Tod Browning and Lon Chaney: A Match Made in Macabre Movie Heaven

Since the beginning of motion pictures, there have been directors and actors whose creative collaborations have provided filmgoers with some of the screen’s most magical moments: Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, John Ford and John Wayne, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Woody Allen and Mia Farrow (okay, so off-screen it was a different story), and Tim Burton and Johnny Depp,  just to name a few. One of the most fascinating of these cinematic pairings, and also one of the first, was between a director who ran away to join the circus as a teenager and was forever shaped by life under the big top, and an actor who served as his deaf parents’ link to the hearing world and learned first-hand the life of an outsider. The parallel hardships and tragedies in the lives of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney helped to make several of the 10 films they made between 1919-1929 among the strangest and most fascinating of the silent era.

The duo’s first effort together was the Universal crime drama The Wicked Darling, one in a series Browning helmed featuring the studio’s top melodramatic heroine, Priscilla Dean. Here she played Mary, a pickpocket who meets a proper young man and attempts to leave her life of crime, only to find her partner in larceny Stoop (Chaney, in a relatively makeup-free tough guy role) won’t let her. The film was successful enough for Browning to consider re-teaming Chaney with Dean right away, but the actor would move over to Paramount for a career-changing role as the phony cripple in The Miracle Man. Chaney would come back to Universal–and Browning and Dean–in 1920 for another crime thriller, Outside the Law. Chaney played two roles: a gangster who frames Dean’s ex-crook father in a shooting, sending the girl down a criminal path, and a Chinese immigrant who gets to kill Lon’s other characters in an early trick photography gunfight. Both movies are typical of what passed for “urban action” in the early 1900s and interesting if not all that noteworthy, with few of the idiosyncrasies that would be found in their later work. Over the next five years Browning would struggle with alcoholism and depression after his father’s death to regain his directorial status with the newly-formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, while Chaney would amaze audiences with his twisted (in several senses of the word) characters in such efforts as The Penalty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and He Who Gets Slapped.

The Browning/Chaney collaboration hit its sinister stride in 1925 with The Unholy Three, in which a trio of sideshow performers–ventriloquist Chaney, strongman Victor McLaglen, and midget Harry Earles–leaves life on the road and launches a bizarre robbery scheme. Setting up a pet shop, Chaney (disguised as an old lady) would sell “talking” parrots to rich customers, and later visit the victims’ homes with his partners to ransack them. McLaglen posed as Chaney’s assistant, while Earles pretended to be the old woman’s infant grandson, with Mae Busch, as Chaney’s girlfriend, playing his mother. Oh, and there also was a murderous ape who figures in the film’s “just desserts” finale. With lesser creative talent this all could have become so much slapstick, but Browning’s respect for the movie’s opening carnival milieu, Chaney’s air of menace beneath his cronish garb, and the support of McLaglen and Earles (whose thick Germanic accent made him hard to understand in his later talkie roles) took this rather preposterous premise and made it a genuinely eerie outing. It was also a major hit for MGM, and studio executive Irving Thalberg (who, when at Universal, had cast Chaney as Quasimodo in Hunchback) was happy to keep both men working together.

1926 would boast two lurid Browning dramas that spotlighted Chaney’s penchant for playing handicapped outcasts. The Blackbird was another crime tale, set in London’s Limehouse demimonde and featuring Chaney as the title villain. One role wasn’t enough for the actor, though, so in the film he also plays his fictitious sibling, a crippled Good Samaritan known as the Bishop.  Later that year came The Road to Mandalay, which exists now only in a truncated print, with a half-blind Chaney (who helped design the white class contact lens his Singapore Joe character wears) as a criminal in the Southeast Asian locale resorting to kidnapping and other desperate measures to keep daughter Loris Moran, who doesn’t know his identity, from marrying one of his former colleagues. In each of these films the themes of physical and psychological deformity that were marking Browning’s and Chaney’s work were evident. Browning once said that when it was time to start a new project, Chaney would “amble into my office and say, ‘Well, what’s it going to be boss?,'” to which he’d reply, “This time a leg comes off, or an arm, or a nose–whatever it may be.”

These themes would reach their zenith in 1927’s The Unknown, one of the most outré features a major studio ever released. Returning to the seamier sides of the circus world, the film starred Chaney as Alonzo the Armless, who used his feet in his knife-throwing act and is love with Nanon (a young Joan Crawford), daughter of the show’s disapproving owner. Alonzo, however, isn’t really handicapped, but disguises himself to hide a rare mutation (a double thumb) that would mark him as a wanted man as well as to be near Nanon, who has a phobia about being touched by men’s hands. When Chaney kills Crawford’s father after his secret is discovered, he blackmails a doctor into amputating his arms so he can escape detection and be with the woman he loves, only to learn upon returning to the circus that Crawford has overcome her fears and fallen for strongman Norman Kerry. The picture’s bizarre premises were attacked by many contemporary critics, who said its plot might have been “dashed off by…Leopold and Loeb in a quiet moment” and called it “typical Chaney fare spiced with cannibalism and flavored with the Spanish Inquisition.”

Lon Chaney: Classic Horror Movie MasterCompared to The Unknown, the next Browning/Chaney effort must have seemed almost tame. One of the most famous “lost films” of the 1920s, London After Midnight was also one of Hollywood’s first entries in the vampire genre and featured Chaney as both a Scotland Yard inspector and as a mysterious, top-hatted phantom with bulging eyes and shark-like teeth. Since it exists now only in a photographic re-creation of stills and title cards, it’s hard to gauge how truly scary London After Midnight was, but the defendant in a murder/attempted suicide trial in (appropriately) England attempted to use his viewing of the movie as a defense, saying that Chaney’s appearance had driven him to temporary insanity! Chaney and Browning returned to crime melodrama in 1928 with The Big City, but were back to more lurid fare later that year with West of Zanzibar. As a crippled magician seeking revenge on his late wife’s lover (Lionel Barrymore), with whom he believes she had the daughter child Chaney raised, Lon hatches a scheme that will consign the young woman to an East African brothel and a “fate worse than death.”  West of Zanizbar’s depraved goings-on (actually diluted from the stage play, which included venereal disease, on which the film was based) met with more critical brickbats: An editorial denouncing the film in one conservative trade journal was headlined “AN OUTPOURING OF THE CESSPOOLS OF HOLLYWOOD!”. Not surprisingly, however, it was also a success at the box office. The final Browning film to star Chaney was 1929’s Where East Is East, which covered familiar territory (exotic setting, weird family dynamics, scarred Chaney face) as wild animal trainer Lon stops at nothing to stop his beloved daughter’s estranged mother from stealing the girl’s boyfriend.

Chaney would make only two more movies (including his only talkie, a remake of The Unholy Three) before throat cancer claimed him at age 47  in 1930. His death meant that Browning’s next project–filming the stage play version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula for Universal–would have to go on without the director’s long-time collaborator.  Browning did, of course, complete the movie, with an actor who played the role on Broadway and with whom he made the 1929 thriller The Thirteenth Chair stepping into the role planned for Chaney: Bela Lugosi. After the cult shocker Freaks derailed his career, Browning would revamp London After Midnight as 1935’s Mark of the Vampire and helm a pair of genre entries–The Devil Doll and Miracles for Sale–before going into an involuntary retirement and eventually passing away in 1962. The years since have seen a re-evaluation of Browning’s body of work, with a particular renewal of interest in the 10 movies in which he and Chaney focused on the darkest recesses of the human psyche, with protagonists who would try to rise above–or, more often, were dragged down to destrcution by–their strange looks and contorted souls.