Film at Lincoln Center announces Unspeakable: The Films of Tod Browning, a retrospective of the pioneering filmmaker’s career consisting of 17 films presented almost entirely on 35mm, running from March 17 through 26.
The series will almost entirely be comprised of 35mm screenings of Browning’s films, including the beloved Dracula, considered the director’s only true horror film and an understated and elegantly stylized masterpiece of the uncanny; Freaks, a transgressive, unnerving work pitched somewhere between daringly compassionate and—despite its infamous “one of us” chant—charged with the very horrors it denounces; The Unholy Three, an unsettling melodrama that stars Lon Chaney as a ventriloquist and follows a trio of swindlers and former sideshow castmates who impersonate a respectable family of shopkeepers; and the rarely screened 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.
The series will also feature a new restoration of The Unknown—a Freudian pile-up of repressed desires, castration anxiety, and Oedipal subtext, and widely considered Browning’s crowning achievement—including approximately 10 minutes of previously lost shots and sequences.
Select screenings of Browning’s silent films will feature live piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin, one of the foremost silent film composers in the world, with 49 years of performing at major film festivals and archives, joined by Joanna Seaton for Outside the Law (1920).
Organized by Tyler Wilson and Madeline Whittle.
FILMS & DESCRIPTIONS
All films will screen at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.). See the full schedule and buy tickets here.
The Wicked Darling
Tod Browning, 1919, USA, 59m
Dutch intertitles with English subtitles
Flashes of Browning’s sophisticated visual sense enliven this briskly entertaining gutter melodrama starring Priscilla Dean and Lon Chaney—the first of Chaney’s 10 collaborations with the director—as a pair of pickpockets at odds over a stolen pearl necklace whose rightful owner (Wellington Playter) becomes the object of Dean’s affection. Shot almost entirely at night in flophouses, saloons, and alleyways, The Wicked Darling imparts a particularly bleak perspective of city life and its outré inhabitants, among them a ghostly Spottiswoode Aitken and pro wrestler Kalla Pasha, who fit perfectly into Browning’s oddly unsettled milieu. This film also established Dean as a new kind of film heroine, the alluring criminal who makes a turnabout in the final reel (see Outside the Law, Drifting). Courtesy of Eye Filmmuseum.
Tod Browning, 1925, USA, 35mm, 50m
Just before he propelled the crime melodrama to new, macabre heights in The Unholy Three, Browning directed this 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. Produced by and starring Ruth Roland for FBO Studios, a small operation that later became RKO Pictures, Dollar Down follows Roland as the spendthrift daughter of a manufacturing firm’s general manager (Henry Walthall), who pawns a ring purchased on credit to throw an extravagant party and sends the family’s livelihood into a tailspin. Because its last reel completely disintegrated before it could be copied, the film remains an ultra-rare curio that nonetheless captures an important chapter in Browning’s career before his successful string of films made for MGM. 35mm preservation print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Outside the Law
Tod Browning, 1920, USA, 35mm, 76m
Browning’s second outing with Lon Chaney was primarily conceived as a vehicle for silent starlet Priscilla Dean, with whom Browning would make nine films in all. Under the salutary influence of Confucian philosopher Chang Low (E. Alyn Warren), criminal leader Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis) and his daughter, Molly (Dean), are striving to lead a reformed life in San Francisco’s Chinatown—until Silent’s rival, the menacing gangster Black Mike Sylva (Chaney), frames him for murder.
Seeking vengeance and restitution—with the help of her new lover, Sylva’s erstwhile co-conspirator—Molly becomes embroiled in a cat-and-mouse battle of wits involving a risky jewel heist and layers of deception and double-crossing, all of which culminates in a thrilling shoot-out between Sylva and Low’s servant (also played by Chaney, whose appearance in the dual roles was made possible by then-novel feats of trick photography and editing). 35mm print preserved by the Library of Congress.
The Exquisite Thief
Tod Browning, 1919, USA, 35mm, 11m
Excavated during the Dawson Film Find in 1978, the second reel of The Exquisite Thief (the only known surviving footage) picks up during a car chase and follows Universal leading lady Priscilla Dean—in one of several crooked heroine roles she played for Browning—as she burgles high-society dinner guests. While little can be gleaned from this mere fragment, the candlelit exterior nighttime scenes suggest Browning was already tapping natural sources as a means of achieving sophisticated lighting effects, a technique he would use with uncanny results in subsequent features. 35mm print preserved by the Library of Congress.
Tod Browning, 1923, USA, 84m
In his penultimate collaboration with Priscilla Dean, adapted from the Broadway play of the same name, Browning weaves an intricate crime drama that also features a pivotal supporting performance from 18-year-old Anna May Wong in one of her first film roles. Dean delivers a steely and multifaceted turn as Cassie Cook, a jaded young woman involved in the Shanghai opium trade whose sights are set on escape, as she has made up her mind to return to America with her drug-addicted friend Molly Norton (Edna Tichenor) in tow.
Facing a shortage of cash, she retreats to Hang Chow, a small village near the poppy fields, to intercept a smuggling job organized by her rival-turned-colleague Jules Repin (Wallace Beery), but she is soon sidetracked by the task of sussing out whether the white engineer working to revive a decommissioned mine is, in fact, a government plant with a mandate to disrupt the town’s black market activities. Restoration courtesy of George Eastman Museum.
The Unholy Three
Tod Browning, 1925, USA, 35mm, 80m
Marking the first of their eight film collaborations at MGM, in the aftermath of producer Irving Thalberg’s move from Universal, Browning and Lon Chaney teamed up for this singularly unsettling adaptation of Tod Robbins’s 1917 circus novel of the same name. Chaney stars as ventriloquist Professor Echo, the leader of a trio of swindlers and former sideshow castmates who, along with Echo’s pickpocket girlfriend, Rosie (Mae Busch), collectively impersonate a respectable family of shopkeepers, the better to scam and steal from their wealthy customers.
When a badly botched burglary results in murder and the panicked criminals opt to frame an innocent man, Echo and Rosie face a moral reckoning whose bittersweet resolution cements the film’s status as a justly celebrated pinnacle of Browning’s signature brand of outré melodrama, depicting the ethical calculus of lives lived on the margins and in the shadows. 35mm print preserved by George Eastman Museum.
Tod Browning, 1926, USA, 35mm, 86m
Browning’s penchant for dark, controlled ambience and unsettling characters transforms this crook-scam programmer into phantasmagoric doppelgänger horror. Adapted from a screenplay by Waldemar Young (The Unholy Three), based on an original story by Browning, The Blackbird once again played to the public’s appetite for perverse physical theater and stars Lon Chaney in dual roles: the titular criminal, who vies for the affections of a music hall puppeteer (Renée Adorée), 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.
This evident precursor to The Unknown is a disquieting tale of illusion versus reality containing some of Browning’s strangest scenes—including a bizarre puppet show, Chaney’s near-farcical quick-change transformations, and a startlingly ironic climax worthy of O. Henry. 35mm print preserved by George Eastman Museum.
Tod Browning, 1927, USA, 66m
“This is a story they tell in old Madrid… the story, they say, is true.” A Freudian pile-up of repressed desires, castration anxiety, and Oedipal subtext, The Unknown is widely considered Browning’s crowning achievement and one of the premier works of the silent era. Lon Chaney stars as the Great Alonzo, a supposedly armless precision knife-thrower with a secret or two, including his love for Nanon (Joan Crawford in her breakout role), his assistant, who is possessed by a phobia of men’s upper extremities.
Unencumbered by subplots or final-reel repentances, Browning crafts a hallucinatory parable of pent-up passions run amok that unfurls with delirious, brute-force momentum until the very last moment—as strange and haunting today as it was nearly a century ago. The Unknown has finally been restored to essentially its full length by the George Eastman Museum, with approximately 10 minutes of previously lost shots and sequences taken from a Czech export print in the collection of the National Film Archive in Prague. 35mm print restored by the George Eastman Museum with funding from National Film Preservation Foundation.
West of Zanzibar
Tod Browning, 1928, USA, 35mm, 65m
One of the most demented melodramas to emerge from Hollywood’s pre-Code era is this misdirected revenge yarn about a cuckold magician named Phroso (Lon Chaney), who is paralyzed from the waist down while grappling with his wife’s lover, Crane (Lionel Barrymore). Eighteen years later, Phroso bitterly follows Crane, an ivory trader, to the Congo and effectively becomes a wheelchair-bound Conradian demigod hellbent on punishing his nemesis and his born-out-of-wedlock daughter (Mary Nolan).
Along the way there is plenty of preposterous dialogue, an imperfect critique of colonialist arrogance, and some skin-crawling sadism involving one of Browning’s pet themes: parent-child alienation. In just over an hour, West of Zanzibar invokes a claustrophobic fever dream with a palpable sense of dread and a vivid production design, complemented by the film’s moody shadowplay (courtesy of DP Percy Hilburn, who also shot The Unholy Three and The Blackbird). 35mm release print presented with a synchronized orchestral score and sound effects.
Where East Is East
Tod Browning, 1929, USA, 35mm, 67m
Browning and Lon Chaney’s final film together before the latter’s death in 1930, Where East Is East transports the duo to French Indochina, which finds them operating in a more tender register than their previous collaborations—a peculiar tone considering the deviant love triangle at the film’s center. The story concerns a facially disfigured animal trapper named Tiger Haynes (Chaney), whose loving relationship with his daughter, Toyo (Lupe Velez), is sidelined by the appearance of her American fiancé (Lloyd Hughes) and her estranged mother, Madame de Sylva (Estelle Taylor), who decides to punish Tiger by seducing her daughter’s suitor.
Chaney’s passive role makes way for magnetic lead performances from Velez and Taylor. Browning’s powers as an aesthetician are on full display in the exquisite compositions; many include real animals, but one particularly striking moment of artifice involves a gorilla. 35mm print preserved by the Cinémathèque française.
Outside the Law
Tod Browning, 1930, USA, 35mm, 79m
A year before breaking out as a star in his own right with an iconic lead performance in Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar, Edward G. Robinson made an indelible mark on Browning’s filmography in the director’s second sound picture, a loose remake of Browning’s own 1920 silent film of the same name. Here, Robinson steals the show as Cobra Collins, a scowling Los Angeles gangster and the counterpart to Lon Chaney’s Black Mike Sylva. When the rival crook Fingers O’Dell (Owen Moore) and his moll, Connie Madden (Mary Nolan), successfully plot to execute a lucrative robbery in Collins’s territory and refuse to split the loot with the gang boss, they’re forced into hiding in an apartment-bound domestic setup that chafes Madden’s outlaw sensibility—until a final confrontation with Collins brings the simmering melodrama to an explosively sordid climax.
Tod Browning, 1931, USA, 35mm, 75m
Two years after their first collaboration, The Thirteenth Chair, Browning reunited with the then-little-known Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi to craft a monstrous performance for the ages. Lugosi had originated the role of the count several years prior in the Broadway stage version of Bram Stoker’s 1897 genre-defining novel, and the mysterious, menacing refinement of his interpretation, once committed to film, would leave its mark on every subsequent depiction of the Transylvanian bloodsucker.
Browning’s “only true horror film,” as the scholar Vivian Sobchack has characterized it, is an understated and elegantly stylized masterpiece of the uncanny. A macabre work of perverse Gothic melodrama, it kicked off the first cycle of Universal horror films, which would come to define the studio’s corporate and aesthetic identity in the years immediately following Hollywood’s silent-to-sound transition. Centennial restoration print of the original theatrical cut courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Tod Browning, 1931, USA, 35mm, 78m
Based on a popular novel by The Asphalt Jungle writer W. R. Burnett, Browning’s immediate follow-up to Dracula is this cautionary tale starring Lew Ayres (fresh off All Quiet on the Western Front) as Kid Mason, a lightweight boxing champ whose affection is divided between his friend and manager (Robert Armstrong) and his double-crossing wife (Jean Harlow).
One of a handful of boxing movies made by Hollywood during the Depression years, Iron Man offers an unusual milieu for the moral and sexual frustrations of Browning’s cinema. Although these motifs are certainly present here, they are disguised by a surprisingly sensitive, understated direction, typified by impressive camerawork doubtlessly inspired by Browning’s time with DP Karl Freund on Dracula. The result is one of the filmmaker’s most neglected, yet affecting works.
Tod Browning, 1932, USA, 35mm, 64m
The success of Dracula offered Browning a long leash for his return to MGM, where head of production Irving Thalberg (who produced many of Browning’s Lon Chaney collaborations) impressed upon the director that he should “out-horror” the Universal monster movies with a more ambitious version of the circus films for which he was known. Initially conceived as a follow-up to The Unholy Three, Freaks tells the doomed love story of Hans (Harry Earles), a moneyed circus performer with dwarfism manipulated into marriage with a gold-digging trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova), to the suspicion of his former fiancée and fellow performers.
From its original conception as an exceedingly disturbing horror film, pulled from distribution shortly after its release, to its revival in the 1960s as an avant-garde work in the tradition of Buñuel, Freaks has survived numerous appropriations as genre trailblazer and curio on the art- and exploitation-house circuits. Shifting from finely shaded, dreamlike chiaroscuro to documentary pragmatism, the filmremains a transgressive, unnerving work pitched somewhere between daringly compassionate and—despite its infamous “one of us” chant—charged with the very horrors it denounces.
Mark of the Vampire
Tod Browning, 1935, USA, 35mm, 61m
In this horror film to end all horror films, a densely composed satire disguised as a vampire mystery, Browning delivers a slyly irreverent takedown of the genre that established and broke his career. A prominent Prague resident is discovered murdered in his home, with all signs indicating a bloodsucking attack, and an occultist (a delightfully scene-chewing Lionel Barrymore) is called in to assist with the investigation. Locals conjecture that the murder must be the work of Count Mora (Bela Lugosi), who lives in a vacant castle with his chalky daughter, Luna… but nothing is as it seems.
Throughout, Browning brilliantly manipulates the artifice etched in its story (co-written by Guy Endore) with baroque compositions by DP James Wong Howe, whose elaborate tracking shots inhabit a sinister atmosphere punctuated with minimalist sound effects of eerie groans and nocturnal animal noises. Mark of the Vampire has been credited with introducing the “look” of the female screen vampire.
Tod Browning, 1936, USA, 35mm, 78m
An unsung gem among Browning’s late-career work, the director’s penultimate film is a hilariously loony horror-fantasy loosely based on the novel Burn, Witch, Burn! by Abraham Merritt. Lionel Barrymore plays Paul Lavond, a former banker wrongfully convicted of murder who escapes from prison and happens upon technology that turns living things into perfectly shrunken homunculi that can be controlled telepathically.
Lavond decides to use this mechanism to exact revenge on his crooked associates—but his scheme requires him to assume the disguise of an old woman for almost the entire film. This imaginative, Dumasian revenge tale finds Browning returning to pet themes of mesmeric influence and parental estrangement, but the film’s carnivalesque spectacle of double-exposure techniques and gigantically oversized sets—plus Barrymore’s totally committed drag performance—nearly turn The Devil-Doll into all-out farce. 35mm print preserved by George Eastman Museum.
Miracles for Sale
Tod Browning, 1939, USA, 35mm, 71m
Browning’s last film, adapted from mystery novelist Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat, is a briskly paced locked-room whodunnit that showcases the director’s fascination with the moral implications of professional magic-making. The Amazing Morgan (Robert Young) is a debonair ex-magician in New York City who’s settled into a career devising original illusions and selling them to working prestidigitators. He’s also made a name for himself as a principled debunker of fraudulent spiritualists, and when his help is enlisted by a young woman seeking to expose the truth about famed psychic Madame Rapport (an otherworldly Gloria Holden), Morgan stumbles into a murder investigation around the death of a mysterious “demonologist.”
A series of encounters with fellow illusionists follows as Morgan aids police detectives in their efforts to narrow down the list of suspects, and the result is Browning’s swan song, a final cinematic homage to the craft and mechanics of theatrical trickery. 35mm print preserved by George Eastman Museum.