Tod Browning

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Tod Browning
Tod Browning 1921.jpg
Born
Charles Albert Browning Jr.

(1880-07-12)July 12, 1880
DiedOctober 6, 1962(1962-10-06) (aged 82)
OccupationFilm actor, film director, screenwriter
Years active1915–1939

Tod Browning (born Charles Albert Browning Jr.; July 12, 1880 – October 6, 1962) was an American film actor, film director, screenwriter and vaudeville performer. [1] Browning's career spanned the silent film and sound film eras. Best known as the director of Dracula (1931), [2] Freaks (1932), [3] and silent film collaborations with Lon Chaney and Priscilla Dean, Browning directed many movies in a wide range of genres.

Vaudeville genre of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s

Vaudeville is a theatrical genre of variety entertainment born in France at the end of the 18th century. A vaudeville was originally a comedy without psychological or moral intentions, based on a comical situation: a kind of dramatic composition or light poetry, interspersed with songs or ballets. It became popular in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s, but the idea of vaudeville's theatre changed radically from its French antecedent.

Silent film Film with no synchronized recorded dialogue

A silent film is a film with no synchronized recorded sound. In silent films for entertainment, the plot may be conveyed by the use of title cards, written indications of the plot and key dialogue lines. The idea of combining motion pictures with recorded sound is nearly as old as film itself, but because of the technical challenges involved, the introduction of synchronized dialogue became practical only in the late 1920s with the perfection of the Audion amplifier tube and the advent of the Vitaphone system. The term "silent film" is a misnomer, as these films were almost always accompanied by live sounds. During the silent-film era that existed from the mid-1890s to the late 1920s, a pianist, theater organist—or even, in large cities, a small orchestra—would often play music to accompany the films. Pianists and organists would play either from sheet music, or improvisation. Sometimes a person would even narrate the intertitle cards for the audience. Though at the time the technology to synchronize sound with the video did not exist, music was seen as an essential part of the viewing experience.

Sound film motion picture with synchronized sound

A sound film is a motion picture with synchronized sound, or sound technologically coupled to image, as opposed to a silent film. The first known public exhibition of projected sound films took place in Paris in 1900, but decades passed before sound motion pictures were made commercially practical. Reliable synchronization was difficult to achieve with the early sound-on-disc systems, and amplification and recording quality were also inadequate. Innovations in sound-on-film led to the first commercial screening of short motion pictures using the technology, which took place in 1923.

Contents

Early life

Tod Browning with unidentified child on set of No Woman Knows (1921) No Woman Knows (1921) - 12.jpg
Tod Browning with unidentified child on set of No Woman Knows (1921)

Browning was born as Charles Albert Browning, Jr., in Louisville, Kentucky, the second son of Charles Albert and Lydia Browning, and the nephew of baseball star Pete Browning. As a young boy, he put on amateur plays in his backyard. He was fascinated by the circus and carnival life, and at the age of 16 he ran away from his well-to-do family to become a performer.

Louisville, Kentucky City in Kentucky

Louisville is the largest city in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the 29th most-populous city in the United States. It is one of two cities in Kentucky designated as first-class, the other being Lexington, the state's second-largest city. Louisville is the historical seat and, since 2003, the nominal seat of Jefferson County, located in the northern region of the state, on the border with Indiana.

Pete Browning American baseball player

Louis Rogers Browning, nicknamed "Gladiator", was an American professional baseball center fielder and left fielder. He played in Major League Baseball (MLB) from 1882 to 1894. He played primarily for the Louisville Eclipse/Colonels, becoming one of the sport's most accomplished batters of the 1880s.

Changing his name to "Tod", he traveled extensively with sideshows, carnivals, and circuses. His jobs included working as a talker for the Wild Man of Borneo, performing a live burial act in which he was billed as "The Living Corpse", and performing as a clown with the Ringling Brothers Circus. He drew on this experience as inspiration for some of his film work.

Sideshow theatrical genre

In North America, a sideshow is an extra, secondary production associated with a circus, carnival, fair, or other such attraction.

Traveling carnival travelling show

A traveling carnival, usually simply called a carnival, or travelling funfair is an amusement show that may be made up of amusement rides, food vendors, merchandise vendors, games of chance and skill, thrill acts, and animal acts. A traveling carnival is not set up at a permanent location, like an amusement park or funfair, but is moved from place to place. Its roots are similar to the 19th century circus with both being set up in open fields near or in town and moving to a new location after a period of time. Unlike traditional carnival celebrations, the North American traveling carnival is not tied to a religious observance.

Barker (occupation) profession

A barker, often a carnival barker, is a person who attempts to attract patrons to entertainment events, such as a circus or funfair, by exhorting passing members of the public, announcing attractions of show, and emphasizing variety, novelty, beauty, or some other enticing feature of the show. A barker would often conduct a brief free show, introducing performers and describing acts to be given at the feature performance. Professional barkers strongly disliked the term and instead referred to themselves as "talkers".

He performed in vaudeville as an actor, magician and dancer. He appeared in the Mutt and Jeff and The Lizard and the Coon acts, and in a blackface act titled The Wheel of Mirth with comedian Charles Murray.

Magic (illusion) entertainment constructed around tricks and illusions

Magic, along with its subgenres of, and sometimes referred to as illusion, stage magic or close up magic is a performing art in which audiences are entertained by staged tricks or illusions of seemingly impossible feats using natural means. It is to be distinguished from paranormal magic which are effects claimed to be created through supernatural means. It is one of the oldest performing arts in the world.

<i>Mutt and Jeff</i> comic strip

Mutt and Jeff is a long-running and widely popular American newspaper comic strip created by cartoonist Bud Fisher in 1907 about "two mismatched tinhorns". Historians regard Mutt and Jeff, originally titled A. Mutt, as the first American newspaper cartoon published as a strip of panels, as opposed to a single panel, making it the first "comic strip" to successfully pioneer that since-common format.

Blackface Form of theatrical makeup

Blackface is a form of theatrical make-up used predominantly by non-black performers to represent a caricature of a black person. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the spread of racial stereotypes such as the "happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation" or the "dandified coon". By the middle of the century, blackface minstrel shows had become a distinctive American artform, translating formal works such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right. In the United States, blackface had largely fallen out of favor by the turn of the 21st century, and is now generally considered offensive and disrespectful, though the practice continues in other countries.

Beginnings of a film career

Later, while Browning was working as director of a variety theater in New York City, he met D.W. Griffith, who was also from Louisville. He began acting with Murray on single-reel nickelodeon comedies for Griffith and the Biograph Company.

In 1913 Griffith split from Biograph and moved to California. Browning followed and continued to act in Griffith's films, now for Reliance-Majestic Studios, including a stint as an extra in the epic Intolerance . Around that time he began directing, eventually directing 11 short films for Reliance-Majestic. Between 1913 and 1919, Browning appeared as an actor in approximately 50 motion pictures.

In June 1915, he crashed his car at full speed into a moving train. His passengers were film actors Elmer Booth and George Siegmann. Booth was killed instantly, and Siegmann and Browning suffered serious injuries, including in Browning's case a shattered right leg and the loss of his front teeth. During his convalescence, Browning wrote scripts, and did not return to active film work until 1917. Booth's sister, Margaret Booth, later a famous MGM editor, never forgave Browning for the loss of her brother.

Silent feature films

The Jury of Fate (1917) The Jury of Fate.jpg
The Jury of Fate (1917)

Browning's feature film debut was Jim Bludso (1917), about a riverboat captain who sacrifices himself to save his passengers from a fire. It was well received.

Browning moved back to New York in 1917. He directed two films for Metro Studios, Peggy, the Will O' the Wisp and The Jury of Fate . Both starred Mabel Taliaferro, the latter in a dual role achieved with double exposure techniques that were groundbreaking for the time. He moved back to California in 1918 and produced two more films for Metro, The Eyes of Mystery and Revenge .

In the spring of 1918, he left Metro and joined Bluebird Productions, a subsidiary of Universal Pictures, where he met Irving Thalberg. Thalberg paired Browning with Lon Chaney for the first time for the film The Wicked Darling (1919), a melodrama in which Chaney played a thief who forces a poor girl (Priscilla Dean) from the slums into a life of crime and possibly prostitution. Browning and Chaney ultimately made 10 films together over the next decade.

The death of his father sent Browning into a depression that led to alcoholism. He was laid off by Universal and his wife left him. However, he recovered, reconciled with his wife, and got a one-picture contract with Goldwyn Pictures. The film he produced for Goldwyn, The Day of Faith , was a moderate success, putting his career back on track.

Thalberg reunited Browning with Lon Chaney for The Unholy Three (1925), the story of three circus performers who concoct a scheme to use disguises to con and steal jewels from rich people. Browning's circus experience shows in his sympathetic portrayal of the antiheroes. The film was a resounding success, so much so that it was later remade in 1930 as Lon Chaney's first (and only) talkie shortly before his death later that same year. Browning and Chaney embarked on a series of popular collaborations, including The Blackbird and The Road to Mandalay . The Unknown (1927), featuring Chaney as an armless knife thrower and Joan Crawford as his scantily clad carnival girl obsession, originally was titled Alonzo the Armless and could be considered a precursor to Freaks in that it concerns a love triangle involving a circus freak, a beauty, and a strongman. London After Midnight (1927) was Browning's first foray into the vampire genre and is a highly sought-after lost film which starred Chaney, Conrad Nagel, and Marceline Day. The last known print of London After Midnight was destroyed in an MGM studio fire in 1967. In 2002, a photographic reconstruction of London After Midnight was produced by Rick Schmidlin for Turner Classic Movies. Browning and Chaney's final collaboration was Where East Is East (1929), of which only incomplete prints have survived. Browning's first talkie was The Thirteenth Chair (1929), which was also released as a silent and featured Bela Lugosi, who had a leading part as the uncanny inspector, Delzante, solving the mystery with the aid of the spirit medium. This film was directed shortly after Browning's vacation trip to Germany (arriving in the Port of New York, November 12, 1929).

Sound films

Bela Lugosi as Dracula Bela Lugosi as Dracula, anonymous photograph from 1931, Universal Studios.jpg
Bela Lugosi as Dracula

After Chaney's death in 1930, Browning was hired by his old employer Universal Pictures to direct Dracula (1931). [2] Although Browning wanted to hire an unknown European actor for the title role and have him be mostly offscreen as a sinister presence, budget constraints and studio interference necessitated the casting of Bela Lugosi and a more straightforward approach.

After directing the boxing melodrama Iron Man (1931), Browning began work on Freaks (1932). [3] Based on the short story "Spurs" by Clarence Aaron "Tod" Robbins, the screenwriter of The Unholy Three, the film concerns a love triangle among a wealthy dwarf, a gold-digging aerialist, and a strongman; a murder plot; and the vengeance dealt out by the dwarf and his fellow circus freaks. The film was highly controversial, even after heavy editing to remove many disturbing scenes, and was a commercial failure and banned in the United Kingdom for 30 years. [4]

His career derailed, Browning found himself unable to get his requested projects greenlighted. After directing the drama Fast Workers (1933) starring John Gilbert, who was also not in good standing with the studio, he was allowed to direct a remake of London After Midnight, originally titled Vampires of Prague but later retitled Mark of the Vampire (1935). In the remake, the roles played by Lon Chaney in the original were split between Lionel Barrymore and Béla Lugosi (spoofing his Dracula image).

After that, Browning directed The Devil-Doll (1936), originally titled The Witch of Timbuctoo, from his own story. [5] The picture starred Lionel Barrymore as an escapee from an island prison who avenges himself on the people who imprisoned him using living "dolls" who are actually people shrunk to doll-size and magically placed under Barrymore's hypnotic control. Browning's final film was the murder mystery Miracles for Sale (1939).

Director filmography

See also

Further reading

Related Research Articles

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Errol Taggart was a Canadian film director and film editor who worked in Hollywood during the 1920s and 1930s. He was the editor of four movies directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney: The Unknown (uncredited) with Joan Crawford, The Road to Mandalay, The Blackbird, and the lost film London After Midnight (uncredited). He also edited Browning's film Drifting featuring Wallace Beery and Anna May Wong in supporting roles, and was Browning's first assistant director on Freaks (uncredited) featuring Olga Baclanova and a cast of actual carnival sideshow freaks. Taggart also directed seven films, including Sinner Take All, Song of the City, and The Women Men Marry.

References

  1. "Tod Browning". The New York Times .
  2. 1 2 Mordaunt Hall (1931). "Dracula". The New York Times .
  3. 1 2 "Freaks". The New York Times . 1932.
  4. Susan King (2011-05-18). "'Dracula,' 'Mark of the Vampire' bring vintage bite to Aero Theatre".
  5. 5. David J. Skal and Elias Savada, Dark Carnival. New York: Anchor, 1995, pp. 307-308 ISBN   0-385-47406-7