What is it that drives some artists to obsession? What is it about an artistic personality that must revisit the same piece of psychic real estate over and over again? Using their work to endlessly examine some unsolved areas of their personal psychic puzzle? Sometimes this pursuit yields an artist’s greatest achievements, sometimes their greatest failures. Sometimes these two are one and the same. Witness, if you will, the strange case of Tod Browning.
Tod Browning was born at the very end of the 19th century in Louisville, Kentucky. He had it pretty good. He came from a wealthy, well-to-do family and yet, for some reason, at the tender age of sixteen, he up and left his life of wealth and privilege and literally ran away to join the circus. Or, in this case, the carnival.
Young Tod Browning loved life along the midway. He worked as a barker, a clown, a magician, and a dancer. He performed as the Wild Man Of Borneo (although there is no record of him geeking) but by far his most fascinating performance was the famous Living Corpse routine.
The Living Corpse was an astounding and spectacular sideshow stunt that took an entire weekend to pull off. A carnival would pull into town on a Friday night, whereupon a magician or hypnotist would step forward and promise the assembled locals that he would take a volunteer from the audience and hypnotize them into thinking they were dead. Browning, a shill pretending to be said local, would step forward and volunteer to be "hypnotized." Browning would then allow himself to be placed into a coffin, lowered into the ground, and buried alive for the weekend. Now, of course, the coffin had an air tube, but ...still! Browning later confessed, "When I heard the dirt come crashing down onto that coffin, I actually shivered."
I'd have done something else.
Browning would then lay in the coffin, underground, in the dark, breathing through an air tube and eating malted milk balls smuggled in under his clothing for the next forty-eight hours!
The locals were quite obviously astounded, even more so when Browning was exhumed on Sunday and brought out of the “trance,” pretending to not have noticed a thing.
As horrifying as it sounds, remember, Browning did this a lot.
NOTE: The entire story of the Living Corpse routine of recounted in great detail in Browning's excellent biography, Dark Carnival, by Davis J. Skal and Elias Savada. Dark Carnival was the primary source for this and next week's piece on Freaks.
Browning eventually made his way to New York where he became the director of a vaudeville house. There, he met the legendary director D.W. Griffith (Intolerance) and started making short films for Griffith’s company, Reliance Majestic Pictures. In 1918, he made a film with Lon Chaney, one of the biggest stars of the silent era and the father of, you guessed it, Lon Chaney Jr. The film was called Wicked Darling in which Chaney played a thief who forces an innocent young woman into a life of crime and prostitution. Nice! Wicked Darling was a big hit and Chaney and Browning went on to make a dozen films together. Their most successful collaboration was The Unholy Three, about three circus performers who steal jewels from the wealthy by using disguises. They also made The Unknown in which Chaney played an armless knife thrower in a carnival who falls in love with a “normal” woman (played by a young Joan Crawford). I don’t know, but if you don’t have any arms and you're thinking of a job… Knife thrower?
Browning’s films were morality plays set, more often than not, against the backdrop of a carnival or sideshow. He used carnies, clowns, magicians and roustabouts, the very people who took him in a child, as stand-ins for modern society.
Lon Chaney was one of the biggest stars in the country, and so his director became one of the biggest directors in the country. Browning had a house in Beverly Hills and another in Malibu. But still, the stories he told, and the ways in which he spent his time when not working, never strayed far from the calliope-themed shadow world of his youth.
One of Browning’s favorite ways to relax back in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s was to go down to the Santa Monica pier and watch the dance marathons. A popular attraction at that time, dance marathons were so steeped in sadism and human debasement that I am genuinely stunned they have not been brought back.
Dance marathons were quite simply that. A group of couples would sign up and start dancing, and then, 24, 36 or 48 hours later, the last couple still dancing after everyone else had dropped from exhaustion or gone buggy from sleep deprivation would be declared the winner. Budd Schulberg, who wrote On The Waterfront, wrote about dance marathons, saying, “Even more appalling than the victims on the dance floor were the regulars. Affluent sadists in the same front row seats every night, cheering on their favorites who keep feinting and occasionally throwing up from exhaustion." Among the most dedicated of these regulars, Schulberg noted, was Tod Browning. (Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is an excellent examination of the desperate world of dance marathons).
By this time, Browning was slated to direct one of the most anticipated films of the day, Dracula. The film was to be a challenge for Browning. It was a talkie, new territory, and his star, Lon Chaney died of complications arising from throat cancer just before filming began.
Universal Studios grudgingly agreed to let Bela Lugosi, who had originated the part on Broadway, take the lead in the film. The rest, as they say, is history. Dracula was a super duper smash hit and put Tod Browning in the enviable position of being able to write his own ticket. As far as his next movie was concerned, he could pretty much make whatever he wanted. So what did he make?
A little movie called Freaks. Browning poured his heart and soul into Freaks. It was his masterpiece, his magnum opus. The finished film was exactly what he wanted it to be. It was the story that he wanted to tell the world. And it pretty much ended his career.
We'll learn the hows and whys next time.