Tod Browning’s Tales of Tainted Love

tod1February is Tainted Love Month here at Biff Bam Pop!, which means we are celebrating love, but not the way most of the mainstream Valentine’s Day crowd see it. We’re bringing you tales of twisted romance, unrequited love, outrageous passions, and even the beasts whose names we dare not speak. We’ve been to space, seen vampires and werewolves, brothers and zombies, gods and super-villains, and even super stalkers. Yeah, tainted love, baby.

Now I’m going to take you to the glory days of Hollywood. Director Tod Browning (1880-1962) is perhaps best known for the 1931 Dracula, but the true highlights of his film career were in the 1920s silent film era, where along with the brilliant acting of Lon Chaney, and the twisted screenwriting of Waldemar Young, he created some of the most monstrous love stories known to man. Welcome to Tod Browning’s tales of tainted love, after the jump.

Collaborative Creative Dementia

tod2Tod Browning, before Dracula, made his share of creepy and twisted flicks. Most starred the greatest actor of the time, Lon Chaney, who was noted not only for his ‘normal’ roles, but mostly for his monsters in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, London After Midnight, and The Phantom of the Opera. With Browning, sometimes the monsters were on the inside rather than the outside.

Waldemar Young, the grandson of Brigham Young, believe it or not, was one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters of the era. He penned classic epics like The Crusades, The Sign of the Cross, and the original Cleopatra, all for Cecil B. DeMille. But when he was coupled with director Tod Browning, and actor Lon Chaney, the man became a creative engine of the most twisted tales of love of terror the silver screen had ever seen.

tod3The Unknown

The Unknown from 1927 is one of my favorite films of the silent era. The lore about the movie itself is almost as juicy as the plot of the flick itself. After seeing Lon Chaney’s powerful performance in the film, Burt Lancaster embarked upon a career in acting. The movie itself was lost for several decades, and finally found in a warehouse full of film cans, all marked ‘Unknown’ because they didn’t know what was in them. An amazing surprise to actually find a film by that title.

In the movie, set at a circus, Lon Chaney plays the armless knife thrower Alonzo, who is not really armless, but hiding out from his life as a criminal. Alonzo is smitten with Nanon, played by the very young Joan Crawford in one of her first lead roles. She has said Chaney taught her more about acting than anyone or anything else in her entire career. Nanon does not like to be touched by men, so Alonzo seems the perfect man. Alonzo plots to win her by (are you sitting down?) having his arms amputated.

tod4How’s that for effed up love? While Alonzo is away having his arms removed, Nanon gets over her fear of being touched by men, and falls for the circus strongman. The scene when Alonzo realizes this news is perhaps some of the greatest silent acting of all time, and why Chaney is a genius. His facial contortions are the stuff of legend. As is Alonzo’s vengeance on the strongman.

That’s just a sample of the tainted twisted love stories of Tod Browning, Waldemar Young, and Lon Chaney.

Freaks

tod5Now, Biff Bam Pop’s resident Steampunk Granny Marie Gilbert took a look at this classic Tod Browning horror a couple months back, during our 31 Days of Horror. Notably, Freaks is a talkie, and without frequent Browning collaborators Waldemar Young and Lon Chaney, although the story, by Tod Robbins, is very Young-like. The movie is most famous for its use of real freaks (the term of the day) in the roles as themselves.

This scenario is also a twisted love triangle set in the circus. Harry Earles plays the little person Hans who has a considerable fortune and is in love with the devious and beautiful Olga Baclanova as the trapeze artist Cleopatra. They marry. He for love, she for money and at the same time romancing Henry Victor, the strong man Hercules. Man, these strong men are always bad news in Browning flicks!

The wedding ceremony is notorious for the mesmerizing scene where the freaks are chanting, “We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!”

So much for marital bliss. Once it’s known she’s really with Hercules and after Hans’ money, the freaks strike back, and their vengeance is indeed very twisted.

The Unholy Three

tod6Both Lon Chaney and Waldemar Young are back for this one, as well as Harry Earles in this one based again on a Tod Robbins short story with circus roots. The film was made twice, once in 1925 and once in 1930, the latter being Chaney’s only foray into talkies. The story is roughly the same, just with dialogue. Both are amazing, and it is astonishing to see that Chaney is just as brilliant with his voice as he was with his face. I prefer the silent however, but I’m a purist, and because Browning directed the 1925 version.

Three former circus performers leave for the city to embark on a life of crime. There is Echo the ventriloquist played by Chaney, who takes the cover of an old lady, Mrs. O’Grady; Tweedledee, the little person Earles, who becomes her grandbaby; and Hercules (again?), played by Victor McLagen, probably best known for his role as the antagonist in The Quiet Man, who becomes the old lady’s assistant. These Unholy Three launch a crime wave that rocks the city.

Echo’s girlfriend, posing as his daughter, Rosie O’Grady (vamp Mae Busch), is in on the heists until her lover (not Echo) is implicated in a murder committed by the three. Echo eventually, for love, confesses and clears Rosie’s lover. The trial is only overshadowed by the giant gorilla. Great crime thriller tension, backstabbing, and did I mention the giant gorilla?

tod7West of Zanzibar

This one is perhaps the darkest of the Browning/Chaney love stories, and one of Chaney’s most chilling performances, in my opinion at least. He plays Phroso the magician whose wife is cheating on him with Lionel Barrymore. Lon and Lionel fight, and in a fall, Phroso loses the use of his legs. Bitter and vengeful, Phroso, journeys to Zanzibar, where he knows his rival to be, and there he sets himself up as the leader of the natives.

tod8Here’s where it gets dark. Chaney takes the young girl he believes to be the daughter of his wife and Barrymore, and sends her to a brothel. When Barrymore finally appears in Zanzibar, Chaney shows off what he has made of his daughter. Barrymore laughs, and then reveals that the daughter is not his, but Phroso’s!

Even the dynamic acting of Barrymore is completely overshadowed by Chaney’s reaction to this news. In less than a minute we are witness to the full talent that is Chaney, as well as perhaps the greatest acting shot in silent film. It is both brilliant and heartbreaking, a moment perhaps even more tremendous than the one I mentioned above in The Unknown.

How’s that for tainted love? Happy belated Valentine’s Day, folks, feel the love.

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5 Replies to “Tod Browning’s Tales of Tainted Love”

    1. Marie, they’re available on DVD, and are shown frequently on TCM’s Silent Sunday Nights. An edited version of West of Zanzibar, and many clips from the two Unholy Three flicks can be found on YouTube if you search.

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