The Mystery and Horror of Lon Chaney and Tod Browning

Tod Browning directs Lon Chaney and Friend
Tod Browning directs Lon Chaney and Friend

When I said yesterday that the Americans didn’t take a back seat to the Germans in the business of morbidity and horror  even during the 1920s, I was thinking chiefly of director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney (click on their highlighted names for full biographical posts on each).

Both men were troupers with years of stage experience in vaudeville and melodrama. Both had worked in silent films for several years at the time of their first collaboration. And both were pathologically obsessed with themes of suffering, deception and physical deformation. They did amazing work apart from each other; when they worked together, it was less like a chemical reaction than an overlap of compatible sensibilities. The two were in perfect sync. Their first collaboration was a crime/ romance melodrama called The Wicked Darling (1919). It would be six years until they were reunited. Browning had suffered a major setback in the intervening time: his father died, Browning subsequently went into a spiral of drinking, his marriage broke up and he was fired from his job at Universal.

In the meantime, Chaney continued to build his own reputation. In 1919 he was the stand out in the screen adaptation of George M. Cohan’s The Miracle Man, playing a contortionist named The Frog. His physicalality and make-up work gained him notice and from here until the end of his life a decade later he would only build on this legend.

These are by no means all of the films either of the two men made, alone or together. They worked in other genres outside of mystery and horror, usually melodrama, but that’s outside the scope of today’s topic. But, man, what a mind-blowing body of work this is!


The Penalty (1920)

With its themes of crime and mutilation, this sure feels like a Tod Browning film, but it was directed by  Wallace Worsley. In a prologue scene, a child’s legs are amputated below the knee. Then the doctor learns from a more learned colleague that he had done the operation needlessly! The boy overhears. Many years later the boy (now a maimed monster) is at the head of the criminal underworld. And he is finally moving to get his revenge on the quack who took his legs. He becomes an artist’s model to the surgeon’s daughter, a sculptor. To fuel his ire, she uses his image to make a bust of “pure evil”. Meanwhile the lady secret agent who goes undercover to arrest him falls in love with him. We learn that he is actually very sensitive and knowledgeable about art and music. In the end the doctor operates on him, but doesn’t restore his legs…he restores his brain. (The accident that crippled him also damaged his brain, thus his violent tendencies). That’s fine doc, but now do the legs!


The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

This film is often said to have launched Universal Studios’ cycle of legendary horror pictures. Technically it’s not a horror film, the story of Hugo’s epic novel is so much broader in scope than that, but our main take-away does wind up being Chaney’s horrific make-up and his stirring performance. The movie’s success prompted the studio to go on to make The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the first of their self-described horror films per se. And its “sympathy for the monster” theme would provide a template for another true horror film Frankenstein, a few years later.

As we say, the deformed hunchback is at the fore of our experience of the film…we impatiently await Chaney’s scenes. He is not just hunchbacked, but some sort of sub-human, ape-like mental defective, his hair a tangled ‘fro, his face covered in boils and lumps, and one dead eye. He seems almost like a demon. But at the same time, thanks to Chaney’s performance, we see his pain underneath it all and empathize with him. In one scene the make-up extends to a fake naked, hairy torso as he is whipped and we feel his agony. The sets are incredible, we get a real sense of the size of the cathedral. Chaney crawls all up and down it like an ape in the trees, swinging on and ringing his bell.

Unfortunately most of the film is taken up with boring plot-matter…satisfying enough to read in a novel, but frustrating in a silent movie. At the center is the beautiful gypsy girl Esmerelda (Patsy Ruth Miller), who is loved not only by Quasimodo, but by a cruel priest, a revolutionary, a poet, and the noble, prissy-looking Phoebus, who finally gets the girl. And the exciting climax in the tower…in many ways, this remains the definitive cinematic version, including even Charles Laughton’s later remake.


He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

This more a tragic melodrama than a horror tale, but the grotesquery of the clown hero, and the themes of revenge bring it mighty close.

It’s the very acme of over-the-top storytelling, based on the play by Leonid Andreyev and directed by Swedish director Victor Sjöström (rendered “Seastrom” in most American advertising). In this one Chaney plays a scientist whose life’s work AND girlfriend are stolen by a devilish Baron, who compounds the humiliation by slapping him in front of all his colleagues, who then proceed to laugh at him. Traumatized, he naturally becomes a circus clown whose entire job is to re-enact this same humiliation night after night after night. THEN, to top it off, that Baron shows up one night and begins attempting to steal the NEW love of his life (Norma Shearer). This of course is too much and Chaney does what he can to prevent it. But this is a tragedy — don’t go looking for a happy ending. Also in the cast are John Gilbert and two honest-to-God clowns, Ford Sterling and Clyde Cook. This was one of the first movies released by the newly-formed MGM.


The Monster (1925)

A Crane Wilbur script, directed by Roland West.  Motorists are ambushed on a lonely stretch of road by means of a diabolical trap:a mirror is loaded into the middle of road at night. Seeing their own headlights reflected in the mirror, the drivers swerve and have accidents, and then the victims are loaded down a trap door into a subterranean lair. It’s all run by Chaney, as a mysterious “doctor” supposedly in charge of the local sanitarium. Three young people wind up in his snare, and learn what has happened. Chaney was once a patient there and staged a coup. The actual sanitarium head and his staff were overpowered and tied up. The heroes finally turn the tables and escape. Also Chaney has a confederate named “Caliban”, who is killed in an electric chair at the big finish.


The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Chaney devised his most famous make-up for his portrayal of the Phantom in this adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1909 novel.  The scene is the Paris Opera House. We hear of rumors of occasional sightings of a mysterious Phantom who lives beneath the theatre. At the same time, there is a mysterious man who frequents the opera; he always hides his face and rents the same box. He terrorizes the company in order to promote the career of a girl he loves (Mary Philbin) – forcing the producers to let her sing lead parts, and threatening her main rival, the company’s prima donna (Virginia Pearson). When the rival sings, a HUGE chandelier falls on the audience. The mysterious man means business. Finally, he meets the girl. She is thrilled at first, but gradually becomes uneasy as she sees the weird mask he wears and he leads her deeper and deeper into a remote sub-basement of the theatre, five levels down and then across a “black lake” which evokes the River Styx… into his sumptuous subterranean apartment (a trope borrowed for everything from the Batcave to V for Vendetta). He sleeps in a coffin. And he plays a pipe organ, a device which has been copied by a million movie villains since. Then she pulls his mask off, revealing one of the most iconic, horrific make-ups ever.

The Phantom’s emotion is not really love, of course. It is just obsession and resentment—the Phantom is the original stalker. He agrees to release her to sing again but she must never again see her former lover (Norman Kerry). Of course she does, and the Phantom catches her in the act. There follows wonderful scene in color, conjuring Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”—a costume ball. The Phantom kidnaps her again, this time pursued by her lover and a policeman. They encounter booby traps along the way. Torture chambers from the revolution. They become trapped in one room filled with unbearable heat. They escape but they find themselves in another room, filled with water, nearly drowning them. Meanwhile a mob approaches, a climax conjuring the one in the previously successful Hunchback. In the end they catch the Phantom, kill him and throw him in the river.

Directed by Rupert Julian, the original Phantom of the Opera is a lean, perfect bit of fairy tale storytelling, and remains the gold standard not just for versions of this particular story, and not just for horror, but for how to make a movie. One measure of this is the fact that people continue to watch THIS version, and for the most part don’t bother with the many subsequent versions, in spite of the addition of theoretical improvements like sound and color. There is no substitute for powerful pictures and good storytelling.


The Unholy Three (1925) 

And now finally, only after all that water has passed under the bridge are Todd Browning and Lon Chaney reunited. Chaney was a big star; Browning had to prove himself. And he does make a memorable impression in this exceedingly strange film. Based on a novel by Tod Robbins (the same guy who wrote the story which Freaks is based onThe Unholy Three casts Chaney as a criminal ventriloquist whose best job is making pet-shop parrots seem to talk. He also goes around dressed in drag, and is in cahoots with a midget (Harry Earles) who pretends to be a baby, a strong man (Victor McLaglen) and a sexy vamp (Mae Busch). Eventually, remorse, romance and the law combine to stop their criminal careers.


The Mystic (1925)

Directed by Browning, this is a tale of a gypsy fortune teller who conspires to steal a wealthy woman’s estate by manipulating her with fake seances. Chaney is not in the cast.


The Show (1927)

Directed by Browning, again without Chaney. Again, not a horror film, but it comes awfully close and with its carnival setting and ghastly illusions is another partial precursor to Freaks. Here John Gilbert is the outside talker for a sideshow, and also works as the head of John the Baptist in a Salome number. A rivalry over Salome (Renée Adorée) . His rival (Lionel Barrymore) is known only as the Greek. The Greek tries to chop his head off for real during the Salome number. The issue is finally settled by the intervention of a poisonous lizard.


The Unknown (1927)

An unbearably painful and equally implausible melodrama, and another of Browning’s dry runs for Freaks, originally entitled Alonzo the Armless. Chaney is a side show performer who pretends to be without arms.  He does this because it’s an excellent qualification for working in a sideshow and because he is in love with a girl (Joan Crawford) who hates arms! In the ultimate act of sacrifice he actually has his arms taken off. Then she gets over her fear of arms and falls in love with another performer, leaving Chaney both armless…and without a girl to hold in his arms anyway! Ay! Caramba!


London After Midnight (1927)

Technically this is a lost film, from Browning’s silent period, long thought of as among the Holy Grails of lost films. This is because it has one of star Lon Chaney’s most famous “looks”, one of his greatest make-up creations, certainly up there with Phantom of the Opera. I knew this film’s reputation even as a kid, based strictly on photographic stills of him in that costume. The version that is available now is a re-creation, more of a slide show really, painstakingly stitched together from still photos. I was so excited to finally see it — but was disappointed. Not in the method, but in the story itself. Chaney’s make-up is overkill; the movie (the same plot as Mark of the Vampire, see below) didn’t deserve that excellent make-up. You want a true horror movie — the guy looks like a combination of Nosferatu and Jack the Ripper. But it’s just a silly murder mystery in the end with a preposterous explanation. On the other hand, it is Browning’s first vampire movie (even though it is a fake vampire) and a glimpse into what Dracula might have been like with Chaney in the role.


West of Zanzibar (1928)

If not horror it comes darned close to it, with many of Browning’s themes firmly in place. Much like H.P. Lovecraft, both Browning and Chaney were obsessed with foreigners as sinister others, and that obsession informs this film (and some of the others we haven’t mentioned in this post). Here Chaney plays a magician whose wife (and assistant) gets stolen by Lionel Barrymore. They have a fight, and Chaney falls off a balcony. We see him several years later, now a cripple who gets around on a skateboard. He comes upon his ex-wife dying in a church, and takes the baby from her arms. Thinking the baby must be the daughter of Barrymore, he has her raised in a whorehouse for revenge. Meanwhile he lives in the congo jungle, harassing Barrymore by stealing his elephant tusks. Finally he is planning the big reveal, going to show Barrymore what he has done to his daughter. Only it turns out that it was his OWN daughter! But the natives all think she is Barrymore’s daughter and he has also just killed Barrymore. The natives have a tradition of burning the living family members along with the dead. Chaney contrives to allow her to escape using his disappearing cabinet trick. In the end the natives aren’t fooled, and they approach Chaney, primed to boil him in a big pot.


Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)

Loretta Young was all of 14 when she played Lon Chaney’s love interest in this creepy but tragic romance, directed by Herbert Brenon. Based on an earlier stage play by David Belasco, and starring Lionel Barrymore, Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) tells the story of Tito, a circus clown who finds a baby and raises her as his daughter (Young).

When she grows to young womanhood Tito has the horrible predicament of falling in love with her — the creep! If that weren’t dilemma enough, the girl falls in love with a rich, young suitor. Tito solves it all (I can hardly be spoiling it, can I? the ending is pretty famous) with a spectacular death scene in front of a crowded circus audience. This story is one of the origins of the “sad clown” motif, and the film was the origin of the popular song by the same name. Nils Asther also in the cast.


The Thirteenth Chair (1929)

Browning’s last film with Chaney was Where East is East (1929), not a horror film, although Browning’s revulsion at Asians and his manner of portraying them comes close to the genre. After that, he directed Bayard Veillard’s mystery The Thirteenth Chair, starring Veillard’s wife Margaret Wycherly, and two future stars of Browning pictures, Bela Lugosi (Dracula, Mark of the Vampire) and Leila Hyams (Freaks). The beauty of silence is that Lugosi can be a leading man without his accent getting in the way. Here, he plays a detective who uses a seance to solve a murder.


The Unholy Three (1930)

A remake of the classic 1925 Browning-Chaney partnership, reuniting Chaney with little person Harry Earles. Ironically, though it was Chaney’s last film, and only talkie, Browning did not direct it. Chaney died of cancer right after this film was made, otherwise we might have had the joy of seeing him in Dracula and Freaks. 


Dracula (1931)

Ironically, though this is the best known film bearing Browning’s name as director (both the film and its star Bela Lugosi are much better known than Browning, I’ll wager), this is also one of Browning’s least characteristic films. (And reportedly cinematographer Karl Freund did much of the directing.) This is too important a horror film to gloss over her. Look for a post entirely devoted to the Dracula phenomenon in the days to come. We can only pause to speculate about what sort of Dracula Lon Chaney might have made with his penchant for grotesque make-up — something closer to that in London After Midnight, or more like Nosferatu?


Freaks (1932) 

The ultimate Tod Browning film—the one in which he finally went too far! The freak show to end all freak shows—no real life side show ever boasted this many or this diverse a menu of freaks. In a way, the film represents the culmination of the entire history of sideshows although the makers couldn’t have known it at the time.  The freak show was about to die. This movie puts the period on the form even as it catches it on celluloid. But did it also cause the downfall? At any rate, where else can you see all at the same time: Wallace Ford (in what would have been a perfect role for Chaney — a carnival clown), Leila Hyams (daughter of Hyams and McIntyre), Olga Baclanova, stuttering Rosco Ates, Harry and Daisy Earles of the Doll Family, half-man Johnny Eck, the conjoined Hilton Sisters, Schlitzie the Pinhead, Koo-Koo the Bird Girl (and Elizabeth Green the other Bird Girl), he/she Josephine Joseph, limbless Prince Randian, pinheads Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow, armless Frances O’Connor, living skeleton Peter Robinson, little person Angelo Rossitto, and bearded lady Olga Roderick? Nowhere, that’s where!

The plot can be summed up in a sentence almost. It has what I call the Hop Frog plot, after the famous story by Edgar Allan Poe (the film is actually based on the story Spurs by Todd Robbins). Such a plot consists of the ugly revenge by an outcast upon the powerful people who once ridiculed him. A most satisfying, primal and barbaric form of entertainment. In this, a midget(Earles) is cruelly used by the beautiful Cleopatra (Baclanova). She toys with him. When she learns he is rich, she marries him and tries to poison him. And  then…the terrifying revenge of the freaks.

Though it is priceless and indispensable and endlessly rewarding, the film always was and always will be a mess. Because many of the cast are freaks and/ or foreign you really can’t hear a good half of the dialogue. But anyway, dialogue never was Browning’s forte, it’s about the pictures. Still, the tone of the film is confusing….we side with the freaks but we also are made to identify with the villains (the beautiful trapeze artist and strong man) when their revenge comes…it is a nightmare, being pursued on a rainy night by creatures crawling through the mud. At back of it—we recognize it as our own comeuppance for being cruel to those born different, the reckoning we always suspected would come. If the film is so accepting of freaks (as many claim it is, and the early scenes seem to be), I’m not sure the film-makers would also depict freaks as our nightmare at the climax of the film. But it is smart. We are complicit in this exploitation. Every few scenes the plot stops so we can have a gratuitously theatrical scene with freaks where we see them do amazing things, just as we would in a sideshow.

We accept her, we accept her, gooble gobble, gooble gobble!!!!


Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Essentially a remake of Browning’s 1927 London After Midnight. Not a good film, though a good and weird one! Seems to be set in Czechoslovakia. A baron has been killed, presumably by vampires from a nearby castle. Browning revisits much of Dracula here, right down to the recapitulation of certain scenes. Lionel Atwill as some sort of investigator, frequent Browning collaborator Lionel Barrymore as a Van Helsing-like vampire expert. It is clearly a vampire movie for most of the film.  Bela Lugosi plays the count…never speaking. And he has a daughter, a sort of early template for Vampira, Lily Munster, et al. Many scenes of the usual slow moving bats on fishing wire changing into vampires and so forth. One very cool shot—the only one in the movie—of the vampire daughter flying into the castle as a giant bat. Then the movie stops on a dime and the entire reality changes. It turns out to be a conventional murder investigation. Barrymore hypnotizes the suspect and forces him to relive the crime. It turns out the vampires are hired actors; the guardian of the murdered man’s daughter murdered the baron with poison.  Talk about being short-changed! Surely this ending must have left audiences grumbling!


The Devil Doll (1936)

This is a film I’m afraid can be placed squarely in the “bad” category, but I do have an affection for it, and watch it every time it comes on. Neither excellent as horror nor as camp, The Devil Doll is an illustration not only of Browning’s decline but also of the decline of the original classic wave of early horror pictures. The original concept sounds like it had been promising, called The Witch of Timbuktoo and based on a story called “Burn, Witch, Burn” (Later made into a British film in the early 1960s), it was originally a voodoo tale, as the film’s eventual title bears witness to. But various elements within the studio system lobbied to have the voodoo element—and all reference to Africans—expunged. The story Browning’s drunken imagination eventually produced has falsely imprisoned banker Lionel Barrymore and his fellow inmate, a benevolent scientist, escaping from Devil’s Island. The scientist lets Barrymore in on his research: a plan to reduce living creatures to a sixth of their normal size so that world hunger will no longer be a problem. Unfortunately, the scientist dies, allowing Barrymore to use the technique in order to pursue his own aim—revenge on the crooks who framed him for embezzling. Humunculi are dispatched to stab the victims with tiny stilettos to paralyze and/or shrink them. The uncanny quality of the tiny people and animals is fairly enthralling and one of the film’s few saving graces. The other gimmick – that of Barrymore in disguise as an old woman – might be funny if it wasn’t played so straight. The consummate technical actor, Barrymore even invests his old lady with a French accent, which none of the other characters, equally French, don’t have. In the end he is exonerated. The laboratory explodes in a big ball of flame, and Barrymore has a weepy, covert rapprochement with his estranged daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan) in a somewhat tedious epilogue.


Miracles for Sale (1939)

Tod Browning’s last film is surprisingly normal seeming and mainstream, although it still gets plenty weird, come to think of it. It tells of a very convoluted but entertaining mystery solved by magician Robert Young. Young’s house is a veritable fun house of tricks and gadgets…but so also is every other house the main characters go to, including the murder scene…in which one magician is killed by another magician! Just to cloud everything up a little the cast of magicians is rounded out by psychics. At any rate, the film wasn’t enough to rescue Browning’s ailing career, which had never recovered from the disaster of Freaks. He was to live another 23 years, but sadly was never entrusted with the direction of another film.

One comment

  1. Oh, The Unknown, that’s one that gave me nightmares after I saw it.

    I didn’t realize Devil Doll was a Tod Browning film. I rather liked it, even if there isn’t really a lot to the film.


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