Browning’s Themes and Personal History

Reality vs. appearance (physical beauty masking perversity) is one of the key themes in Browning’s work. Another is sexual frustration and emasculation. These themes lie at the very heart of Freaks. As Stuart Rosenthal wrote in 1975:

The bulk of Freaks is spent dispelling the viewer’s initial revulsion to the title characters. They are shown in the activities of normal life. Running countercurrent to the normalisation of the freaks is the bestialising of Cleopatra and Hercules.1

…the marriage of Hans to Cleopatra is a collision of absolute sexual opposites – the attempted consummation of an impossible union.2

The emasculation/castration theme, in particular, is one Browning explored obsessively in his films (especially those made with Lon Chaney). David J. Skal asserts in Dark Carnival (his biography of Browning) that Freud in a ‘half-baked form’ was popular in Hollywood in the 1920s and that Browning used overt sexual symbolism to rivet an audience’s attention.3 The sense of ‘castration anxiety’ (whilst perhaps having specific personal connotations for Browning) was, as Skal notes, culturally a symptom of ‘universal unease’.4 The nature of this unease lay in the emasculation of America’s menfolk in World War 1; in the powerlessness felt by the masses in the face of the Depression; in the threat to masculinity posed by wide-spread unemployment. Browning’s ability to tap into the zeitgeist was borne of personal experience – a fusing of personal pre-occupation and national trauma. Browning’s connection to his audience stems partly from trauma in his own life.

Tod Browning on the set of Freaks (1932)

Browning was born in Kentucky in 1889 into a working-class family. His father was a bricklayer, carpenter and machinist. His parents were Baptists. Browning sought to escape early on. As Skal notes in Dark Carnival, ‘Browning dreamt of a world beyond – that of running away with the circus’.5

At the age of 16 he did just that, becoming a talker for acts such as ‘The Wild Man of Borneo’, as well as performing his own live burial routine: ‘The Living Corpse’. The alternative society of the circus shaped his disdain for normal mainstream society. Regular folks were there to be tricked and exploited. Skal comments: ‘the carny ethos divided the world into rigid camps: show people and everyone else’.6 Circus life, for Browning, represented a flight from conventional lifestyles and responsibilities, which later manifested itself in a love of liquor, gambling and fast cars.

From the circus, he moved into vaudeville – gradually breaking away from his hometown when a chance meeting with fellow Kentuckian, D.W Griffith, took him to Hollywood as an actor. A non-conformist within his family, he seems to have taken after his uncle, the baseball player Pete Browning. Like Pete he was alcoholic from a young age (an affliction that would eventually result in Pete being committed to a mental institution).

The stigma of alcoholism – which eugenicists claimed was an inherited disorder – could not have been lost on Browning. Alcoholism was to contribute to a major trauma in Browning’s personal life that would shape his thematic obsessions: a car crash in 1915 which resulted in the death of a passenger, Elmer Booth. Browning was driving under the influence when his car hit a train at a railway crossing. Browning himself suffered serious injuries: a shattered right leg, unspecified internal injuries and likely the loss of his front teeth.

Tod Browning

The long-standing Hollywood rumour that Browning was actually castrated in the crash is part of the mythology surrounding Browning. It is, as Skal says, ‘completely unsubstantiated’.7 However, Hollywood insiders of the time, such as director George E. Marshall, have asserted that Browning’s injuries to some extent limited his physical activities as an adult.8 Whatever the true nature and extent of his injuries, the trauma that Browning experienced was genuine and profound. Skal comments that the loss of teeth at an early age could have been experienced as a kind of emasculation and describes Browning’s addiction to alcohol as ‘infantalising and oral’.9 Given his preoccupation with physical disability and oral fixation – and the sexual frustration themes – these are likely to have originated in his physical injuries and difficult subsequent re-adjustment (including to married life).

There is no doubt, according to Skal, that the trauma of the accident had ‘significant psychological ramifications’10 for Browning (such as guilt and sexual displacement) and later, compounded by the death of his father, precipitated a crisis in Browning’s life: he embarked on a period of alcohol abuse and an affair with Chinese actress Anna May Wong (this act of ‘miscegenation’ – abhorred as it was by eugenics ideology – must have further stigmatised Browning) which led to him being laid off by Universal and to his wife leaving him.

After 1915, however, Browning began to direct his traumatic experience into his work – radically reshaping it in the process. As Skal has noted:

A distinct pattern had appeared in his post-accident body of work, distinguishing it from the comedy that had been his speciality before 1915. Now his focus was moralistic melodrama, with recurrent themes of crime, culpability and retribution.11

In 1918, Browning met Irving Thalberg who paired him with Lon Chaney: they made ten films together. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Chaney in Browning’s development as a director. Chaney, as Stuart Rosenthal has noted, was the perfect embodiment of the type of character that interested Browning: ‘a man who has been reduced to the state of an animal… whose physical deformity reflects the mental mutilation he has suffered at the hands of some element of callous society.’12 Through Chaney, Browning was able to give form to the themes and obsessions that would culminate (albeit without Chaney) in Freaks.

Their relationship was symbiotic and, if we are to understand Browning more fully, it is necessary to examine briefly the rapport between Browning and Chaney; their similarities and convergences.

Lon Chaney

As it was to Browning, eugenics ideology must have been repugnant to Chaney, for personal reasons: both Chaney’s parents were born deaf (deafness was, according to eugenicists, a trait of defective heredity). As a result, Chaney became skilled in pantomime and, like Browning, entered a career in vaudeville, before scandal forced him out of theatre and into film.

Chaney lived in poverty as a bit part player for many years; that and the stigma of deaf-mute parentage is possibly what led him to identify with afflicted screen characters. Chaney is quoted as saying:

I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, the misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation.13

As Skal has noted, Chaney represented to the public of the time a ‘protean spirit’14, an embodiment of the transformation that many longed for in the speculative 1920s. But he also represented the ‘disfigurement anxiety’ of that decade. Soldiers returning from the front, many with lost limbs and mutilated faces, became a common sight; this seemed only to intensify the insecurities fostered in the general public by eugenics – the sense of possessing physical ‘disfigurements’ (an ‘ill-shaped nose’) as a result of poor genes. Many disabled soldiers found they were shunned in public as a result. And despite the economic boom of the late 1920s, millions of Americans still lived below the poverty line. Chaney’s characters are similarly disenfranchised but they cling to the hope of better times to come, to the promise of change.

Chaney is possibly horror cinema’s first ‘sympathetic monster’. Two images recur in his films: the slap and the clenched fist. In He Who Gets Slapped (1924), Chaney plays a circus clown driven to re-enact the humiliation of his past life. He has been deceived by his wife and his past employer – a literal and metaphorical slap in the face that Chaney repeats each night in his show. When Chaney falls in love with another circus performer, she too slaps him, albeit playfully, but the slap carries a resonance apparent only to Chaney and the audience. This moment in the film perfectly demonstrates Chaney’s ability to carry a scene of empathy – here is a man destined only to experience humiliation.

Lon Chaney

Chaney’s monsters only become so because their feelings are spurned. The clenched fist motif – most memorable in the finale of Phantom of the Opera (1925) – acts as a metaphor for this. It tells us that we have been afraid of something that is not there: the monster is not really a monster inside.

Ray Bradbury summed up Chaney’s appeal to 1920s audiences in this erudite comment:

He was someone who acted out our psyches. He somehow got into the shadows inside our bodies; he was able to nail down some of our secret fears and put them on screen. The history of Lon Chaney is the history of unrequited loves. He brings that part of you out into the open, because you fear that you are not loved, you fear that you will never be loved, you fear that there is some part of you that is grotesque; that the world will turn away from.15

The fear that some part of you is grotesque: exactly how the masses must have felt in the era of eugenics.

The Unknown (1927)

The pinnacle of the Browning-Chaney collaboration, The Unknown showcases Chaney’s empathetic disfigured ‘monster’ in Alonzo the Armless, and reduces Browning’s theme of castration/emasculation to the level of absurdism. The plot – as Steve Haberman points out in his study of silent horror films, Silent Screams – is ‘relentless in its construction around one single idea’16: the loss of limbs. The film depicts Alonzo’s mad obsession with losing his arms in order to win the woman he loves; a woman, who has a neurotic dread of being embraced by a man. The film, in some ways, seems to allude to a condition of extreme body dysmorphia – the psychological illness which typically leads sufferers to seek voluntary dismemberment of body parts which they view as alien or abject. Moreover, the symbolism in the film draws very strongly on Freud’s theory of The Uncanny, itself closely connected to the castration complex. The doppelganger, a key motif in The Uncanny, is apparent in Browning’s film in the doubling of limbs (Alonzo’s actual physical peculiarity is the possession of a double thumb on one hand).

The doppelganger, according to Freud, is a projection of the unconscious in compensation for the anticipation of physical loss or dismemberment, itself a neurotic consequence of the socialisation process in determining traditional gender roles during childhood. The dread of loss, both physical and emotional – one of the major concerns of the horror genre – arises from this childhood fear of castration.

Browning’s film links the theme of symbolic castration with the fear of the loss of close interpersonal relationships. Alonzo dreads the loss of the woman he loves to the extent that he would rather have his arms surgically removed than be without her – itself a neurotic thought-form, the absurdity of which becomes apparent to Alonzo later in the film when he realises that his sacrifice has been in vain.

This extraordinary scene of empathy, when Alonzo, having had his arms removed, learns that the woman has overcome her phobia to fall in love with the circus strongman, illustrates just what Chaney brought to Browning. David J. Skal has described Browning as a ‘cynical artist with a despairing view of the human condition’.17 Chaney, however, counterbalanced this tendency in Browning with his largely sympathetic portrayal of the ‘lowest types of humanity’. Chaney’s humane approach to the afflicted was to stay with Browning into Freaks.

Lon Chaney in The Unknown (1927)

End notes.

  1. Rosenthal, Stuart (1975) ‘Tod Browning’ in The Hollywood Professionals: Volume 4, Tantivity Press, London, p24.
  2. Rosenthal, p35.
  3. Skal, David J, and Savada, Elias (1995), Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood’s Master of the Macabre, Anchor Books, p103.
  4. Skal and Savada, P109.
  5. Skal and Savada, P21.
  6. Skal and Savada, p23.
  7. Skal and Savada, p108.
  8. Quoted in Skal and Savada, p88.
  9. ibid.
  10. Skal and Savada, p49.
  11. Skal and Savada, p55.
  12. Rosenthal, p9-10.
  13. Quote taken from Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000) dir. Kevin Brownlow.
  14. See Skal, The Monster Show, p70.
  15. Quote taken from Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces.
  16. Haberman, Steve (2003) Silent Screams: Chronicles of Terror, Luminary Press, Baltimore, p163.
  17. Quoted from an interview with Skal in ‘Freaks: Sideshow Cinema’ (2004). DVD extra on Freaks DVD (Warner Homes Video).