Born July 12th 1880 Louisville Kentucky
Died October 6th 1962 Malibu California
He was born 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. Fascinated by the circus and carnival life, at the age of 16, he ran away from his well-to-do family to become a performer.
He changed his name to Tod and travelled extensively with sideshows, carnivals, and circuses. The jobs he was given 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. A great grounding for what was to come.
He also performed in vaudeville as an actor, magician and dancer and appeared in the Mutt and Jeff and The Lizard and the Coon acts, and in a blackface act titled The Wheel of Mirth alongside comedian Charles Murray. Again all good experience.
Later, while Browning was working as director of a variety theatre in New York, he met D. W. Griffith who also hailed from Louisville and as a result, began acting along 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. It was around this time that he began directing, eventually directing 11 short films for Reliance-Majestic. Between 1913 and 1919, Browning would appear as an actor in approximately fifty motion pictures.
June 1915 saw him crash his car at full speed into a moving train. His passengers were film actors Elmer Booth and George Siegmann. Booth was killed instantly, whilst 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 him for the loss of her brother.
Browning’s feature film debut was Jim Bludso (1917). It was about a riverboat captain who sacrifices himself to save his passengers from a fire. It was well received. He moved back to New York in 1917and 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 from the slums into a life of crime and possibly prostitution. Browning and Chaney would ultimately make ten films together over the next decade.
It was not all plain sailing as the death of his father sent him into a depression that led to alcoholism. This caused him to be laid off by Universal and resulted in his wife leaving him. He was however to recover from these setbacks and was reconciled with his wife and also got a one-picture contract with Goldwyn Pictures. The film he produced for Goldwyn, The Day of Faith, was a moderate success, but it did put his career back on track.
It was Thalberg who reunited Browning with Lon Chaney for The Unholy Three (1925), the story of three circus performers who concoct a scheme to con and steal jewels from rich people using disguises. Browning’s circus experience shows in his sympathetic portrayal of the anti heroes. 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 andThe Road to Mandalay. The Unknown (1927), featuring Chaney as an armless knife thrower and Joan Crawford as his scantily clad carnival girl obsession, was originally titled Alonzo the Armless.
You could say that this did set the stage for 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 the film was produced by Rick Schmidlin for Turner Classic Movies. Browning and Chaney’s final collaboration was Where East is East (1929), of which only an incomplete print has 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.
His birth in 1880 meant he had a longish career before the advent of the talkies and after Chaney’s death in 1930, Browning was hired by his old employer Universal Pictures to direct Dracula (1931). Although Browning wanted to hire an unknown European actor for the title role and have him be mostly off screen as a sinister presence, budget constraints and studio interference necessitated the casting of Bela Lugosi and a more straightforward approach. Although the film is now considered a classic, at the time Universal was not happy with their production. How time heals.
Tod Browning went on to direct the boxing melodrama Iron Man (1931), but soon after in 1932 along came his controversial film Freaks. Who better qualified to put the idea of a love triangle between a wealthy dwarf, a gold-digging aerialist, and a strongman than Browning. Add a murder plot and vengeance and you have the making of a classic.The film was controversial to say the least and even after heavy editing to remove what many people of the day considered disturbing scenes, it turned out to be a commercial failure. It was banned in the United Kingdom for thirty years.
After this Brownings career went seriously off the rails and he was unable to get his future projects approved. 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 re-titled 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 and we again had what many considered a classic. The spoof ending did however not go down well with all.
After that, Browning directed The Devil-Doll (1936), originally titled The Witch of Timbuctoo, from his own script. 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).
1939 Miracles for Sale
1936 The Devil-Doll (uncredited)
1935 Mark of the Vampire
1933 Fast Workers (uncredited)
1931 Iron Man
1930 Outside the Law
1929 The Thirteenth Chair
1929 Where East Is East
1928 West of Zanzibar
1928 The Big City
1927 The Hypnotist
1927 The Unknown
1927 The Show
1926 The Road to Mandalay
1926 The Blackbird
1925 Dollar Down
1925 The Mystic
1925 The Unholy Three
1924 Silk Stocking Sal
1924 A Dangerous Flirtation
1923 White Tiger
1923 The Day of Faith
1922 Under Two Flags
1922 Man Under Cover
1922 The Wise Kid
1921 No Woman Knows
1920 Outside the Law
1920 The Virgin of Stamboul
1919 Bonnie Bonnie Lassie
1919 The Petal on the Current
1919 The Unpainted Woman
1919 The Exquisite Thief
1919 The Wicked Darling
1918 Set Free
1918 The Brazen Beauty
1918 The Deciding Kiss
1918 Which Woman?
1918 The Eyes of Mystery
1918 The Legion of Death
1917 The Jury of Fate
1917 Peggy, the Will O’ the Wisp
1917 Hands Up!
1917 A Love Sublime
1917 Jim Bludso
1916 Everybody’s Doing It
1916 The Fatal Glass of Beer
1916 Puppets (Short)
1915 Little Marie (Short)
1915 The Woman from Warren’s (Short)
1915 The Burned Hand (Short)
1915 The Living Death (Short)
1915 The Electric Alarm (Short)
1915 The Spell of the Poppy (Short)
1915 The Story of a Story (Short)
1915 The Highbinders (Short)
1915 An Image of the Past (Short)
1915 The Slave Girl (Short)
1915 The Lucky Transfer (Short)