At the Circus

The big-top movies of Tod Browning
by David Cairns  posted December 16, 2009
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Tod Browning belonged to the era when film directors came to the industry not from film school but from anywhere—they could be fliers, racers, used car salesmen. Browning came from show business, at least, but in a peculiar way. Running away from school and joining the circus, he was a whiteface clown and a blackface minstrel, a contortionist and a somnambulist ("The Living Hypnotic Corpse"). By the time he met D.W. Griffith, he was somehow an actor. But the sawdust was in his blood by now.

The circus is an obsessively recurring image in Browning's work, an oeuvre composed almost entirely, it seems, of obsessively recurring images. (The Unknown, The Show, and Freaks are being screened as part of the season "Non plus ultra! Cinema and Circus" at FilmMuseum München.) Disability and disfigurement, evil, revenge, perverse desire, and lust for money are Browning's themes, and they unspool in the claustrophobic half-world of the Hollywood soundstage, which doubles for Gothic castles, misty cemeteries, dingy garrets, sinister pet shops—and the big top, always the big top. While Fellini's vaguely threatening carnivals stem from a child's impression of the glamour and terror of the fairground (evoked most clearly in 1970's I Clowns), Browning offers a backstage view, reeking of horseshit and petty rivalries, rife with larceny and lust.

An actor in movies from 1909, a run that climaxed with a small role in Griffith's Intolerance, Browning began screenwriting in 1915, the year he cheated death when a car he was driving ploughed into a freight train. In those days before safety features, smash victims were often impaled, Dracula-fashion, on the steering column, or slashed by torn metal. Author David Skal suggests that Browning may have been castrated in the crash: a psycho-physical explanation of the abjection and aberrance of so much of Browning's cinema.

With Griffith and Anita Loos, he penned the notoriously bizarre The Mystery of the Leaping Fish for Douglas Fairbanks the following year. In this deeply warped, unfunny, yet strangely bewitching comedy, Fairbanks plays the world's greatest consulting detective, Coke Ennyday, who lives among barrels of cocaine and wears a bandolier full of syringes to keep himself high as a kite while solving cases. "Notoriously bizarre" is a useful summation of the best of Browning's work, but he perhaps wisely avoided outright comedy from here on.

Given Browning's interests, it seems both essential and inevitable that he hooked up with Lon Chaney, king of the bizarre. Chaney would twice play tragic clowns for other directors, and Browning lost no time uniting his star with the seamier fringes of showbiz. In The Unholy Three (1925), Chaney plays a former circus artist who uses his ventriloquial skills to sell mute canaries while dragged up as an old woman. It's all part of a bizarre crime racket that ends in murder, and Chaney returns to the sawdust and tinsel of the ring. It's scary out there.

The Unknown (1927) is Browning's first fully circus-based drama, however, and something is unleashed. It's often said that this film has the strangest plot on record, and a bald summary does much to explain its skewed appeal. Chaney plays Alonzo, an armless knife thrower besotted with the frigid Joan Crawford (very young here, and very... corporeal). She can't bear to be touched; he has no hands: an ideal match. But Alonzo has a secret, or rather two—a pair of arms, strapped behind his back by his diminutive sidekick, perfectly normal save for the double thumb on one hand, a distinguishing mark that may see him arrested for strangling an enemy. Cunningly, Alonzo has the arms removed by surgery and returns to claim his love, who alas for him has overcome her man-phobia in the embrace of the circus strongman. Revenge! Alonzo plots to reduce the strongman to his own armless condition, with the assistance of wild horses.

As in the Chaney vehicle West of Zanzibar (1928), the whole story, bizarre as it is, hinges on a moment of revelation when Chaney discovers that fate has tricked him (in the subsequent film, he discovers the girl he has ruined is not his enemy's daughter, but his own). His performance here goes beyond conventional overacting, into some impossible extreme that seemingly tries to transcend what can be expressed through the human face and body. The contorted, frozen, gradually twisting and melting features, finally dissolving into insane laughter, suggest a man actually attempting to evict his soul from his body, or call upon phantom limbs to avenge him, or unmake reality by sheer force of bug-eyed will.

It's easy to see why this film wowed them in 1927 (it continues to flabbergast). What's surprising is the amount of grief Browning gets as a director. This mainly seems to stem from his sometimes sloppy handling of 1931's Dracula, a project he'd once envisaged making with Chaney but which went to Bela Lugosi after the great star's early death. Browning, it's said, delivers great bizarre ideas, but ruins them with flat and shoddy filming.

Yet The Unknown fairly crackles with compositional power and moves with force despite a generally static camera. In Chaney he had found an actor who could dramatize absurdities with total conviction. While the star had a talent, visible in all his films, for contorting his body to add weight and tension to any frame, Browning must be credited with a congruent ability for fashioning extraordinarily dramatic shots around his actors' bodies. It's apparent with John Gilbert's cinched, angular torso and long limbs in The Show, and it's exploited to the furthest extreme with the variously shaped performers of Freaks.

The Show, made the same year as The Unknown, posits Gilbert as showman Cock Robin, Renée Adorée as his lover, and Lionel Barrymore as the jealous villain who attempts to turn Gilbert's nightly decapitation, part of a John the Baptist Grand Guignol show, into the real thing. When that fails, he resorts, naturally enough, to a deadly gila monster to poison his foe. Browning distorts Wilde's Salome, already banned for blasphemy, into something truly perverse, by having the actors playing John and Salome become lovers in their offstage life. So when Salome steals a kiss from the severed head of the prophet, the head noticeably leans in to return the kiss.

"The Show" itself has a double meaning, standing for Gilbert's carnival, with its fake mermaid, spider-woman, and half-woman (a forerunner of Johnny Eck in Freaks, whose truncated torso is the real deal), and also for the performance Gilbert is forced to give when, on the run from the law, he must pretend to be a blind man's long-lost son, an act that requires him simply to do what silent-movie stars do best—stay dumb. In a plot contrivance that seems to deliberately fling mud in the face of credibility, Gilbert is "reunited" with his "father" just as the real son is being hanged for murder in the prison yard across the street, visible to Gilbert but not of course to the father, who dies of joy at being in the presence of "his boy" again, thereby vanishing from the plot, which can then get back to the gila monster.

Next to these extravaganzas of careless plotting and wild sensation, the infamous Freaks (1932) might almost be expected to disappoint, since its plot—a sexy trapeze artist marries a midget for his money and poisons him—seems virtually routine, plausible, decent, by comparison with previous Browning outrages. But no. Browning's relentless parade of human oddities—in which mere bearded ladies and hermaphrodites count for very little next to the living skeleton, the man with half a body, the pinheads, and the human torso—ensures the film stays freaky to its dying seconds. And Browning's mercurial attitude toward his subject—horrifying us, inviting us to laugh, winning our sympathy, then horrifying us again while retaining our sympathy—creates a dynamic spectrum of emotion that prevents the film from ever seeming merely like a cabinet of curiosities, despite Browning's boxy compositions and the cramped interiors of caravans where he shoots much of the action.

All Browning's early talkies—séance-mystery The Thirteenth Chair (1929), Dracula, and Freaks—showcase the flaky joys and birth pangs of sound cinema, with actors veering from ham enunciation to flip wisecrackery, awkward silences yawning like sunless chasms, and camera movement the last resort of the desperate man. But Browning already preferred silence, artifice, and stillness. In The Show he dollies only to show the movement of feet on floorboards, in order to make us "hear" a sound effect that isn't there. In Freaks he tracks along with Johnny Eck to make it absolutely clear that the actor's lack of a bottom half is no illusion. And then he tracks with the "slimy freaks" through a mud-slicked rainstorm as they enact their nameless revenge on those who have dared wrong one of their kind.

Browning's surreal coda, in which, through unexplained means, Cleopatra the Queen of the Air is transmogrified into Cleopatra the Chicken Lady, a legless, feathered, croaking abomination, shows his commitment to the grotesque breaking through in the most unlikely way, an 11th-hour changing of the story's rules. (Deleted footage was rumored to show Cleo's strongman lover, now castrated by the freaks, singing in a high voice.) It's a magnificent conclusion. Your sense of yourself as somehow decisively different from the deformed cast is undermined: you could easily be "one of us." 


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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
The Show, directed by Tod Browning
Photo Gallery: At the Circus


Tod Browning


David Cairns is a writer, director, and blogger. His short film Cry For Bobo (2001) has won 24 awards around the world. He has written for several UK TV series including Intergalactic Kitchen and Twisted Tales. His articles have appeared in The Village Voice, The Believer, and Senses of Cinema.

More articles by David Cairns
Author's Website: Shadowplay