Tod Browning’s Carnival Days

Yes, that Tod Browning. The original Gothic horror director, most famous for Dracula (1931), Freaks (1932) and a successful series of films starring Lon Chaney, got his start in vaudeville. Born this day in 1880, Browning was the nephew of baseball legend Pete Browning, for whom the “Louisville Slugger” was created. Browning started out producing penny shows for neighborhood kids in his native Louisville, much like the Little Rascals. He ran off with a carnival as a teenager, and for the next few years worked as a sideshow spieler, ringmaster, circus clown, contortionist, escape artist and something called a “Hypnotic Living Corpse” (think David Blaine — he would have himself buried in a coffin and remain entombed for a period of time). He also claimed to have worked as an assistant to the great magicians Leon Herriman and Ching Ling Foo. After this, he formed a blackface** act for vaudeville called Lizard and Coon. His partner was Roy C. Jones, whom he met in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair. They performed together for two years, then Browning worked as a single for a year, before teaming up with Al West for three years.

In 1912, he was cast in an old school burlesque show called The Whirl of Mirth, in which he got to portray Mutt from the comic strip Mutt and Jeff. It was this comic turn that brought him to the attention of film comedian Charlie Murray, who then hooked him up with D.W. Griffith at Biograph. The timing was fortuitous; Biograph’s principal comedian Mack Sennett had left the studio not long before. When Griffith moved west permanently in 1913, Browning was one of those who joined him. He started directing his own films in 1915. His career was interrupted for several months in June of that year due to a horrific car accident. He started directing again in 1917, enjoying a series of successes with films starring Priscilla Dean and others. The classic collaboration with Chaney begins with 1925’s The Unholy Three and also includes The Unknown (1927) and the now lost London After Midnight (1927).  (For my full post on Tod Browning’s and Lon Chaney’s horror collaborations go here).  Adverse reaction to 1932’s Freaks derailed his career; he made a handful of spotty features after that. His last film was 1939’s Love for Sale

Tod Browning resumed his famous corpse act permanently in 1962.

A rare plug for someone else’s book: The Secret World of Tod Browning by David Skal and Elias Savada, from which I derived most of the information in this post. Skal is awesome: my copy of his book Monster Show is not only signed but completely dog-eared. Authoritative, entertaining, all-encompassing–very much a model for my own book, and hopefully my future ones!  Also, he’s one of the talking heads on the Freaks DVD, as is our old pal Todd Robbins.  And just one more amazing tidbit: the author of the story Spurs, on which Freaks is based, was also named…wait for it…Tod Robbins (one D). For the curious, that story is posted in its entirety here.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville and vaudeville veterans like Tod Browningconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 


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