Silent Star of June 1996

Tod Browning

The film legacy of Charles Albert "Tod" Browning in the public mind has been stripped down to two films: Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932). Lesser known is Browning's beginnings in the silent era, as a stock player in nickelodeon melodramas, to Griffith cast member, and director of the greatest character player ever, Lon Chaney.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Monday July 12, 1880, from his earliest days Tod Browning was fascinated with the life of the carnie. Little is known for sure of his life as a young man, but what is known is that Tod Browning spent great chunks of time travelling with sideshows, carnivals, and street fairs, whose life, people, and attitudes were to become recurrent theme throughout his films.

By 1913, Browning had ended up in New York, acting with ex-circus performer Charlie Murray (later a popular performer for Mack Sennett) in one-reel nickelodeon comedies for Biograph and D.W. Griffith in such films as Scenting a Terrible Crime, and A Fallen Hero. In the fall of 1913, Griffith broke with Biograph and headed to California to take the directorship at the Reliance-Majestic Studios. Browning followed, and made about 50 one-reelers such as An Interrupted Seance for its subsidiary, Komic Pictures.

Browning eventually wound up directing 11 one and two-reelers for Reliance-Majestic between March and June of 1915. He continued to work with Griffith, and acted as an extra in his The Mother and the Law, which was to become the greatest spectacle Hollywood had ever seen, Intolerance.

A tragic accident in 1915, killing his passenger William Elmer Booth, kept Browning in the hospital for at least a year. During his long recovery, he whiled away the time writing scripts, including The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, which starred Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Ennyday, who uses cocaine to help nap a ring of opium dealers.

After recovering, Browning went back to work at what was now Triangle Studios, a consortium of separately maintained studios of Griffith, Sennett, and Tom Ince. Back behind the camera, he directed Puppets (1916), using live actors portraying harlequin puppets.

By now, Browning was ready for his first feature-length film. Jim Bludso (1917) was perfect for the son of Louisville, reflecting the river life that Browning knew intimately. Based on a ballad, it's the story of a captain who gives his life for the passengers of his burning ship. The finished product, although somewhat changed for its Hollywood debut, nonetheless was well-received by critics. Browning continued to direct, making 2 more films before leaving Triangle in 1917 with Griffith.

Browning landed at Metro, where he contracted to return to New York and direct films for them there. He was followed by his companion, Alice Lillian Houghton, whom he married June 9, 1911.

At Metro, Browning directed two films in 1917 starring Mabel Taliaferro, Peggy, the Will o' the Wisp and The Jury of Fate. The Jury of Fate used ambitious double-exposure techniques so that Taliaferro played opposite herself. Both films were marked by Browning's maturing use of naturalistic lighting, i.e. lighting that matched the mood and the set of the scene being filmed.

By 1918 Browning was back in California with Metro, where he directed 2 more films. He left Metro in the spring of 1918, and ended up at Universal's smaller studio, Bluebird Productions. It was while here that Browning was to meet two major influences on his work: Irving Thalberg and Lon Chaney. Thalberg, impressed by Browning's work, was the catalyst for the eventual pairing of Browning and Chaney; their first film together was The Wicked Darling (1919). They would not be reteamed again until later.

After a successful series of 6 reelers, Thalberg entrusted Browning with a "Jewel De Luxe" production of The Virgin of Stamboul. De luxe, indeed; the budget for the picture was an astounding $250,000. The success of the picture raised Browning's esteem at the studio where he was rewarded with his own 5-room bungalow, complete with editing facilities.

While Browning had maintained only sporadic, at best, ties with his family, the death of his father sent him into a spiral of deepening alcoholism. "Laid off" by Universal, and left by Alice, Browning hit bottom. He recovered, begged Alice to give him another chance, and through her efforts received a one-picture deal with Goldwyn. The film's moderate success, and the restoration of his reputation, helped persuade FBO Pictures (later to become RKO) to give him a contract in the spring of 1924.

By now, Thalberg was back at what was now Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios (MGM), where he was looking for a director for a film titled The Unholy Three. If ever a script was tailor-made for Tod Browning, it was this: the story of a midget, a strongman, and a ventriloquist whose identity has merged with his dummy who scheme against society. The film was the culmination of Browning's youth and fascination with society's "misfits." Reteamed with Chaney, the film was a success, leading to a contract for Browning and a collaboration that would result in London After Midnight, the most profitable of all their films together. Their last picture together was 1929's Where East is East.

Browning made the transition to talkies with a dual production of The Thirteenth Chair, made as both a silent and a talkie. The film is notable for its introduction of Bela Lugosi, who went on to fame in Browning's Dracula (1931).

Tod Browning died October 5, 1962 at the age of 82.

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