Unspeakable: The Films of Tod Browning
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
The Wicked Darling + Dollar Down
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin on March 19!First up in this double bill of silent melodramas, Priscilla Dean and Lon Chaney star as a pair of scuzzy pickpockets at odds over a stolen pearl necklace in The Wicked Darling. Next is Dollar Down, a partially lost morality tale pertaining to a different kind of horror: that of a middle-class family living beyond their means and falling prey to moneylenders.
Outside the Law (1920) + The Exquisite Thief
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton on March 25!Criminal leader Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis) and his daughter, Molly (Priscilla Dean), are striving to lead a reformed life in San Francisco’s Chinatown—until the menacing gangster Black Mike Sylva (Lon Chaney) frames Silent for murder. Seeking vengeance and restitution, Molly becomes embroiled in a cat-and-mouse battle of wits involving a risky jewel heist and layers of deception and double-crossing. Screening with The Exquisite Thief.
4K Restoration · Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin on March 21!In his penultimate collaboration with Priscilla Dean, Browning weaves an intricate crime drama set against the backdrop of the Shanghai opium trade that also features a pivotal supporting performance from 18-year-old Anna May Wong, here in one of her first film roles.
The Unholy Three
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin on March 25!Marking the first of their eight film collaborations at MGM, Browning and Lon Chaney teamed up for this singularly unsettling melodrama following a trio of swindlers and former sideshow castmates who impersonate a respectable family of shopkeepers, the better to scam and burgle their wealthy customers.
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin on March 24!A disquieting tale of illusion versus reality, this evident precursor to The Unknown stars Lon Chaney in dual roles: the titular criminal, who vies for the affections of a music hall puppeteer, and his palsied twin brother, known as the Bishop, who covers up his own crimes by using a charity operation and faked disability as elaborate fronts.
New 2K Restoration · Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin on March 19 & 24!A Freudian pile-up of repressed desires, castration anxiety, and Oedipal plots, The Unknown is widely considered Browning’s crowning achievement and one of the greatest works of the silent era. Starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford.
West of Zanzibar
Where East Is East
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin on March 21!Browning and Lon Chaney’s final film together, Where East Is East transports the duo to French Indochina, where a facially disfigured animal trapper (Chaney) has a seemingly chipper relationship with his daughter (Lupe Velez) that is sidelined by the appearance of her American fiancé (Lloyd Hughes) and her estranged mother (Estelle Taylor).
Outside the Law (1930)
Mark of the Vampire
Miracles for Sale
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