(30/08/06) – At last, the time has come for a proper re-evaluation of the works of Tod Browning, visionary of early pulp cinema. Here is a figure paradoxically ahead of his time and yet of a bygone era. His celebrated forays into the realms of the exotic picture and the lurid thriller saw him rise up the ranks of Hollywood directors only to have his career crash to earth following the hostile reaction to his film Freaks (1932). Suddenly, in the light of the Hays code, his world view was unacceptable to the cinematic authorities who wanted wholesome fare populated by ‘normal’ people. The decline in the very trade that Browning practised prior to cinema (he literally ran away to join the circus and was for some time advertised as a freak) didn’t help his case and the modern world found his placing of disabled people in the context of horror or thriller films distasteful and morally dubious. Seen in hindsight, and with the benefit of increasingly more extant prints of some of his films, he provides a clear cinematic link to film-makers such as David Lynch (whose The Elephant Man (1980) at times appears a period drama homage to Freaks) and Tim Burton (both visually and in his lament on the death of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood (1994)).
The Films of Tod Browning is a welcome addition to the slowly growing number of works on the man and his films. As a series of essays it avoids the problem of needing to somehow be a complete view of Browning’s oeuvre – the intrinsic problems researching any film-maker from cinema’s infancy often involve the lack of available prints and the sheer number of films, in any number of genres, that those people worked on. A case in point is in Boris Henry’s look at slapstick films – Browning made over 50 of these as an actor, learning valuable lessons in timing and film expression – showing how these elements feed into his later work as a director, from the transvestism of The Devil Doll (1936) and Unholy Three (1925) to the clown act in Freaks. Naturally, given Browning’s colourful past, a theme that runs through the book examines ways in which he constantly returns to the idea of theatre and staging, of circus performers. This multi-layered view (looking at the story of someone putting on a story for a fictional audience) is ripe for analysis so several essays here discuss various aspects of this – the use of illusion (the spider-girl from The Show (1927)) or disguise (the Lon Chaney films and also Devil Doll) as necessary narrative devices both in Browning’s world and as an extension of the exotic thriller. Of course there is more discussion of his late silent films and the sound era, but what makes this book so worthwhile is that it offers glimpses of rarely seen gems that provide the foundations of his more familiar work. The fragmented (no full print is thought to exist) London After Midnight (1927) provides the blueprint for Mark of the Vampire (1935), providing some elucidation to the film’s explanatory close, but is itself part of Browning’s thriller blueprint where illusion and disguise are preferred over the fantastical. Browning’s characters are fantastical enough in themselves without necessitating supernatural assistance.
The Films of Tod Browning is neatly divided into two main sections, one thematic (including an essay summarising his career) and one focussing on six major films. To round it off there is an excellent selection of publicity material reproduced in full colour including posters, front of house stills and even the covers of novel adaptations. Great stuff. Ideal for anyone researching early cinema and for those curious as to the genesis of some of cinema’s more memorable images. The only problem (apart from the academic price tag) is that it makes you wish that more of Browning’s films were screened or available on DVD.
The Films of Tod Browing is out on Black Dog Publishing. Please follow the links provided for further information or to pursue a copy and help support Kamera by doing so.