Tag Archives: Tod Browning

TOD BROWNING’S THE DEVIL DOLL (1936)

In his next to last film, Tod Browning revisits the same territory as The Unholy Three (1925), with a surreal twist.  The Devil Doll (1936) is based on Abraham Merritt’s novel “Burn, Witch, Burn,” with a screenplay by Guy Endore, Erich von Stroheim, and Browning.  Lionel Barrymore, who had a long collaborative history with Browning, stars as escaped convict Paul Lavond.

17 years earlier, Lavond had been sent to prison after being framed by three banking partners.  Lavond has escaped with a fellow convict, Marcel (Henry Walthall, another Browning regular) who just happens to be a mad scientist.  Together, they make it to Marcel’s home and wife, Malita (the hammy Rafaela Ottiano), who also is, conveniently, a mad scientist.  Marcel dies, but not before showing Lavond the scientific discovery that he and Malita have been working on for years.  They are able to shrink animals and people to a sixth of their normal size.  Considering all the problems with world food shortage, anyone could see the value of this discovery (!).  Anyone except Lavond, that is, who is a bit leery when he finds out the shrinking process wipes out memory cells and the subject’s willpower.

Still from The Devil Doll (1936)The three bankers who betrayed him are a new Unholy Three, a reprehensible trinity driven by love of money.  Lavond, Malita and Marcel are three societal outcasts who are despised and rejected.  Browning is committed to making sure we root for the underdog; quite the reversal of contemporary, evolved reality shows that deify the affluent top dogs.

Seeing a new potential vehicle for his revenge, Lavond is accompanied by Malita with a case full of shrunken critters in hand.  Lavond sets out on a Count of Monte Cristo mission, but considering this is a Tod Browning production, Lavond hardly dons a chivalrous persona like Robert Donat in the 1934 film.  Rather, he gets in old lady drag (a la Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three) and takes on the identity of Madame Mandilip, proprietress.

With a couple of six inch Tweedledees, Lavond, in his best Sweeney Todd fashion, opens up a doll shop (rather than a parrot shop or pie shop), exacts revenge, steals jewelery (which he hides in a toy, just like in Unholy Three) and sets out to find the holy child: his long lost daughter, Lorraine ( Maureen O’ Sullivan, aka Tarzan’s Jane). This is yet another frequently used Browning subplot of a severed father/daughter relationship.

What makes The Devil Doll unique is the science fiction angle and a female mad scientist in Ottiano (who has an Elsa Lanchester like streak in her hair).  By the time of The Devil Doll, Browning was comfortable with the sound medium and the film benefits from this newfound familiarity, fluid camera work, and the charmingly rudimentary FX for the incredible shrunken people.

As Lavond, Barrymore delivers a subdued, controlled performance.  In drag, Barrymore raises the ham meter considerably.  Although a sympathetic character, Barrymore conveys genuine creepiness in the revenge scenes as he enforces his will through the dolls by intense concentration.

Ironically, to proves his innocence, Lavond must again go into exile at the film’s end and must forever forsake his daughter.  The Devil Doll is a surrealist delight in its sheer lunacy.

TOD BROWNING’S THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (1929)

The Thirteenth Chair (1929) is Tod Browning‘s first sound film and a real curio.  Like a lot of early sound films, it is bogged down with wax museum staging.  Chair is yet another drawing room murder mystery, taken from an antiquated stage play, but being a Tod Browning production, the film cannot resist its own latent, deviant infrastructure in the acutely bizarre casting of  Bela Lugosi as the well-dressed Inspector Delzante.

Still from The Thirteenth Chair (1929)In the original play, the character of the inspector had a different name and was played for laughs.  The Thirteenth Chair was an all around testing-the-waters kind of film; a test handling that new invention called sound, which neither Browning nor the production team were comfortably with (all too clearly).  The main test here, however, was for the upcoming role of Dracula, and for that reason Browning grabbed Lugosi, who had made the vampire role a mega hit on the stage circuit.

Lugosi’s make-up, with sharply accented eyebrows, is patterned after the make-up he wore as Dracula in the play version of Bram Stoker’s tale.  His mannerisms are pure vamp, not at all what the role of the inspector originally called for.  His first appearance is shot from the back.  He is in a police station, dressed from head to shoes in white, but when he turns towards the camera, he delivers the lines as only a Transylvanian Count would.  Thankfully, Lugosi is wildly disproportionate to the role and serves as an almost surreal red herring for the film.  This may have been a test project for Browning, but he had to make it interesting for himself, and he did so first with the eccentric casting of the “Living, Hypnotic Corpse” as the inspector.

Lugosi beautifully mangles the English language, as per his norm, but his handling of the Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (1929)

TOD BROWNING’S WHERE EAST IS EAST (1929)

Like a true auteur, Tod Browning essentially kept remaking the same film. He was a peculiarity in Hollywood. He refused an agent, generally refused assignment scripts and, instead, consistently sought out material that interested him.

Poster for Where East Is EastWhere East is East (1929) was the last of the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaborations, it was the last of Browning’s silent films, and it contained many themes from their previous efforts together.

The heavily scarred, large-feline-monikered Tiger Haynes (Chaney) is an animal trapper who has an uncomfortably playful relationship with his daughter Toya (the bubbly Lupe Velez).   Their relationship alters between games of feline patty cake and overt protection.  Daddy and Toya’s relationship gets thrown its first monkey wrench when Toya acquires a new boyfriend, Bobby (Lloyd Hughes).

Acting like a jealous lover, Tiger refuses to warm up to Bobby, until Bobby assists Tiger in saving Toya from a real tiger. Now Bobby is a real swell and welcome to the pride. While delivering tigers on a cruise to the East, Tiger and Bobby run into Tiger’s ex-wife and Toya’s mother, Mme. de Sylva (Estelle Taylor, the real-life one time wife of Jack Dempsey).  For Bobby, Sylva is the embodiment of oriental fantasy.  She is a true tigress with a jealous, soothsayer-like female servant (hints of a lesbian relationship). Sylva spews her man-baiting poison on the intoxicated Bobby, in order to exact sexual revenge on Tiger and parental revenge on their daughter,Toya. This is a reversal of West of Zanzibar (1928), in which Chaney was the parent exacting parental revenge on a whelp. The incestuous relationship hinted between Tiger and Toya (on Tiger’s part, twice unrequited) is paralleled in Bobby and Sylva.

Sylva enters Toya’s world and repressed, invisible secrets threaten the illusory fabric of Tiger’s world.   Of course, some animals devour their young, and Sylva, one step removed, attempts to incestuously devour Toya.  Unfortunately for Sylva, behind a fragile cage she has a nemesis in a gorilla holding a grudge for secret, past abuses.  It is the savage animal kingdom that will exact revenge.  Chaney, impotently declawed, scowls and threatens Sylva from the sidelines until he unleashes the beast, which will end in paternal sacrifice for the daughter he cannot possess (shades of West again).

Where East is East hands the film to Taylor, who, reportedly, managed her off-screen relations with men in a fashion similar to Sylva.  Luckily, Taylor is up to the part, as is Velez, who conveys innocence, diverse emotions, and energetic sexual charm. Chaney is excellent as usual, in the secondary, castrated role.

One off-screen note of interest: “Mexican Spitfire” Velez and Taylor became quite close after working together in this film. Velez, pregnant and abandoned, spent her last hours on earth with Taylor, before departing her mortal coil with the aid of Seconal. Somehow, in the Browning universe, that is an apt, dark underside to the narrative.

Needless to say, Where East is East does not subscribe to any sort of orthodox realism. It is representative of the blue collar surrealism that both Browning and Chaney espoused and can be best enjoyed with a heaping plate of elephant ears and cotton candy, along with a well-worn copy of “The Interpretation of Dreams.”

TOD BROWNING’S THE BLACKBIRD (1926)

The Blackbird (1926) is a typically deranged underworld melodrama from the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney canon. It has, lamentably, never been made available to the home video market, even though the restored print shown on TCM is in quite good condition and, surprisingly, is missing no footage. The Blackbird is also one of the most visually arresting of Browning’s films, which makes its official unavailability doubly unfortunate.

Still from The Blackbird (1926)Browning opens the film authoritatively with close-ups of Limehouse derelicts fading in and out of the foggy London setting. Lon Chaney plays dual roles, of a sort. He is the debilitated cripple Bishop who runs a charitable mission in the squalid Limehouse district. Bishop’s twin brother is Dan Tate, better known as the vile thief The Blackbird. Actually, in this highly improbable (and typical, for Browning) scenario, Bishop and the Blackbird are one and the same. The Blackbird feigns the role of his own twin brother as a front, which means contorting his body as he acts as if he’s in excruciating pain (shades of Chaney, behind the scenes).

The Limehouse district unanimously loves the Bishop and dreads the Blackbird, save for the Blackbird’s ex-wife, Limehouse Polly (Doris Lloyd, the only one of the principals players who did not die young). Polly inexplicably still loves and believes in Dan. In a vignette, Browning does not hesitate to show the ugliness of the Blackbird’s racist side (an extreme rarity for the time), but the Blackbird has a slither of a soft spot himself for French patroness and music hall marionette performer Fifi (Renee Adore).

Dan is competing for Fifi’s attention with his partner in crime, West End Bertie (the amazingly prolific silent actor Owen Moore). At times, Bertie resembles a virile, monocled Bond villain. The suave Moore makes a worthwhile nemesis for the grimy Chaney. Unlike the Blackbird, Bertie is willing to convert from the dark side, for the love of a classy woman. Of course, this turn of events arouses jealousy and leads to intensified competition between the former partners, a frame-up job, and an ironic twist of fate when the two “brothers” will merge into a third, ill-fated persona.

The scenes of Chaney frantically changing identities with constables from Scotland Yard waiting below are deliriously incredible. The constables buy it, and so does an audience open to allowing the capered stream to wash over it.

Browning spins his elastic yarn a bit like Albert Finney’s Ed Bloom in Big Fish (2003). Aided enormously by Chaney’s energetic conviction, and with his penchant for a tenebrous, commanding climate, Browning pulls the ultimate con job on his audience. During its running time we are so drawn into the commanding perversity of  Browning’s fable that the inherent haziness of the narrative’s essence rarely obscures his inclusive vision.

TOD BROWNING’S LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) & MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)

London After Midnight (1927) is the most sought after and discussed lost film of the silent era.  Whether it actually deserves to be the most sought after has been intensely debated, but the fact that London After Midnight is lost is solely the fault of MGM.

MGM head Louis B. Mayer was something akin to the devil incarnate.  For Mayer, film was strictly profitable, escapist fare to corn feed and increasingly dumb down audiences.  At the opposite end of the spectrum was his in-house studio competitor, producer Irving Thalberg, who nurtured the Tod Brownings and Lon Chaneys of the world.  Thalberg was hardly infallible (he sided with Mayer, against Erich von  Stroheim’s 9-hour version of Greed [1925,] which resulted in the film being excised and led to an actual fistfight between Mayer and Stroheim).  However, Thalberg’s concern was to make quality films, as he saw quality.  Hardly the egoist, Thalberg never took a producer’s credit.  He could turn out escapist family fare, but he was eclectic in his tastes and had a penchant for edgy, risk taking films with only the side of his eye on the profit meter.

London After Midnight (1927) lobby cardSometimes the devil wins, and when Thalberg died at the age of 37, Old Nick (Mayer) had no one to rein him in.  MGM, under Mayer, had a notorious  habit of buying out rivals—the original versions of the studio’s watered-down remakes—and then would make every attempt to destroy and/or suppress the superior original.  For instance, they bought out the 1940 British version of Gaslight and unsuccessfully attempted to destroy all the copies just in time for the debut of their inferior 1944 version, starring Charles Boyer.  MGM did destroy many, but not all, Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) & MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)

TOD BROWNING’S THE UNKNOWN (1927)

The Unknown (1927) is one of the final masterpieces of the silent film era.  Suspend disbelief and step into the carnival of the absurd.  The Unknown is the ebony carousel of the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney oeuvre, the one film in which the artists’ obsessions perfectly crystallized.  This is a film uniquely of its creators’ time, place and psychosis and, therefore, it is an entirely idiosyncratic work of art, which has never been remotely mimicked, nor could it be.  That it was made at MGM borders on the miraculous, or the delightfully ridiculous, but then this was an era of exploratory boundaries, even at the big studios (again, the risk-taking Irving Thalberg produced).

“There is a story they tell in old Madrid.  The story, they say is true.”  So opens the tale of “Alonzo, the Armless.”  Browning spins his yarn like a seasoned barker at the Big Top of a gypsy circus where “the Sensation of Sensations! The Wonder of Wonders!,” Alonzo (Lon Chaney), the Armless, throws knives, with his feet, at the object of his secret affection, Nanon (an 18 year old Joan Crawford).

Illusions abound.  Alonzo  is actually a double-thumbed killer on the lam.  With the aid of a straight jacket and midget assistant Cojo (John George, who worked with Browning in Outside the Law [1920]), Alonzo feigns his handicap and performs the facade of one mutilated.

In addition evading the law and securing employment, Alonzo’s act of the armless wonder benefits him greatly.  Nanon has a hysterical, obsessive repulsion to the very touch of a man’s arms.   She calls on the Almighty to take away the accursed hands of all men.  Nanon vents histrionic, sexual anxiety to Alonzo every time Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) puts his vile hands upon her.  Alonzo, ever the performer, simulates expressed sympathy, although his affection for Nanon is the one thing about Alonzo that is genuine.

Still from The Unknown (1927)Alonzo, secretly venting enmity, advises Malabar on how to win Nanon.  It is, of course, intentional ill-advice which will eventually karmically rebound and become genuine ill-advice for Alonzo. Malabar’s arms are muscled and strong, compared to Alonzo’s armless torso, or compared to Alonzo’s deformed, hidden double thumb—the very same double thumb which he used to strangle the ringmaster of Browning’s perverse milieu: Nanon’s sadistic Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S THE UNKNOWN (1927)

TOD BROWNING’S WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928) & THE ROAD TO MANDALAY (1926)

The Road to Mandalay (1926) & West of Zanzibar (1928) represent the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaboration at the height of its nefarious, Oedipal zenith, brought to you, for your entertainment,  by Irving Thalberg.

Still from The Road to Mandalay (1926)Unfortunately,  The Road to Mandalay exists only in fragmented and disintegrated state, a mere 36 minutes of its original seven reels.  In this passionately pretentious film, which is not related to the Kipling poem, Chaney plays “dead-eyed” Singapore Joe (Chaney achieved the eye effect with egg white) who runs a Singapore brothel.  Joe’s business associates are the black spiders of the Seven Seas:  the Admiral Herrington (Owen Moore) and English Charlie Wing (Kamiyama Sojin), the best knife-thrower in the Orient.  Joe’s relationship with his partners is tense and, often, threatening.

Apparently, Joe’s wife is long dead.  The two had a daughter, Rosemary (Lois Moran), who Joe left at a convent in Mandalay, under the care of his brother, Fr. James (Henry Walthall).  Joe, a repulsive sight, occasionally emerges from his sordid, underworld activities to visit Rosemary, who works in a bazaar.  Joe plans to clean up his act within two years, once he has enough money  to undergo plastic surgery and retire.  Joe wants to be a reborn man, so he can reunite with his daughter and rescue her from the confines of poverty. Rosemary, however, unaware that Joe is her father (a frequent Browning theme), is repulsed by dead eyed Joe, understandably mistaking his friendliness for sexual predation.  Fr. James  warns  Joe that waiting two years is too long.  Joe’s insistence for patience only makes Fr. James skeptical that Joe can actually achieve or sustain the redemption necessary to give Rosemary a good life.

One day the Admiral walks into Rosemary’s Bazaar and discovers love at first sight when Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928) & THE ROAD TO MANDALAY (1926)