Tod Browning Essay - Critical Essays

Browning, Tod


Tod Browning 1882–1962

American filmmaker and actor.

Browning's horror films are macabre and atmospheric, differing from the stereotype of that genre because of his insight into the characters. Browning began his film career as an assistant to D. W. Griffith on Intolerance. Prior to his arrival in Hollywood, Browning had realized a typical boy's dream: he had run away from home and joined a carnival troupe. Through this experience he was exposed to a highly unconventional and unusual way of life. Later he would accurately and compassionately depict the grotesque atmosphere of the sideshow in his film Freaks.

In many of his other films, Browning collaborated with Lon Chaney. Understanding Chaney's penchant for parts requiring contortions and bizarre make-up, he devised roles especially for that actor and wrote his scripts around those characters. Most critics consider these films the most successful in the careers of both men.

Still, it may be true that Browning is best remembered as the director of Dracula, filmed after Chaney's death and starring Bela Lugosi. Browning's reputation rests not only on the sensationalism of horror films but also on his unique point of view. He portrayed deformed outcasts with understanding and sympathy, giving them unusual dignity and depth of characterization.

Mordaunt Hall

Although it has strength and undoubtedly sustains the interest, "The Unknown" … is anything but a pleasant story. It is gruesome and at times shocking, and the principal character deteriorates from a more or less sympathetic individual to an arch-fiend. The narrative is a sort of mixture of Balzac and Guy de Maupassant with a faint suggestion of O. Henry plus Mr. Browning's colorful side-show background.

Mordaunt Hall, "The Armless Wonder," in The New York Times (© 1927 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 13, 1927, p. 17.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer definitely has on its hands a picture that is out of the ordinary. The difficulty is in telling whether it should be shown at the Rialto—where it opened yesterday—or in, say, the Medical Centre. "Freaks" is no normal program film, but whether it deserves the title of abnormal is a matter of personal opinion. Its first audience apparently could not decide, although there was a good bit of applause.

Based on the life of "these strange people" of the circus sideshow, the picture is excellent at times and horrible, in the strict meaning of the word, at others. There are a few moments of comedy, but these are more than balanced by tragedy. Through long periods the story drags itself along, and there is one of the most profound anti-climaxes of them all to form the ending. Yet, despite this, "Freaks" is not a picture to be easily forgotten.

The reason, of course, is the underlying sense of horror, the love of the macabre that fills the circus sideshows in the first place. Tod Browning, the director, has brought all of it out as fully as possible, trying to prove that the "strange people" are children, that they do not like to be set apart. But they know they are, and in the sideshow is a spirit of mutual protection that holds if you injure one of them you injure all.

"The Circus Side Show," in The New York Times (© 1932 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 9, 1932, p. 7.

Frank S. Nugent

In "The Devil Doll" you will find a St. Bernard, a Great Dane and a circus horse reduced to mouse-like dimensions. By the same magic, Arthur Hohl, Grace Ford and one or two other hapless players are shrunken to fountain-pen length and have a brisk time climbing Christmas trees, staggering under the weight of a jeweled bracelet and sticking tiny daggers into the necks and ankles of Lionel Barrymore's full-sized victims.

Not since "The Lost World," "King Kong" and "The Invisible Man" have the camera wizards enjoyed such a field day. By use of the split screen, glass shots, oversize sets and other trick devices cherished of their kind, they have pieced together a photoplay which is grotesque, slightly horrible and consistently interesting. A freak film, of course, and one which may overburden Junior's imagination, but an entertaining exhibition of photographic hocuspocus for all that.

Based—and we shall be embarrassed if you ask us how closely—on Abraham Merritt's novel, "Burn, Witch, Burn," it tells the story of a scientist's discovery of a process by which humans and animals are reduced to a sixth of their normal size and of an escaped convict's use of the pigmies to be revenged upon the three men who conspired to send him to Devil's Island….

[The] picture relies mainly, and with understandable assurance, upon such ingenious bits as Miss Ford's demonstration of Alpine skill in climbing (via a slipper, footstool, bench and drawer handles) to the top of a dressing table; or Mr. Hohl's ludicrous impersonation of a Christmas tree ornament; or the Apache dance with a table-top serving as a ballroom. Tod Browning, who may be remembered for "The Unholy Three," "Dracula" and similar pleasantries, has invested these essentially ridiculous episodes with a menacing, chilling quality which makes it impossible for you to consider them too lightly. That, naturally, is as it should be in a horror film.

Frank S. Nugent, "'The Devil Doll'," in The New York Times (© 1936 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 8, 1936, p. 5.

Raymond Durgnat

[Despite] its moments of deliberate, grotesque shock, [Freaks] is shot through with—not just compassion, but something higher; respect. Tod Browning shows us a dwarf couple first—and for a few seconds the first 'big person' whom we see seems the deformed one.

The film has sufficient humanity to permit itself a tragicomic tone, about the emotional conflicts of the half-man, half-woman, resembling some anatomical apotheosis of the transvestite theme in Psycho. There is even some comic relief—it's true that at the press-show on one actually laughed, but the mood is there. When one Siamese twin gets pinched her sister feels it too, which raises interesting speculations as to the in-law's responses to her yokefellow's wedding-night.

Let's make no mistake: an uncompromising film in a censor-free society would have gone nearer the knuckle in evoking, warmly, the psychological consequences of this double-menage, and, in principle, the same criticism applies to other points in the film. It hints at the tragic solitude of some of these freaks, but never deeply evokes it, and in this nonchalance one can perhaps see the cloven hoof of MGM '30s commercialism—at least in intention. But the tragic aspect is a fairly obvious one, and the nonchalance has a grotesqueness of its own; it these freaks are no lonelier than we are, then we perhaps are just as much freaks as they are. After a first viewing, I would...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

John Thomas

Freaks is, in its own way, a minor masterpiece. Certainly it is macabre, and the final sequence in which the freaks stalk and mutilate their victims is enough to scare the hell out of anybody. But the point is that Freaks is not really a horror film at all, though it contains some horrifying sequences. The conventional horror film is one of our responses to the nonhuman element in the world, the incomprehensible objective world that threatens to render life meaningless. The movie monster is the embodiment of the nonhuman, the irrational, the inexplicable. It is through his destruction by fire, sunlight, or crucifix that we are purged of our own fear of the nonhuman. We must therefore identify with the victims of the movie monster, and find our release in the monster's ultimate death. In Freaks we are asked to identify with the ostensibly nonhuman, to turn against what we normally think of as our "own kind" and to discover in the humanity of the freaks a moral center for the universe. (pp. 59-60)

The crucial scenes in the movie are those which show the daily routine of the freaks, the individual adjustment of the freaks to their handicaps being almost clinically observed. We watch the armless woman drink beer from a glass grasped by a prehensile foot; while the human worm, both armless and legless, lights his own cigarettes with his teeth…. It is through these and similar scenes that Browning effects the inversion of values that lies at the heart of the film.

The freaks, as the movie is at pains to point out, live in a world of their own, created...

(The entire section is 662 words.)

Ted Zehender

The Unknown is an important film for several reasons, which I'll consider in a moment, but its plot, unfortunately, isn't one of them…. [It] is a variant of the beauty and the beast theme, with the beast this time (Chaney) being a bitter and vengeful knife-thrower in a Madrid circus named Alonzo. He is apparently armless and propels his knives at Nanon, his beautiful partner, by means of his toes….

The skill with which [The Unknown] spins a fabric of suspense illustrates the fine technique of director Tod Browning. He never achieved the fame in this field that Alfred Hitchcock has, perhaps because the quality he stresses most in his convoluted plots … is irony, and irony leaves the viewer with an unsatisfied and thwarted feeling. Hitchcock eschews it, and occasionally uses humor. Browning never did. (p. 452)

The Unknown is not a horror film, at least not in the sense that The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera are. There's no mutilated or supernatural creature going haywire and wrecking his vengeance on society. The Unknown is a suspense film, with suspense beginning almost in the first few feet, which show the circus tents flapping wildly in the night wind, and resembling shrouds. The lighting is somber throughout, except in the scenes in which [Nanon] appears, which are all illuminated, so that light becomes her leit-motif (her image in...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Stuart Rosenthal

The adjective most frequently applied to Browning's cinema is "obsessional." Although the work of any auteur will repeatedly emphasise specific thoughts and ideas, Browning is so aggressive and unrelenting in his pursuit of certain themes that he appears to be neurotically fixated upon them. He is inevitably attracted to situations of moral and sexual frustration. In this, as well as in his preoccupation with interchangeable guilt, interchangeable personalities and patterns of human repulsion and attraction, he coincides remarkably with Chabrol. What sets Browning apart is his abnormal fascination with the deformed creatures who populate his films—a fascination that is not always entirely intellectual, and...

(The entire section is 3284 words.)