisville, KY to join a traveling circus. For the next several years he toured the country with various carnivals and sideshows on the sawdust circuit as a performer, dancer, contortionist, blackface comedian, somnambulist and barker. He developed his own sideshow routine in which he was buried alive, Houdini-style, in a coffin. Billed as "The Living Corpse" and sometimes even "The Living Hypnotic Corpse", this gig was quite successful at raking in the rubes.

He also performed as a clown with the Ringling Brothers Circus for a time (do photos exist? I would love to see Tod Browning in clown makeup.)

Not only did Browning cheat death every night in his coffin act, but in 1915 he miraculously survived a head-on collision with a freight train in his automobile, though he was badly injured and required two years of rehabilitation. Browning's biographer David J. Skal theorizes that Browning may have been castrated in the wreck.

Browning's carny experiences helped shaped some of his greatest films, such as The Unholy Three (Lon Chaney plays a ventriloquist on the lam with a carny strongman, a dwarf and an ape!), The Unknown (Lon Chaney again, as an armless circus knife-thrower who throws knives with his feet and is enamored with Joan Crawford), and Freaks, whose cast was largely made up of actual circus freakshow performers, including Schlitze the Aztec, the Hilton conjoined twins, the bearded Lady Olga, and the "Human Caterpillar" Prince Randian (pictured above).

The Show tells the story of a Hungarian carnival troupe with a Grand Guignol ultra-violent decapitation show, a mermaid, a spider-woman (pictured below), and a poisonous gila monster.

And then there's The Devil Doll, a kinda-horror/sorta-science fiction film about a mad scientist who develops a formula to shrink people. The film is also notable for scenes with Lionel Barrymore in little-old-lady drag, hamming it up Mrs. Doubtfire style.

The most intriguing nugget in the Browning oeuvre, however, is London After Midnight, which has been lost since 1967, when the only known print went up in the accursed MGM vault fire. The film, about a vampiric Jack The Ripper-esque fiend being pursued by Scotland Yard, inspired a real-life copycat killer in 1926 when a man arrested for murdering a woman in London's Hyde Park claimed the movie drove him to it.

Browning also wrote scripts for other people's pictures, such as The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, a bizarre 1916 film about a Sherlock Holmes-like detective who is so addicted to cocaine that he keeps it by the barrel in his home and travels with an ammunition bandolier on his chest, filled not with bullets but with hypodermic syringes for mainlining cocaine and opium. They just don't make movies like this anymore.

Unfortunately, unlike fellow Kentuckian director D.W. Griffith (with whom he sometimes co-worked, such as on the film Intolerance and the aforementioned Leaping Fish), Browning's remains were not brought back home for burial; he was interred at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Tod's uncle was also a celebrity - baseball legend Pete Browning, the original "Louisville Slugger", is buried in Cave Hill in Louisville.


Emily said...

I didn't know he was from KY. We make good classic Hollywood directors here. And Irene Dunne.

JSH said...

Yeah! Love Irene Dunne, especially in Theodora Goes Wild.