The Curmudgeon


Monday, April 11, 2005

A Highly Imaginative Eccentric

At times, in the interests of accuracy, it may be preferable to talk about a feral bushy-tailed canine whose reputation typically involves craft and cunning; but most of us prefer to stick to fox, nonetheless. "Charles Albert Browning," says Geoff Andrew in The Film Handbook, "is often viewed primarily as a horror director, but he is more accurately seen as a highly imaginative eccentric whose best work is typified by his continuing fascination with the grotesque and macabre."

Charles Albert Browning was born in 1880 and spent his early years working in the circus. One of his jobs during his youth was burial alive as the Hypnotic Living Corpse: placed in a "trance" by an Actual Genuine Mesmerist, Browning would be put in a coffin, lowered into a hole in the ground, and the coffin covered up. The Hypnotic Living Corpse might have to stay buried for up to two days (often Friday to Sunday, in memory of a more famous conjuring trick), breathing through an extensible tube built into one of the coffin's walls. Later his publicity would claim that he had also served a turn as Bosco the Snake Eater.

Browning was involved, as director, writer or producer, in many silent films between 1915 and 1925, including such titles as The Slave Girl, The Living Death, The Burned Hand, The Deadly Glass of Beer, A Love Sublime, White Tiger and The Dangerous Flirt. He was also an assistant director on the "Modern Story" sequence of D W Griffith's Intolerance.

On the night of 16 July 1915, during his off hours from working for Griffith, Browning was driving a car at high speed and suffered a collision in which he lost his teeth. The actor seated next to him was killed. Browning had to wear full dentures for the rest of his life, and he complained about the discomfort they caused him.

Browning's first notable film as director was The Unholy Three (1925), a rather unorthodox crime story about three erstwhile circus personnel - a midget, a strongman and a ventriloquist - who run a pet shop as a front to rob their wealthy customers. The ventriloquist is able to fake the voices of the parrots sold in the shop (as the film was silent, comic-strip balloons were used to indicate the birds' dialogue); the parrots' abrupt loss of voice when removed from the shop provides a handy pretext for the fiendish criminals (ventriloquist and midget disguised as a harmless old lady and child) to visit the owners and case their houses.

The Unholy Three was a major box-office success and made enough of a name for itself to merit a talkie remake some years later. Equally significantly in terms of Browning's career, it starred Lon Chaney, who had just made The Phantom of the Opera. Browning and Chaney made seven more films together, with Chaney usually playing doubled, disguised or physically deformed characters. The best remembered of these films is The Unknown (1927).

In The Unknown, Chaney plays a fugitive hiding out in a circus by posing as Alonzo the Armless Wonder. His arms are taped to his sides, and he impresses the audience with feats of dental and metatarsal dexterity. Alonzo is indiscreet enough to fall for Estrellita (Joan Crawford), who is the decorative part of the knife-thrower's act. Estrellita cannot bear the touch of men; in order to win her, Alonzo has his own arms surgically removed only to find his beloved in those of Malabar, the strongman. "A visit to the dissecting room in a hospital would be quite as pleasant," gushed the New York Evening Post, "and at the same time more instructive."

The films for which Browning is best known and most notorious are, respectively, Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932). The first is notable for Bela Lugosi's performance and for the atmospheric early sequences showing the visit of Renfield (Dwight Frye) to the vampire's castle; but for the most part it is stagey, tedious and badly dated, with a static camera and a storyline less plotted than plodded.

Freaks is another matter entirely. It was based on a story called "Spurs" by the British writer Tod Robbins, who had also written the original novel The Unholy Three. "Spurs" tells of a French circus midget who falls for a beautiful trapeze artist. Because he has come into a great deal of money, she condescends to marry him, but at their wedding she gets drunk and humiliates him by picking him up and declaring, "I could carry my little ape from one end of France to the other." The midget works out the distance involved and, using the eponymous spurs as an incentive, forces her to do just that. At the end of the tale, a ragged, worn-out wreck, she has a little more than half the distance to go.

The adaptation makes Hans the midget German and benign, and somewhat changes the character of the other circus freaks. Those in Robbins' story are a crowd of noisy egotists, each one convinced that he or she is the star of the show. (Ironically enough, the real-life freaks Browning used as actors in his film were apparently much the same.) The characters in the film are a comradely bunch who, at the wedding, pay the trapeze artist their highest compliment by acclaiming her as "one of us". She takes this as a deadly insult, throwing their loving-cup back in their faces and cursing them as "filthy, slimy freaks!"

The first half of the film is largely comic, displaying various scenes from the everyday life of a circus and including the marital problems of a man married to a Siamese twin (he can't get rid of his argumentative sister-in-law). Pinheads, dwarfs and a young man without legs are introduced in lyrical long-shot, having a picnic with their motherly guardian. Everyone is happy when the bearded lady gives birth to a healthy baby girl who may, it is observed, one day grow a beard of her own. However, there are also some darker scenes showing the humiliation of the gallant but undersized Hans by the gold-digging trapeze artist and her strongman lover. After she insults his friends at the wedding, and not content with poisoning his champagne, she humiliates him further by pretending to treat him as a baby.

Some of the humour in Freaks is now dated and cloying, and the acting is often rather wooden; but on the whole, particularly from the wedding-feast onwards, it holds up very well, and the climax is riveting. Hans, who has been feigning sickness from the poison, suddenly sits up in bed and, ironically echoing his "baby" role, demands the drug from his poisoner: "Bottle." As the circus drives off in a violent thunderstorm, the strongman sets out to murder his ex-girlfriend, who knows too much about the plot to kill Hans. One of the wagons crashes and overturns, and out leap half a dozen of the freaks, armed with knives. A man, impressively muscular but entirely without limbs, wriggles implacably through the mud, a knife between his clenched teeth. The freaks, who have a strict code of mutual aid to protect themselves from the world of normal people, exact rough but highly poetic justice.

Despite being cut from ninety minutes to sixty-four, Freaks caused an uproar when it was released; the British censor, with typical lack of English sang-froid, banned it for thirty years. One woman tried to sue the studio, claiming the film had induced a miscarriage. The studio, MGM, removed Freaks from circulation, and Browning directed only four more films, of which only one is now generally remembered.

Still, The Devil Doll (1936) is eminently memorable. The screenwriters included Erich Von Stroheim and Guy Endore, author of the great horror novel, The Werewolf of Paris and translator of Hanns Heinz Ewers' Alraune. The film starred Lionel Barrymore as a man unjustly imprisoned on Devil's Island, who returns to wreak vengeance on the partners who swindled him. He escapes in the company of a well-meaning but slightly unhinged scientist, who has discovered a method of miniaturising human beings and wishes to use the technique to solve humanity's overpopulation problems. The scientist's equally well-meaning but even less hinged wife shares his idealistic dream, and there are inevitable disagreements. The minds of the miniaturised persons are wiped out during the shrinking process, so they can be controlled by telepathy and can carry poisoned stilettos to do the avenger's will. Posing as a harmless old lady, Barrymore sets up a toy shop as a cover for manufacturing the creatures, and uses them to divest his enemies of their ill-gotten gains and to extort their confessions so he can prove his own innocence to his daughter.

The Devil Doll is still thoroughly enjoyable, and the miniaturisation special effects (achieved by the simple expedient of building gigantic sets on MGM's biggest sound-stage) have aged very well. Unfortunately, the profits it made were not large enough to redeem Browning in the studio's eyes, and after one more film in 1939 (a comedy, Miracles for Sale) he did not direct again.

A lifelong baseball fanatic, Browning died in October 1962, with the World Series tied at one-all. The name "Charles Albert Browning" never passed before a projector lamp; the name he used was Tod Browning. Tod is German for death, and Scots for a fox or a trickster. There is a biography by David Skal and Elias Savada, aptly titled Dark Carnival.


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