Tod Browning’s beginnings account for a variety of the themes present in his film work. Browning began his career in entertainment working in circuses and sideshows before transitioning to vaudeville. From vaudeville, Browning transitioned into motion pictures as a result of his friendship with D.W. Griffith. Between 1913 and 1919 Browning worked as an actor and sometimes-assistant director to Griffith before becoming a film director in his own right.
These early years are essential to understanding Browning’s films Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932). Both films adhere to a visual structure derivative of Griffith’s work. Each film utilizes a moving camera quite sparingly, preferring to carefully choreograph the action of a scene in a single shot. This stylistic choice becomes more apparent when one compares Browning’s Dracula to the Spanish language version that was shot simultaneously. Though each version of Dracula is obviously indebted to the German Expressionist films of the 1920s, it appears that Browning’s visual style heavily restricted the work of his cinematographer Karl Freund, a former collaborator with Fritz Lang, who photographed Lang’s film Metropolis (1927).
Where Browning’s style inhibited Dracula’s visuals, it lent a dramatic credibility to Freaks. The nature of the narrative of Freaks calls for a more melodramatic approach akin to a theatrical production. Dracula on the other hand is more gothic fantasy than drama, and could only benefit from a more kinetic or whimsical style. Freaks is also a much more personal film for Browning than Dracula was. Freaks sideshow setting recalls Browning’s adolescence, and was a constant source for his film material. Casting the deformed or disfigured as his outsider protagonists was a motif Browning established in his films during the twenties. Films such as The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927) and London After Midnight (1927) all follow this structure just as all three of these films feature Lon Chaney Sr.
Browning’s preoccupation with macabre storylines centered on society’s outcasts is also indicative of a deeper and more meaningful theme to his films. The “freaks” in Freaks may appear to be frightening or evil, but once one gets beyond superficial assumptions, it’s very clear that the “freaks” are just average people. In contrast, the strongman and the acrobat who are not deformed or suffering from an obscure medical condition are corrupt and evil on the inside. Casting the outsiders as “good” and the everymen as “bad” indicts society as a whole. Consider the allegory at work in Freaks and very quickly it becomes clear that Browning’s vision of society is one of pettiness, greed, corruption, and sadism.
The root of Browning’s particular worldview stems from WWI; veterans who had returned home as outsiders were often disfigured or wounded. In the faces of these veterans one could see all the sorrow and despair of war. Undoubtedly this had an effect on Browning, tainting his perception of society with suspicion and apprehension, a trait he shares with the “anti-heroes” of his films.
Dracula does not benefit from Browning’s life experience or his political views. Dracula is essentially an exercise in the style of Gothic Horror, which succeeded in establishing the style that would define Universal Studios’ horror films of the 1930s. One of the most compelling choices Browning made when he was shooting Dracula was to push the performers in the direction of high camp. The narrative is unbelievably fantastic and is able to achieve an uneasy sort of otherworldliness as a result of not just the visuals, but of the direction Browning gave his actors.
In the thirties, the campy acting in Dracula was no doubt overshadowed by the lavish set design by Charles D. Hall. Hall, who worked on a number of Universal’s horror films, managed to combine the aesthetic of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923) with that of The Golem (1920) to create a pulpy kind of neo-expressionism. However, Hall was not alone in recalling the silent age of cinema. Browning shot much of Dracula without recording sound, allowing scenes to build in silence, heightening the suspense dramatically. Unfortunately, Carl Theodor Dreyer would improve upon Browning’s use of silence significantly the following year when he directed his own gothic horror film Vampyr (1932).
Count Dracula is also not the classic “anti-hero” of The Unknown or West Of Zanzibar (1928). Bela Lugosi depicts Count Dracula with such a lack of dimension that the character is unable to transcend being anything more than a monster. The obvious difference between the quality of Dracula and that of Freaks is most often attributed to the death of Browning’s most frequent collaborator Lon Chaney Sr. In 1930, Lon Chaney Sr., “the man of a thousand faces”, died of cancer. Originally, Browning had committed to making Dracula under the assumption that Chaney would play the lead. With Chaney’s death, Browning had to make the film without him, and has been reported to have been disinterested in the films production.
Regardless of Browning’s personal feelings toward his film, Dracula, along with Freaks, remain two of the most influential and popular American films ever made. Despite the popularity of these two films, most of Tod Browning’s silent work is largely ignored outside of the academic community. In many ways Browning was never able to achieve the technical greatness of his silent period again.