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The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood's Master of the Macabre

By David J. Skal and Elias Savada

"An entertaining and informative biography of one of America's most fascinating filmmakers."
--John Landis

"...a detailed, painstakingly researched biography that draws on unpublished interviews with Browning's coworkers and friends as well as the new contributions of surviving family members. They call Browning's reclusive career and its dissolution 'one of Hollywood's most mysterious vanishing acts.' Their illuminating work should help win him his just place in the annals of cinema."


One of the most original and unsettling filmmakers of all time, Tod Browning is also one of the most enigmatic directors who ever worked in Hollywood. A complicated, troubled, and fiercely private man, he confounded would-be biographers hoping to penetrate his secret, obsessive world -- both during his lifetime and afterward.

Now, film historians David J. Skal and Elias Savada, using newly discovered family documents and revealing unpublished interviews with friends and colleagues, join forces for the first full-length biography of the man who earned a reputation as "the Edgar Allan Poe of the cinema." The authors chronicle Browning's turn-of-the-century flight from an eccentric Louisville family into the world of carnival sideshows (where he began his career literally buried alive) and vaudeville, his disastrous first marriage, his rapid climb to riches in the burgeoning silent film industry, and the alcoholism that would plague him throughout his life. Browning's legendary collaborations with Lon Chaney, Sr., and Bela "Dracula" Lugosi are explored in depth, along with the studio politics that ended his career after the bizarre circus drama Freaks -- a cult classic today -- proved to be one of the biggest box-office disasters of the early thirties.

Illustrated throughout with rare photographs, Dark Carnival is both an artful, often shocking portrait of a singular film pioneer and an illuminatingstudy of the evolution of horror, essential to an understanding of ourcontinuing fascination with the macabre.

Anchor Books, New York, 1995. Spanish edition: Festival Internacional de Cine de San Sebastian/Filmoteca Espanola,Madrid, 1996. Japanese edition: Suiseisya, Tokyo, 1999.





It was perhaps fitting that a man who had loved baseball for at least seventy of his eighty-two years should die in the middle of the World Series, the game tied 1-1 between the Yankees and the Giants. As a long-naturalized Californian, Tod Browning might be expected to favor the Giants. In fact, he preferred Cincinnati -- but was never one to let sentiment influence his bets.

In his carefully guarded private life, Browning adored animals and schmaltzy figurines, but when it came to the sphere of public spectacle, his approach was clinical and unsparing. As a director of motion pictures, he forged a reputation as the "Edgar Allan Poe of the cinema," a Hollywood prince of criminality, darkness, and the grotesque. His foremost concern as a storyteller was the plight of outsiders, at first depicted as garden-variety criminals, but, as his career progressed, in fantastic distortions worthy of Dorian Gray's infamous portrait. The criminal-outsider, played as often as not by the protean silent-film actor Lon Chaney, Sr., began to display phys-ical anomalies reflective of disordered inner states: characters in Browning films wouldn't be merely wronged, guilty, or vengeful; they would also be scarred, crippled, or spectacularly mutilated. Eventually, Browning's cast-asides would include real sideshow freaks, who, through accidents of birth, surpassed anything Lon Chaney could accomplish with rubber humps and harnesses, as well as utterly fantastic alien strangers like the predatory Count Dracula. Freaks and Dracula would, in fact, be his two most famous films, fascinating audiences more than seven decades after their initial releases as timeless evocations of otherness, alienation, and dread.

Tod Browning had one of Hollywood's most singular careers, with a tremendous shaping influence on two significant American genres: the gangster picture and the horror film -- not to mention their stylish cinematic nuptials in noir. His firsthand knowledge of the industry and its personalities, from D. W. Griffith's pioneering Biograph Company to the sophisticated dream factory of Louis B. Mayer's M-G-M, would have been the material of a terrific Hollywood memoir.

But Tod Browning didn't like to talk -- not about his career, at least. Now, lying in his coffin in a Santa Monica funeral home, he was dead of a wasting illness that had, finally, deprived him of any possibility of speech. It was a grimly ironic comment on the life and death of a man who had made his fortune as a silent-film director, but who had had considerable difficulties in adapting his talents to the medium of talking pictures. He would become angry, in his final years, whenever a person he had allowed to become intimate would begin to press for details about his life in Hollywood.

There was much to be curious about. Few directors had displayed such a singular preoccupation with the grotesque -- his Freaks had been one of the biggest disasters of the early talkie era, repulsing and infuriating audiences and critics with its unprecedented display of real human deformities, and was banned in some parts of the world for thirty years. There was his legendary collaboration with the equally secretive Chaney, the "Man of a Thousand Faces" who never revealed his own. There was Dracula with Bela Lugosi. And whether his subject was the criminal underworld or the nether realm of the undead, Browning's films are filled with repeated, almost interchangeable, themes, characters, and compo-sitions that impress the viewer with the disturbing power of recurrent dreams. As critic Stuart Rosenthal noted in 1975 in the only substantial critical essay then published on Browning's work, "Al-though the work of any auteur will repeatedly emphasize specific thoughts and ideas, Browning is so aggressive and unrelenting in his pursuit of certain themes that he appears to be neurotically fixated on them . . . . Browning expresses his obsessive content in a manner that may be properly described as compulsive."

While Browning reveled in disturbing and provoking the public, he did so from a position of obsessive privacy. Unlike other Hollywood movers and shakers of his generation, he seemed to care nothing for posterity, or even publicity over which he was not com-pletely in control. He never gave a retrospective interview, dying before the advent of film studies as a respected academic discipline. But even if an army of credentialed film historians had approached him during his lifetime, it is doubtful that Tod Browning would have been willing to talk. He left the world no papers, kept no diaries, affecting an indifference to the film medium that approached outright contempt. "When I quit a thing, I quit," he was said to have told a friend. "I wouldn't walk across the street now to see a movie." Yet one of his favorite pastimes in his final years was watching old movies in the privacy of his home on the new medium of television.

Finally, in October 1962, he was in no position to reminisce about anything, embalmed in a box and awaiting cremation. Boxes and their secrets had figured with a dark prominence throughout his life. His career began, he claimed, with a turn-of-the-century carnival scam, where, as the Living Hypnotic Corpse, he had allowed himself to be repeatedly buried alive in a ventilated coffin. Later, in vaudeville, he became acquainted with all the tricks of magicians' trunks and cabinets, a theme he would resurrect in picture after picture. His most famous film dealt with a perambulating Transylvanian vampire and his hiding boxes of native soil. From time immemorial boxes have symbolized secrets, the unconscious, and the occult. And Tod Browning, perhaps more than any Hollywood director, had chosen to repeatedly exploit this symbol, while jealously guarding secrets of his own. His real name, for instance, wasn't Tod, but the professional alias couldn't have been better chosen -- in Old English, the name means "fox" or "trickster"; in German, it is the word for death.

Visiting hours were over in the slumber room at the funeral home of Gates, Kingsley & Gates, but one mourner remained, bringing forth a special box of his own. At the dead man's request, the visitor was to be permitted to spend the night and perform a final ritual. The man, as far as anyone could remember, was called Lucky. He knew little about Browning's life in Hollywood, making his acquaintance as a house painter and drinking buddy. The box he brought with him was nothing mysterious or occult. It was a case of Coors beer. Before he died, Browning had asked Lucky to sit up with him and polish off a final batch. In another show of legerdemain, Browning presented himself as a "recovered" alcoholic who nonetheless consumed, quite openly, prodigious quantities of brew for the rest of his life. It was said, though never really substantiated, that he received a case a month as a perpetual personal gift from Adolph Coors -- the result of a favorable comment Browning had once made about the product to Coors himself at a racetrack, un-aware of the beer magnate's identity. Drinking, in Tod Browning's life, amounted to more than just a personal weakness; it precipi-tated two catastrophes that not only affected his own life but set in motion changes in a career that would have an outsize impact on the future of American film.

To Lucky, Tod Browning was a kindly and generous man who displayed no signs of the dark sensibility revealed in his films. He was a garrulous old man who lived on the sundrenched beach at Malibu, raised dogs and ducks, and loved nothing so much as preparing gourmet meals in his well-equipped kitchen. But to others, he was a classic Hollywood son of a bitch with a morbid streak a mile wide, who used the film medium to indulge his unhealthy obsession with physical disability and human predation. Hollywood veteran Budd Schulberg, author of the caustic classic What Makes Sammy Run?, lived near Browning in the Malibu colony in the 1930s, and considered the director an out-and-out sadist. Browning's critical reception was, and is, equally mixed. To some, he was an unassailable auteur of cinematic darkness; to others, he was a cynical hack, who mined the same thematic material over and over, not to any artistic purpose, but simply out of creative laziness.

His most controversial film, Freaks, has been just as often praised as a compassionate masterpiece as it has been damned for its tasteless, exploitative excesses. One veteran executive at M-G-M, who did not want to be identified, offered the following, icy appraisal: "As a director, he was terrible . . . as a person, he was nothing."

Neither statement is true, but establishing the facts of Browning's life and the meaning of his work presents special problems to would-be biographers, film historians, and critics. Andrew Sarris, in 1968, cited Browning as one of several directors who were "subjects for further research," but research materials remained maddeningly elusive, and no biography appeared, even with Browning's elevation to cult-director status with the 1970s revival of Freaks on the art-house circuit. Dark Carnival intends to fill the gap in the understanding of Browning and his career by drawing on dozens of unpublished interviews with the director's co-workers and friends, most now deceased, and new revelations from surviving, recently located family members and from previously untapped archives.

A good biographical subject ideally maintains a certain core of impenetrability, and Browning is no exception, but the present book should at least create a more multidimensional portrait of Browning than has ever been attempted. In a town that has traditionally worshiped fame, self-aggrandizement, and the glare of publicity, Browning's reclusive career and its dissolution amounted to one of Hollywood's most mysterious vanishing acts. Dark Carnival, the authors hope, will shed some illumination on its methods and machinations.

In October 1962, when Tod Browning died, America was less interested in pondering the metaphors of stage magic than it was in the more tangible escape exploits of myriad tunnelers under the Berlin wall. The cold war was growing warm, and in a few short weeks the dark rite of the Cuban missile crisis would plunge Amer-ica into a collective ritual more terrifying than anything Browning had ever depicted in a film. Count Dracula's sarcophagus had long been replaced by the fallout shelter as a cultural locus of dread, and, unlike the vampire, the atom bomb didn't evaporate at dawn.

A quaintly morbid trickster forgotten in an impersonal age of mass destruction, Tod Browning vanished from this world with an intimate flourish of macabre celebration. For the dead man and his loyal friend in the Santa Monica slumber room, only one trick remained: making the final case of Coors disappear.

Copyright(c)1995 by David J. Skal and Elias Savada. All rights reserved.