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The Browning Version

If ever an actor and a director shared the same wavelength, it was Lon Chaney and Tod Browning, shown above in a publicity still from “The Road to Mandalay.” But there are perhaps some distinctions to be made, even within their tight collaboration, focused on themes of sado-masochism and physical difference. Although both men are inextricably bound to the horror genre, they seemed to share a suspicion of the supernatural and the uncanny, preferring instead to focus on the horrors of human nature, particularly in its capacity to inflict and absorb pain in the name of love. But where Chaney seemed to sympathize with his characters as human beings whose emotions and appearances had been deformed by experience, Browning seemed more intrigued by degradation for its own sake, as a spectacle to be consumed and relished. Some further thoughts along these lines in this week’s New York Times column, occasioned by the release or three Browning-Chaney collaborations (“The Blackbird,” “West of Zanzibar,” “Where East Is East”) and one of Chaney’s “straight” vehicles, George Hill’s “Tell It to the Marines,” in which he plays the tough drill sergeant who makes a man out of William Haines.

Folks in the New York area might be interested in a panel discussion to be held this Wednesday, June 6 at 6 pm at the Italian Cultural Institute (686 Park Avenue at 69th Street) taking off from the excellent Spaghetti Western series currently unfolding at Film Forum. I’ll be participating, along with some actual experts: Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, the co-curator of the Film Forum program; J. Hoberman, the distinguished critic; the producer and director William Lustig, who has imported several important Spaghettis for his Blue Underground label; and the great Tony Musante, the Bridgeport, Connecticut native and Northwestern University graduate who starred in one of the genre’s most powerful and politically charged achievements, Sergio Corbucci’s “The Mercenary” (1968). Admission is free but reservations are suggested, at 212-879-4242, ext. 362.

45 comments to The Browning Version

  • Johan Andreasson

    The observation in the NY Times review that Lon Chaney had essentially only one story to tell is very true.

    I just looked up what William K. Everson had to say about the Chaney/Browning movies in ”The American Silent Film” and he’s pretty harsh: ”They are so formularized, so interchangeable in plot and characters, that their popular success is hard to explain. One can only attribute it to the incredible pantomimic performances of Lon Chaney, who certainly salvaged them from their mediocrity, and to the fact that they were all so short and inexpensive that they could hardly help but make money.”

    I don’t think the popular success, and the lasting appeal of the films, is all that hard to explain. What I do get from the Chaney/Browning movies, that comes as much from Browning as from Chaney, is a strong sense of what music critic Greil Marcus called The Old, Weird America: a term he coined to describe the often eerie country, blues, and folk music featured on the album ”Anthology of American Folk Music”. The songs may seem repetitive, but the artists, who in many cases shared Browning’s background in sideshows, brings a lot of personality and atmosphere to their performances which make them spellbinding. And by that I don’t mean that Browning was a primitive filmmaker. Both BLACKBIRD and WEST OF ZANZIBAR (the two films in the NY Times piece that I’ve seen) show a highly skilled visual storyteller.

  • david hare

    Dave, While I am loath to be pointlessly vulgar, I feel obliged to make the observation that Browning is most definitely packing what they ( or you or whoever) once called a “rod” in his pocket. Now it may be not so big, or whatever.
    And this may or may not have anything to do with the subject at hand. But then never mind me (fussing away…) Personally I think it does.

  • Or maybe he’s just glad to see Lon!

  • Barry Putterman

    I would like to second Dave’s enthusiasm for THE MERCENARY. If you see just ONE film in this Film Forum series…you know the rest. Unfortunately, my work day doesn’t end until six. So on Wednesday I will have to settle for having spaghetti for dinner instead.

    I’ve never been much for the Browning/Chaney films, but again, I think Dave is very perceptive in linking them to the strain of teenage meloncholia which is currently flourishing in today’s super-hero films. Halloween costumes come in many forms and sizes.

  • May one offer a different take on super-heroes?
    It is a psychology cliche to suggest reading super-heroes is motivated by power fantasies, especially in young people.
    But at least three other interpretations of super-heroes and secret identities are possible.

    Superheroes can stand for minority groups, who are persecuted, have to hide themselves “passing” as majority members of society, but who secretly have great gifts. There is now a huge literature on superheroes as metaphors for Jews, and as metaphors for gay people.
    The inventors of Superman, Siegel and Shuster, were penniless young Jewish men coping with the Depression in the early 1930’s.
    Michael Chabon in “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”:
    “Superman, you don’t think he’s Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself.”
    Some comic books lay this imagery on intensively, notably the X-Men.
    The way Superman’s home planet Krypton is an advanced world of science, can stand for all the remarkable contributions Jews have made to science.

    Secondly, superheroes are metaphors for people with creativity in science or the arts. Such people have great powers within them. But they often meet persecution or misunderstanding from society. Think of Van Gogh in LUST FOR LIFE.

    Third, superheroes are metaphors for human individuality. Superman is unique – he is not like anyone else. He has not fit himself into the “Little Boxes” of conformity. He stands for all people who have strong, highly individual personalities.

    Finally, it might be a good idea to point out again how many great comic book stories have been written about superheroes since Siegel and Shuster invented them in the 1930’s. Superhero comic books are one of the world’s great cultural resources. Many are extraordinary works of art.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Mike, I basically agree with you. Superheroes is a genre like any other, and as is often quite correctly said on this site the most common mistake of critics if we look back is to dismiss genre work. In my book Jack Cole’s Plastic Man is a major work of art in any context.

    The only problem I have with superheroes is Americans obsession with them. First American mainstream comics became synonymous with superheroes, and now the same thing seems to be happening with American blockbuster movies. Where is Cecil B. DeMille when we need him?

  • Barry Putterman

    Mike, to quote the title of an old comedy album: “When You’re in Love, the Whole World is Jewish.” The thing that always got me about Superman is that all the guy ever did was take his glasses off and nobody ever recognized him. Just once, couldn’t somebody say; “You know, don’t you think that Superman looks an awful lot like Clark Kent without his glasses?” What would Lon Chaney have thought?

    In any event, I’d say that there is more than enough room for all three of your readings in the super-hero genre. But, in what way do they change the general dynamic? In all of those cases we are still dealing with people who perceive themselves to be outwardly powerless and inwardly special. Then it becomes a matter of how the fantasy is going to play itself out. Which is where the potential artistry comes in.

    Like I said, Halloween costumes come in many forms and sizes.

  • Oliver_C

    For all that the superhero genre has achieved, its unshakeable domination and perpetuation (regurgitation?) is one of the great disasters of American comic books. Even more so than E C Segar’s early death, the Comics Code Authority and the assimilation of Earth-2.

  • Alex

    Mike Grost,

    Well on Jewish Superheroes, I dunno…more like Jewish Supercreators (e.g., of Superheroes).

    On actual superheroes, well, there are Kaptain Krieg, Dr. Death, Red Skull,Black Flame,Kronen (Hellboy), Steel Falcon, Zeit and Thor — all kinda Nazi and/or Aryan.

  • D. K. Holm

    J. Hoberman also has a survey of the Italian Culture Institute series on the New York Review of Books blog.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Alex, what you say about the creators of superhero comics certainly is true, but since all works of art are in a way autobiographical (as Rouben Mamoulian recently was quoted in the Bergman thread) it would be hard to find a place where the experiences of the creators are more apparent than in American comic books of the 1940s.

    Comics and children’s books are much more in my day to day working life than movies, but sometimes I’m asked to say something about movies in public as well, and the last time this happened was at the Jewish Film Festival in Stockholm last year when I introduced the (excellent) Will Eisner documentary “Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist”. I’ve always been aware that Jews were in large part excluded from American newspaper comic strips (there are exceptions like Al Capp of Li’l Abner fame), but it wasn’t until when I read up on Eisner that I realized how much the Jewish U.S. experience is part of superhero comics (you could start with Eisner or Stan Lee and go on really anywhere). From this perspective I’d recommend anyone interested in this subject (or anyone who just likes a good read) to seek out Eisner’s in large part autobiographical graphic novel ”A Contract With God” and then move on to his (kind of) superhero ”The Spirit”, which is hopefully still in print.

  • Alex

    Mike Grost,
    PS. I haven’t liked Z-Westerns all that much since second grade, but Z-Serials with Superheroes (Shazam!)….I could spend a few Simolians to see –or re-see — some of those. (Some pretty good Western Z-Serials, though the heroes don’t, as I recall, get much more Super than Zorro.)

    Johan Andreasson,

    I don’t really know much about Comicbook creators beyond “Kavalier and Clay,” a fine read but thin, spotty, second-hand history,

  • Noel Vera

    “you could start with Eisner or Stan Lee”

    I say drop Stan Lee and go with Jack Kirby–now there’s a protean creator.

    Have fun at the panel discussion, Dave!

  • Johan Andreasson

    Noel, it’s not unreasonable to claim that Jacob Kurtzberg was even more important to American superhero comics than Stanley Martin Lieber.

  • Oliver_C

    Suppose Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had never existed; suppose Stan Lee’s scripts for Fantastic Four #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15 had instead been illustrated by, say, Tony Tallarico and Mart Nodell. Would we still be reading Marvel Comics today? No offence to those artists, but I strongly doubt it.

  • Michael Dempsey

    Lon Chaney — one of the most fascinating and rewarding talents of the silent era — was not a superhero and did not play any superheroes, thank Ceiling Cat.

  • jason fleming

    Johan DC comics reprinted the entire Spirit run in 26 hardcover books. They generally keep their books in print so they shouldn’t be to hard to find. I’m 2 shy of a complete set. And if you haven’t read it already you might like The Dreamer Will Eisner’s graphic novella about the early days of comic book industry. It’s not Eisner’s best but it is worth a look.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Jason, it’s good to hear that people are still reading Will Eisner. I was his Swedish translator for a while in the 1980s and 90s (of both The Spirit and his newer stuff) and had lunch with him once a long time ago at the Gothenburg Book Fair. I’ve read “The Dreamer”, and just like you say it’s nice but not one of his best works. From the late phase of his career I think “A Contract With God” is by far the most powerful.

    A couple of words about Eisner, for those who may not be familiar with him: Movies were a big influence on his style, first German silents from the 1920s, but most of all CITIZEN KANE. He had an eye for talent, and a lot of people who later became important, for instance Jules Feiffer, got their start with him.

    One of Eisner’s trademarks were inventive splash pages where The Spirit logo was used not only for setting the mood but also for telling the story:

  • jason fleming

    Johan, I envy you. You probably know much more about Eisner’s work than I. Over the past 3 or 4 years here in America there has been a major trend among the comic book companies to reprint a lot of the classic material. Not just the majors either Fantagraphics which used to specialize in “Alternative Comix” now their output is about 50/50 new &old. I can’t complain too much since they are responsible keeping Peanuts, Krazy Kat( under the title Krazy & Ignatz), Popeye, Pogo and Captain Easy& Buz Sawyer in print just to name a few. In addition to these classic comic strips they begun reprinting the works of Steve Ditko, Carl Barks,Bill Everett and Jacques Tardi. They also put out the complete works of Fletcher Hanks a very obscure artist who worked in the industry in the late 30’s. 51 stories in all in two volumes I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets & You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation. How can you not want to read those. From the a biographical information about Hanks it appears he was a violent drunk who beat his wife and children on a daily basis before abandoned them to their fate. And the work itself is full of that kind of darkness these are the kind of comics Browning would made if he a comic artist instead of a filmmaker.

  • I’m going to have to ask you guys to take the comic book stuff outside. There are plenty of discussion boards for comics on the net, and I don’t want to drive away people who come here to talk about movies. So please, understand and desist.

  • Johan Andreasson

    OK, will do.

  • The Tod Browning-Lon Chaney trio seems really lucrative, indeed. There are many films of Browning and Chaney that I haven’t seen, but of the ones I know, FREAKS (without Chaney) is still my favourite Tod Browning movie: unique, tender, poetic. The surviving fragment from THE MIRACLE MAN (without Browning) contains the most haunting and poignant Lon Chaney performance in my recollection.

  • jason fleming


  • Johan Andreasson

    So, back to movies: Antti, There are plenty of both Browning and Chaney films left to see for me as well, but of the ones I have seen THE UNKNOWN is my favorite. It’s very concentrated, hardly more than an hour long, looks great, and both the characters and the story could be from H C Andersen at his darkest. Swedish novelist Niklas Rådström has described Andersen as “Helpless, egocentric, trapped in fantasy and self-pity and balancing on loneliness extreme border.” There’s an idea for a biopic that Chaney could have made the most of.

    THE UNKNOWN is available on DVD in a TCM Vault Collection:

  • Barry Putterman

    There were actually quite a few Browning films in the fondly remembered (at least by me) Universal series at MoMA many years ago. Although his name mostly gets linked to “horror” through strong association with Chaney, DRACULA and FREAKS, I would say that he is more generally interested in all sorts of people living on the fringes of society.

    He made a film twice at Universal (in 1920 and 1930) called OUTSIDE THE LAW, and I would say that the title pretty nearly sums up Browning’s interests in many respects. The 1930 version had a fully realized “gangster boss” performance from Edward G. Robinson in advance of his “breakthrough” (according to conventional history) in LITTLE CAESAR. Robinson had also been a gangster boss in THE WIDOW FROM CHICAGO prior to LITTLE CAESAR. Not to mention Robert Florey’s bizarre, must see THE HOLE IN THE WALL from 1929.

    I’ve sometimes wondered whether the Production Code curtailed Browning’s career. MARK OF THE VAMPIRE seems like a strange response to the imposed restrictions. And THE DEVIL DOLL just seems strange. After that there is the kind of interesting MIRACLES FOR SALE and the rest is silence. What happened to Browning? Where did he go and why?

    By the same token, I’ve often wondered how Lon Chaney would have fared in sound films. All we have is the remake of THE UNHOLY THREE as evidence. Would there have been an audience for Chaney’s kind of expressionism when sound was added?

    For the answers to these and other questions….

  • jbryant

    Barry: “For the answers to these and other questions,” there’s a Browning bio called “Dark Carnival” by David J. Skal and Elias Savada. I haven’t read it, but the authors seem to admit there wasn’t much to work with regarding his personal life. After he left the movie business, he became reclusive and somewhat paranoid. He was quite a drinker, apparently, so I’m sure that was a factor.

    Anyone here read the book?

  • jason fleming

    I read it when it came out but its been years since I reread it. From what I remember the box office failure of Freaks and internal politics at MGM combined with Browning’s personality were the main factors his career went nowhere. I’m looking at the book right now the authors describe Freaks ” a sudden, disfiguring wound from which his career would never recover.” I quite like Mark of the Vampire one of the reasons that film seems strange is that it was suppose to be 15 or 20 minutes longer. Kim Newman and Steve Jones talk about the cuts at length on their commentary track for the film. And yes he wad quite a drinker

  • jason fleming

    Just listened to commentary of Mark of Vampire. Newman & Jones spend much more time comparing the film to London After Midnight and Dracula and how the film fits in to the tradition of vampire films. Very little to the cuts other than a mention that the film was previewed at 80 minutes and released at 60. Sorry I misspoke.

  • Rick K.

    Critical consensus on Browning seems to be a terrain of peaks and valleys. I remember talking with William K. Everson about Browning, and being somewhat surprised by Everson’s indifference toward much of his output (evidenced in his books as well, as Johan points out above). Personally I think THE UNKNOWN is a masterpiece, and one of the silent era’s most unique, enduring works. I’ve seen it several times with an audience, and it never failed to score with power and astonishment, Browning really PUSHING his dark vision to extremes, with Chaney in sync of course, yet Browning’s skill with palette and composition are also extremely effective here (admittedly this was a sporadic virtue in his other films, but on THE UNKNOWN he seemed particularly inspired). Everson, apparently, had only seen the film via a 9.5 blowup to 16mm, which could hardly do it justice (for many years, those poor prints were apparently all that existed, until a 35mm print turned up from a European source, sitting in film cans which were ignored simply because they were labeled “unknown”). Too, Everson had a habit of championing Browning’s competing horror specialist, James Whale (a really dynamic, innovative stylist), to the point where he might have felt compelled to reject Browning rather more than necessary, feeling that Whale deserved the spotlight more (Everson LOVED to champion neglected talents, and Whale’s film career had always been slighted by the neglect of virtually ALL his work EXCEPT the horror films!). At any rate, Everson did not entirely dismiss Browning, he liked several of his talkies, FREAKS especially.

    I like MARK OF THE VAMPIRE as well, though it DOES seem somewhat fragmented at 60 min, and of course one hears rumors of censorial trims revealing suggestions of an incestuous relationship between the vampiric Lugosi and his daughter, and explanations for that curious bullet hole in his temple!! I think it was Gregory Mank who did an examination of the original script in one of his excellent books, revealing that most of the trims were rather extraneous material which probably SHOULD have been cut. On the other hand, Browning himself always considered DRACULA to have been mutilated by studio cutters (and there are some very interesting alternative stills around too), so who knows what a “director’s cut” of that milestone would have been like! Evidently, there is a blu-ray in the works of Browning’s DRACULA, rumored to have the long missing epilogue back in place, though I personally have my doubts.

  • Alex

    “THE UNKNOWN is available on DVD in a TCM Vault Collection:

    It’s available on DVD from the TCM Vault Collection, as part of The Lon Chaney Collection (The Ace of Hearts / Laugh, Clown, Laugh / The Unknown). Anyone have anything to say about “The Ace of Hearts” or “Laugh, Clown, Laugh??

  • The Ace of Hearts (Wallace Worsley, 1921) is a political thriller, about violent radicals versus the big rich. I’m not endorsing its politics, but as a movie, it is one of the best Lon Chaney films. It is part of an era that saw the Red Scare circa 1919.

    Both Lon Chaney and Tod Browning made crime films and thrillers as well as horror films. But their reception over the last 50 years centers almost exclusively on their horror work.

    My favorite Browning film is a non-horror crime film, the silent version of “Outside the Law” (1921). This has Chaney in a supporting role.
    The film is completely sympathetic to and respectful of its Chinese characters. In fact, they are shown using their advanced Confucian philosophy to reform and enlighten the white characters in the film. This builds on a rather similar approach Griffith used in his Broken Blossoms (1919).
    David J. Skal and Elias Savada’s biography of Tod Browning, Dark Carnival, has much information on Outside the Law. They report that Browning spoke Chinese, and included Chinese characters in other of his films.

    By contrast, I am uncomfortable with Browning’s treatment of other minorities in other films. “The Wicked Darling” has anti-Semitic stereotypes. And “West of Zanzibar” is racist in its treatment of African natives. It was seeing these two films that broke my enthusiasm for Browning. He was a talented director, but didn’t always use his talent for noble ends.
    Dave Kehr recently suggested that romantic comedy was a genre born on Broadway in the 1920’s, and only later transplanted to Hollywood.

    There are signs that something similar is partly true of gangster films as a genre.
    Such plays as “Broadway” (1926) and “The Racket” (1927) seem like the direct ancestors of 1930’s gangster films. Edward G. Robinson had a star making turn in the play version of “The Racket”, as its snarling gangster. This was long before he came to Hollywood.

    Early Hollywood gangster films do NOT seem ancestral to 1930’s gangster movies.
    So-called “gangster” films of the 1910’s are about two-bit street corner gangs. These include the good “Musketeers of Pig Alley” (Griffith) and the very good “Regeneration” (Raoul Walsh).
    And “Underworld” (Sternberg, 1927) is about a bank robber.

    By contrast, plays like “Broadway” (1926) and “The Racket” (1927) and gangster films of the 1930’s were about Al Capone-style vice lords with huge criminal empires.

    I would like to see the maybe-lost Chaney film “Voices of the City” (1921), which reportedly is about gangster at some level.

  • I have always wondered about von Stroheim’s contribution to Browning’s The Devil Doll… Has this been investigated?

  • jbryant

    The film version of THE RACKET was restored a few years ago and played on TCM. I quite enjoyed it. Milestone maintains visual interest throughout and keeps things moving at a brisk pace. Title cards are kept to a minimum, and many of the camera moves and angles feel perfectly modern.

    Whenever WEST OF ZANZIBAR (which I haven’t seen) comes up, I have to give a shout-out to William J. Cowen’s 1932 sound remake, KONGO. To be honest, the story is so luridly great, I’m not sure I can even speak to Cowen’s technique. I understand it’s even more explicit than the original. Walter Huston and Lupe Velez are really something. Huston actually originated his role on Broadway, a couple of years before the Chaney/Browning film.

  • nicolas saada

    Sorry for taking part so late in this thread. Since one of the topics was superheroes, I have to stress on how serious, overtly serious the superhero film has become. Come to think of it , the comic boks by jack Kirby or Neal Adams had their dose of pathos, but it is almost nil when compared to the heavyness of films adpated from theses comics.
    I am fond of Browning’s MIRACLES FOR SALE, his last film, and a triumph of wit and invention, with I remember, a brilliant Robert Young.

  • Shawn Stone

    THE WICKED DARLING (1919), an earlier Browning crime drama made at Universal starring Priscilla Dean, and with Chaney in a supporting role, was issued on DVD by Image. It’s another vivid picture of “the criminal class.” There’s a trailer on YouTube for a Lobster Films restoration of WHITE TIGER, Browning’s 1923 crime drama with Dean, Raymond Griffith and Wallace Beery (in a villain’s part that would have been perfect for Chaney). Has anyone seen it? I’ve watched the version circulating from a so-so 16MM print and it’s tense, nasty stuff, with many of characteristics Dave points out in his essay (including the mistrust of the uncanny).

    Browning does seem drawn to characters who are overcome by hate. In WHITE TIGER and UNHOLY THREE, Browning sticks his main characters in an isolated location and lets suspicion and mutual loathing drive them into hating each other. In UNKNOWN and WEST OF ZANZIBAR, the depth of the Chaney characters’ hate is their undoing. In FREAKS, the circus folk are accepting, even welcoming at first, but when Olga Baclanova proves false to Harry Earles, then this warmth becomes hate and out come the knives. Literally.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Simone, Arthur Lennig’s “Stroheim” (U-Ky. Press, 2000) covers Stroheim’s imput on THE DEVIL DOLL in some detail (pp. 354-6). Lennig’s conclusion is that there are “Stroheimian echoes” in the film, but “one must not forget that Browning himself was no mean creator of grotesque incidents.” An understatement, the humor of which Lennig intended, I feel.

    Funnily enough I had already pulled Lennig off the shelf earlier this evening to check Marilyn Moss’ comment in her Walsh biography (discussed last thread) that Walsh had helped reshoot HELLO SISTER. Marilyn actually gives more detail.

    Rick, a hundred or so college students not overly familiar with silent cinema responded very well to the power of THE UNKNOWN when I screened it to them last fall. I’ve long felt that one might credit the second half of Browning’s career to his sponsorship by Irving Thalberg, that cross-dressing aesthete who had a real taste for what was thought morbid and perverse (he liked UN CHIEN ANDALOU enough to bring Bunuel over to the studio; what a Metro director HE would have been in my personal alternate film history). FREAKS was put into production at Thalberg’s insistence. If only Thalberg would have used his clout to foster such studio system recalcitrants as Stroheim and Keaton! But then he wouldn’t have been Thalberg.

  • Thank you very much, Gregg Rickman. I will check Lenning’s book.

  • LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT is one of the most missed lost films, but I would look forward even more to THE TOWER OF LIES, the second Victor Seastrom / Lon Chaney collaboration after the extraordinary HE WHO GETS SLAPPED. It was a thrill for Ingmar Bergman to see it for the first time in the early 1980s when it was rediscovered because of its direct links to SAWDUST AND TINSEL. Henry Miller was an ardent film buff, and THE TOWER OF LIES was one of his favourite movies. THE TOWER OF LIES would even belong to my “top ten lost films” along with movies by Lubitsch (KISS ME AGAIN), Murnau (FOUR DEVILS), Sternberg (THE CASE OF LENA SMITH), Stroheim (THE DEVIL’S PASSKEY), Walsh (EVANGELINE, THE HONOR SYSTEM), Stiller (THE FISHING VILLAGE, THE EXILES), Feyder (THERESE RAQUIN), Mizoguchi (NANIWA ONNA…).

  • Johan Andreasson

    THE TOWER OF LIES is indeed one of the most missed lost films. Maybe not much in the way of consolation, but anyway, here is a clip where you can see Selma Lagerlöf, the author of the source novel “Kejsarn av Portugallien” holding a couple of cans of the film and looking at the strip of film before seeing it at a movie theatre in her native Värmland where the story also takes place:

  • “I am fond of Browning’s MIRACLES FOR SALE, his last film, and a triumph of wit and invention, with I remember, a brilliant Robert Young.”

    My recollection supports yours, and I would add that MIRACLES FOR SALE was briskly paced with its set pieces nicely constructed. It doesn’t have much of the morbidity associated with earlier Browning movies though.

    Another reason that Browning and Whale are compared/contrasted is that their movie careers ended around the same time, and I think they both turned to real estate earn their livings from then on.

  • Robert Garrick

    The David Skal biography of Browning is excellent; he signed a copy over to me when it came out about twenty years ago but that copy is currently inaccessible, which is one reason I’ve been quiet on this thread. Arthur Lennig (also discussed here) wrote a passionate biography of Bela Lugosi back in 1974, with some discussion of Tod Browning. He signed that book to me: “Take this book and put it on the tender part of your neck.”

    Browning is from Kentucky. Apparently almost everyone named Browning in the United States has ancestors in Kentucky.

    Regarding William K. Everson: He’d seen “London After Midnight,” of course, and was not much impressed with it. He refused to call it “lost,” saying that it was merely “unavailable.” (It disappeared in 1967; he made these comments in classes at NYU in 1976.) He not only preferred James Whale but called Whale his favorite director.

    When I think of Browning’s sound films, I think of silence. He was not seduced by sound, and continued to use long stretches of silence in films like “Dracula,” “Freaks,” and “Mark of the Vampire.” The effect is chilling, in long takes at Dracula’s castle, in the graveyard in “Mark of the Vampire,” or in the circus in “Freaks.” One realizes while watching these films that sound can be comforting in a horror film, and often serves as a distraction to the disturbing scenes on screen. Browning doesn’t provide that comfort.

  • Robert Garrick

    It’s interesting to compare the Mexican version of “Dracula” (1931) with the Browning version, which was shot on the same set at the same time from the same script, but with different directors, actors, and crew. David Skal discovered the Mexican copy in 1989 (finding a print in Cuba, perhaps in the trunk of a 1962 Ford Falcon). The standard view is that the Mexican film is even more stylish and atmospheric than the Browning version; that George Robinson’s cinematography (in the Mexican) is superior to Karl Freund’s (in the Browning); but that the Mexican lead actor did not have the presence of Lugosi. The Mexican film is a half hour longer, providing some fuel to Browning’s complaint that Universal butchered his version.

    I’ve seen the Mexican version only once, and it was years apart from my next viewing of the Browning. But it would be fascinating (and easy, these days) to view them side-by-side.

  • As Donald Rumsfeld might put it, in addition to lost films there are the *lost* lost films — films which everybody has forgotten even existed in the first place, such as Mitchell & Kenyon’s 800 reels of Edwardian-England actuality footage (fortunately rediscovered after eight decades).

  • Michael Dempsey

    In the vein of Mike Grost’s taxonomies of various filmmakers’ work, I’d like to offer a few such notes on recurring elements in the films of Lon Chaney (regardless of director).

    Types of roles: Disguise and non-disguise, sometimes both in the same film.

    Disguise roles: horror/deformity, criminals, a cop, a Marine drill sergeant, a man disguised as an old woman, Asians. Roles for which Chaney disguises himself elaborately, to the point where we don’t see his actual face. Roles for which his characters disguise themselves to further some plot or desire.

    Horror/deformity: Characters who are physically/visually maimed and, thus, horrifying, which means elaborate makeup and disguise effects. In his work, disguise is usually linked to such maiming, which in turn may be linked to involvement in crime. E.g.: “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “West of Zanzibar,” “The Road to Mandalay.”

    Horror/deformity disguises: Characters who aren’t really crippled or deformed disguising themselves in order to appear so: “The Shock”, “The Unknown”, both versions of “The Unholy Three”, “The Blackbird”, Red Death in “The Phantom of the Opera (an already deformed character disguising himself as another, differently deformed character).

    Non-horror disguises: Chaney has to use elaborate masquerades to create non-horrific/non-deformed characters: clowns: (“He Who Gets Slapped”; “Laugh, Clown, Laugh”), Asians (“Shadows”, “Outside The Law”, “Mr. Wu”), criminals (“Victory”, “Outside The Law” – in which he plays two roles, “Oliver Twist” – in which he plays Fagin, “The Scarlet Car”).

    Other non-horror, non-deformity roles that feature his naked face. These roles involve no deformities, or other grotesque disguises that ordinarily provide reasons for the chronic inability of Chaney figures to inspire love in women. Thus, films centering on these roles include none of the excuses that these elements provide for the characters’ inability to find love – yet this condition persists in these films as well.

    In Chaney’s work, there is a persistent sense that even when his face appears unaltered by makeup or disguise effects, it is as much a mask as any of his disguise faces are.

    These non-disguise parts shift to more emotional-sentimental modes. For example:

    “Flesh and Blood: a convict must sacrifice his freedom after breaking out of prison in order to secure his daughter’s future. “While The City Sleeps: a police detective falls in love with his quasi-daughter. “Tell It To The Marines”: a tough drill sergeant must concede the love of a young nurse to a younger man who’s part of the unit he commands; this circumstance leave the sergeant with his military life as solace.

    Multiple roles in the same movie:

    Sometimes these mix disguise and non-disguise parts that may two phases of the same character, one “real” and the other an alter ego, that differ so much from one another that they may seem like two separate characters. Often there is a Jekyll-and-Hyde configuration that plays up starkly melodramatic contrasts of good and evil. In the case of alter egos, the key question eventually becomes “Which one is the real character and which the disguise?” This theme is especially important in “The Blackbird”, “He Who Gets Slapped”, and “The Unknown.” In each, the disguise consumes the disguiser.

    Self-reflexive elements: In his horror/deformity roles (“The Blackbird”, “Flesh and Blood”, “The Shock,” He Who Gets Slapped”, “The Unknown”, and “Laugh, Clown Laugh”), Chaney often shows us on camera the secrets of exactly how he creates his disguise effects. This becomes a commentary on the fluidity and evanescence of identity.

    Another curious trait of Chaney films is that, even when he is the unquestioned star, he is often absent from the films for long stretches. This results from the inability of his characters to be traditional romantic heroes who win the love of the films’ leading female characters. “Mr. Wu”, “The Phantom of the Opera”, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, “Shadows”, and “Tell It To The Marines” (perhaps Chaney’s biggest commercial hit) are just a few examples.

    Linked to this is what might be called a Pagliacci/masochism trope: recurrent disappointments with love, an innate sense that Chaney characters have of their utter inability to inspire love in women, develop into such obsessively detailed and extensive horror/deformity portrayals as to give rise to a suspicion that Chaney at some level was reveling in them.

    Four prime examples: In “He Who Gets Slapped”, the plunge of a scientist spurned and cheated by his wife and her lover into annihilating self-contempt. The extreme contortions needed in “The Blackbird” for the criminal title character to become his saintly doppelganger, The Bishop. In “Laugh, Clown, Laugh,” the protagonist’s descent into this role as his adopted daughter grows up. The beyond-garish self-mutilation of the protagonist in “The Unknown.”

    Revenge: A strong link is posited between revenge and self-mutilation. Sometimes a Chaney character mutilates himself in a drastic effort to find love. Then, upon failing, he explodes with an equally passionate lust for revenge. Or he punishes himself with equal violence, sometimes out of inability to destroy his enemy.

    Many of the foregoing examples can be cited, but this theme is especially pertinent to “The Penalty” and “West of Zanzibar.”

    Much more could be added, but enough – perhaps too much. Still, I hope these notes might whet the appetites of anyone who would like to explore the provocative film world of Lon Chaney.

  • mike schlesinger

    REALLY late to this thread!

    Robert: Most DVD releases of DRACULA also contain the Mexican version. You can easily compare them in the comfort of your own hacienda.

    Barry: Actually, the issue of Clark Kent’s glasses was addressed in this memorable clip from LOIS AND CLARK: