Talking Movies: Contemporary World Filmmakers

By Bernd Herzogenrath

freaks-tod-browning.jpgFreaks, 1932

An extract from a new book on the cult filmmaker

“When I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach out for my Browning!” – this quotation from Hans Johst’s Nazi-play Schlageter, performed on Adolf Hitler’s birthday in 1933, has been variously associated with both Hitler’s Fieldmarshall Herrmann Göring, and the aesthetics and politics of Dadaism.

Here, “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach out for my Browning!” should serve as the starting point for a meditation not on the interrelation of war and cinema – see Paul Virilio on that – but on the relation between culture and its other which I see as fundamental in the work of a particular American cult filmmaker. Thus, the Browning in question is neither John Moses Browning, the ‘patron saint of automatic fire’, who designed the Browning M1910 handgun that bears his name – nor the English poets Robert or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but Charles Albert Browning, Jr, much better known as Tod Browning.

With a significant number of his movies set in the world of the circus and the sideshow, Browning very well knew the milieu he was talking about. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1880, Charles Albert left home early and ran away with a travelling carnival when he was only 16. Legend has it that he not only worked as a manager and roustabout there, but also started performing as aspieler and contortionist. In Gatsby-like fashion, Charles Albert baptised and reinvented himself as ‘Tod’ Browning. True to the implications of his new identity (tod is also the German word for ‘death’), Browning performed as “the Living Hypnotic Corpse”, buried alive in a box with a secret ventilation system. People paid to watch ‘un-dead’ Tod in his coffin through a tube.

In 1909, Browning made the transition from the carnival to Hollywood, where he started as an actor, meeting DW Griffith at Biograph Studios. Browning then worked as an assistant director Griffith’s Intolerance (where he even had a small role in the ‘modern story’ sequence) before he started as a director in his own right. By 1919, Browning was an established and successful director and script writer and he had begun collaborating with Lon Chaney, the “Man of a Thousand Faces”. Browning and Chaney were brought together by Irving Thalberg; for Universal, Browning directed The Wicked Darling, 1919, with Priscilla Dean and Chaney – their first of a highly productive series of collaborations which include Outside the Law, 1920 – where Chaney plays a double role; The Unholy Three, 1925 – a crook film set in the circus milieu, so successful that it was remade in 1930 as a talkie; The Blackbird, 1926; The Road to Mandalay, 1926; The Unknown, 1927; London After Midnight, 1927, a famous ‘lost film’; Urszene, a vampire film; and the final collaboration Where East is East, 1929. Chaney, with his genius for startling make-up (usually of his own invention) and performances that made use of his physique as a tool to be contorted and deformed into almost every (in)conceivable pose, “gave body to the macabre figments of Browning’s carnival background”

dracula-tod-browning.jpgDracula, 1931

In the years after Chaney’s death in 1930, Browning directed four movies which have become classics of the horror genre – and since murkiness seemed to be Browning’s natural habitat, these films betray an elective affinity to the horror films of German Expressionist cinema (such as Paul Wegener’s The Golem, or Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, both 1920) with their chiaroscuro lighting, forced perspectives, and weird angles and shadows. 1931’s Draculaintroduced Bela Lugosi (with whom Browning had already worked in The Thirteenth Chair, 1929) as ‘the Count’, and forever set the standard for ‘the Dracula Look’. In 1932, Browning and Thalberg set out “to make a more ambitious version of the many successful circus films then being produced” – the result being the (in)famous Freaks. Two years later, Mark of the Vampire, 1935, teamed Browning with Lugosi again in a movie that, in a way, infuses the genre with a substantial dose of ironic self-reflection – even if Vampires shun mirrors! Keeping his hands clean from controversial material after the scandal that Freaks had caused, Browning shot some ‘lighter’ movies after that, but 1936 saw him back on good form with the release ofThe Devil Doll, scripted with Erich von Stroheim, with whom Browning had already collaborated as assistant director for Griffith’s Intolerance. After his final film Miracles for Sale, 1939, Browning slowly said goodbye to Hollywood, except for some occasional scenario writing for MGM. In 1942, Browning retired to Malibu. Two years later, his wife Alice died. By that time, Browning had become so successfully reclusive that Variety mixed up his wife’s death with Browning’s own and published an obituary in 1944. 18 years later, on 6 October 1962, Browning died alone in the bathroom of his house at Malibu Beach.

Mostly known for successes and (financial) disasters such as Dracula and Freaks, Browning’s work shows an interest – even an obsession – with mutilation and an almost cultic and ritualistic (self-)sacrifice; with the abnormal, the deformed, the abject, that which has been ‘thrown out’ and rejected, that which exists on the outer limits of culture. It is by this very quality that Browning’s films have become cult themselves. In staging the inherent antagonism between cult and culture, Browning’s work often centres on the clash of different codes of behaviour, of different ‘cultures’, indeed – captured in terms of ‘children’ against ‘adults’, ‘primitives’ against ‘civilised’ cultures, instinct against reason, or ‘abnormal’ against ‘normal’. Browning’s movies display an amount of energy, libidinousness, otherness, of an intensity that is regarded as ‘unorthodox’, something almost too energetic for a culture based on repression to bear. Browning’s work has such a cult status (and cult following) because it deals with and displays the very mechanisms and processes in which culture defines itself – but also in which culture’s cultic other acts in this process. Acts, and not only reacts, because Browning is particular in taking sides with that other, but without just simply reversing the direction of the culture-formula, by presenting the other to culture as the more valuable side of the equation. Browning constantly folds both extremes into each other, creating a ‘middle ground’ in-between the binarisms, both on the level of content, and on the level of form. Thus, Browning’s obsession with the abnormal and deformed, with the margins of culture (and culturally constructed ideas of ‘humanity’), is not mere sideshow claptrap (although it is that, too), but an investigation into the workings and abysses of cult(ure).

For more information on The Films of Tod Browning, out in the UK in August, and the USA in September see