Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning by David J. Skal and Elias Savada

Anchor Books 1995 359 pp. 23.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


In our time the sideshow has shifted from the midway to the talk show. In an intervening moment-and oh, what a moment-blossomed the films of the master director of Hollywood's nightmares. Dark Carnival gives us an peek into the unhealthy life, times, drinking habits, unsettlingly Freudian visual obsessions, and films of a man who could be loved by only his mother and the French-Tod Browning.

Browning was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1880 and, astoundingly, attended the same school as D. W. Griffith (though no record exists of any boyhood acquaintance). His baseball-playing uncle Pete was responsible for the development of the Louisville slugger, and for consuming most of the beer in Louisville. Unfortunately for his Browning's biographers, outside of anecdote, little evidence remains of Tod's boyhood life and family relations.

He first married Amy Louise Stevens in 1906, but the union was short-lived since, according to some accounts, Browning was a no-good, money-borrowing layabout. Browning apparently abandoned his wife for vaudeville, and, after a murky period of traveling, he reappeared in Hollywood, with Alice Watson who, in 1917, became his second wife, and remained so until her death in 1944.

In 1913 Tod Browning became an actor in the movies, appearing in a rash of Biograph one-reelers, many of which, such as Nell's Eugenic Wedding, were written by the young Anita Loos. Within two years he was directing for the Majestic Motion Picture Corporation. Browning's big break (although he didn't know it at the time) came in 1914, when Browning was assigned as an assistant director to one of the sections of D. W. Griffith's Intolerance, his famous, but almost unwatchable follow-up to Birth of a Nation.

Browning really came into his own, however, owing to a pairing with the son of an impoverished deaf couple, an obscure actor named Leonidas Chaney. With Browning at the directorial helm, Leonidas became Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, whose roles relentlessly featured "corkscrew-limbed, rolling eyed" interpretations of doomed misfits. From The Wicked Darling in 1919 to 1930, when Lon Chaney was passed over for the lead in Dracula, the director and his star illuminated the dark corners of Browning's, and perhaps America's, heart.

In Browning's film, East is East, for example, we have illustrated "the essential themes of the Browning canon: marital estrangement; family secrets; sexual revenge; semi-incestuous relationships between parents and children; degraded, 'animalized' protagonists ... often deprived of normal human attributes like upright posture." In The Black Bird, The Unholy Three, The Road to Mandalay, and many others, Browning and Chaney brought to the surface what had only otherwise appeared in the German expressionist films of the period, opening up to the light of the American projector our darkest and most unsettling fantasies. In these films "characters wouldn't be merely wronged, guilty, or vengeful: they would also be scarred, crippled, or spectacularly mutilated."

Browning's best known film is, of course, Dracula (1931). Authors Skal and Savada provide insights into the casting decisions, production, and aftermath of this film. What may be for film fans his most interesting film, however, followed one year later: Freaks.

Freaks marks the culmination of Browning's unhealthy obsessions: set in a circus freak show, it tells the story of a midget and his attempts to win a "tall" woman as his bride. The film treats moviegoers to an unstinting look at the deformed, grotesque, and physically damned, creating an experience that many wished they didn't have. While critic Andrew Sarris called Freaks "one of the most compassionate films ever made," it bombed in the United States, and was banned in Britain for thirty years. For Browning, Freaks was "a sudden disfiguring wound from which his career would never recover."

In addition to being box office poison, Freaks exhibited Browning's inability to deal effectively with sound in films. While he continued to direct into the late thirties, his troubles with sound, as well as his life-long alcohol abuse, limited further achievement.

Despite its limitations, Freaks can be seen in the context of its time as an important film: "In the decade following World War I, when surrealist artists were distorting and rearranging the human form on canvas as a response to a shattering cataclysm, Browning, working far more instinctively than his contemporary artist-intellectuals, did something similar, on-screen, for the masses."

Indeed, for Skal and Savada, Browning's films exhibit a metaphysics of despair: "We are animals, con men, thieves, and vampires, Browning tells us in film after film, driven by overpoweringly primitive emotions-beyond any real freedom, much less dignity. Pain and alienation teach no lessons: they only madden."

Browning was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in 1962, and underwent an operation. "Mute and mutilated, he had arrived at, or regressed to, the silent-move state of speechless disfigurement that had been his obsession and his avatar."

The book suggests that Browning continued to influence other artists, notably, Diane Arbus, who, in 1958 photographed Browning, training "her lens on the flickering reciprocal gaze of Bela Lugosi in Dracula when it was first televised."

While Browning's films might be "considered red flags for a snap diagnosis of traumatic childhood abuse," Skal and Savada wisely refrain from derailing their narrative into the thickets of psychobabble. They have provided an extensive, ninety-page filmography. Compiled from slender biographical and film evidence, Dark Carnival succeeds in resurrecting the reputation of one of Hollywood's long-buried eccentrics.