Tod Browning’s films were often unsettling, shocking and disturbing. They were populated with freaks, geeks, carny folk, ruthless people and vampires. Though his best-known film is 1931’s “Dracula,” with Bela Lugosi, his greatest productions were his collaboration with the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” Lon Chaney. So it seems only appropriate that two of his legendary films with Chaney: 1925’s “The Unholy Three” and 1927’s “The Unknown” open “American Gothic: A Tod Browning Retrospective” on Thursday evening at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre.
Born in Louisville, Ky., in 1880, Browning began performing and singing as a youngster. He ran away from home at 16 and joined a circus, where he went from carnival baker to contortionist. Many of his films revolve around circuses. He later went into vaudeville and was introduced to D.W. Griffith in 1913 by an old vaudeville partner. Browning began appearing in comedic roles in Griffith’s films and eventually was an assistant director on his 1916 masterpiece “Intolerance.” He co-directed his first feature, “Jim Bludso” in 1917 and turned out a series of forgettable melodramas for Metro and Universal. But Browning found a kindred spirit in Chaney when they collaborated for the first time on the 1919 film “The Wicked Darling.”
It was MGM where the Browning-Chaney collaboration jelled. “The Unholy Three,” which screens Thursday, was the first of Browning’s 16 films with MGM and revolves around three warped characters who work in a sideshow: Chaney plays the ventriloquist Echo, Victor McLaglen is Hercules the strongman, and Harry Earles is Tweedledee, a little person with a hot temper. They join forces to commit a series of daring evening robberies. But during the day, they pretend to be an “ordinary” family who owns a pet shop. Chaney transforms into the kindhearted elderly Mother O’Grady, Earles turns into her infant grandson, and McLaglen is her son. Rounding out the family is a pickpocket (Mae Busch) and a vicious gorilla. Though the studio initially thought that “The Unholy Three” was a low-budget B-picture, it performed so well at the box office that Browning was given a contract at the studio and went on to direct seven more films with Chaney. As for Chaney, “The Unholy Three” would return in his life as a grim final note — he remade the film, this time directed by Jack Conway, as his only talkie before his untimely death in 1930.
In “The Unknown,” Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless Wonder, the star of a popular circus sideshow who has a knife-throwing act. Being without arms, of course, Alonzo has to throws the knives with his feet. A young Joan Crawford plays his assistant, Nanon, who hates the touch of any man’s hands. Alonzo is madly in love with her and, even though he is a wanted fugitive, his obsession with Nanon anchors him to the circus despite the danger. The ending is pure Grand Guignol.
Universal hired Browning to direct its version of the Broadway hit “Dracula,” which screens Friday at the Aero. Browning immediately went to his friend Chaney to play the bloodthirsty count, but the actor’s death led to a turning point moment for a new superstar of horror. Universal dismissed Browning’s desire to cast an unknown and handed the role to a Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi, who had scored a hit on Broadway in the play based on the Bram Stoker novel. Just like Browning’s silent films, “Dracula” would be imbued with terrifically atmospheric sequences, especially when Renfield (Dwight Frye) arrives at the castle. The movie also features evocative cinematography from Karl Freund, who the following year would direct the horror classic “The Mummy” and would later be the director of photography on the classic television series “I Love Lucy.”
Screening with “Dracula” on Friday is 1935’s “Mark of the Vampire,” which is nearly a scene-by-scene remake of the long-missing 1927 Browning-Chaney thriller “London After Midnight.” Lionel Barrymore plays a professor of demonology and Lionel Atwill is a police inspector in Czechoslovakia investigating a murder that could have been caused by vampires. Lugosi also stars.
On tap for Saturday is Browning’s controversial 1932 MGM production, “Freaks,” which shocked critics and was banned in the United Kingdom for 30 years. The film revolves around a trapeze artist and a strongman who plot to kill a sideshow member to gain his inheritance. Besides Earles and his sister, Daisy Earles, as Hans and Frieda, the film features the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton; sisters Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow as “the pinheads” Zip and Pip; and Prince Randian as the human torso. Following “Freaks” is his 1936 horror revenge thriller, “The Devil-Doll,” with Barrymore as a prison escapee who shrinks human to the size of dolls. The script was co-written by Erich von Stroheim.
Browning found himself a victim of changing tastes and struggled with the career-smothering perception that he was only a horror-film director. His last film was the forgettable 1939 “Miracles for Sale,” and soon after he retired from the screen. Browning, who became a recluse , contracted throat cancer in the 1950s and died in 1962 at the age of 82.
— Susan King
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