Silent Star of June 1996
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,
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
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,
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
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
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
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
Tod Browning died October 5, 1962 at the age of 82.
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