Tod Browning (1880–1962) ranks among the most original and enigmatic filmmakers of his time. Born Charles Albert Browning, Jr., son of a middle-class family, he ran away from his Kentucky home at age 16 to join the circus, where he took jobs as a barker, a contortionist, a clown, and a somnambulist buried alive in a box with its own ventilation system. Following a stint in vaudeville and adopting the moniker Tod (German for “death”), Browning eventually found a home in cinema as an actor until a life-altering car accident placed him behind the camera. He went on to direct a series of underworld melodramas, including nine films starring Priscilla Dean (Outside the Law and Drifting), before making some of the most bizarre and eerily atmospheric films of the silent era with Lon Chaney (in a 10-film collaboration including The Unknown, widely considered Browning’s masterpiece). Chaney’s death in 1930 coincided with the director’s transition to sound, notably with his genre-defining version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and his transgressive, career-tarnishing Freaks, later reappraised by Andrew Sarris as “one of the most compassionate films ever made.” Browning has been described as one of cinema’s thorniest humanists as well as “the first diabolist of the cinema,” whose influence can be seen in the work of David Lynch, John Waters, Guillermo del Toro, and David Cronenberg. Though his films retain complex moral ambiguities, a glance at this transgressive body of work reveals a visionary with an eye for stylization and memorable performances from Hollywood stars and non-professional actors. His groundbreaking achievements in horror and underworld melodramas were typified by incisive manifestations of beauty, alongside lifelong personal obsessions with the sideshow milieu, criminality and retribution, and psychosexual innuendo.

Organized by Tyler Wilson and Maddie Whittle.

Cinémathèque française; Eye Filmmuseum, Netherlands; George Eastman Museum; Library of Congress; UCLA Film & Television Archive; Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton