This text is copied from Microsoft's Cinemania97 (now discontinued)
(1882 - 1962)
Also: Screenwriter, actor
Born As: Charles Albert Browning
Born: July 12, 1882, Louisville, KY
Died: 1962, Santa Monica, CA
Browning turned to directing after working in the circus, vaudeville and as a film actor. His early films, for Metro and Universal, have been described as routine melodramas and did little to advance his career. It was Browning's collaborations with Lon Chaney that pulled him from the rank and file to a position as one of Hollywood's bankable directors.
Much of Browning's reputation as one of the top directors of horror films rests on the Chaney silents. However, these films remain largely inaccessible (THE UNHOLY THREE, 1925, THE ROAD TO MANDALAY, 1926, THE UNKNOWN, 1927, etc.) or completely lost (LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, 1927). Little doubt remains that the creative force behind the films was Chaney himself, with his expressive makeup and physical contortions. DRACULA (1931), originally planned as a Chaney vehicle before his untimely death, is another film that succeeds largely because of a performance; Bela Lugosi's distant, stylized portrayal of the vampire conveys an elegance that Browning's use of the camera fails to match. Although the film's early scenes set in Transylvania have a degree of atmosphere, the shift of the setting to England brings with it a plodding, static quality, reflecting the screenplay's debt to the stage adaptation of Dracula. Though the ponderous script is largely to blame, Browning must bear some responsibility for DRACULA'S anemic style; instead of showing action the director is content to let characters describe it. Similarly, FREAKS (1932) achieved its early infamy and current cult status through its use of real circus "freaks," who command a voyeuristic appeal, rather than through strong plotting or directorial flourish. Browning's camera again remains static; much of the film is shot in tableaux, and technically it appears to be from an earlier period. Only in the final sequence, as the freaks chase the trapeze artist through the mud and rain to revenge one of their own, do shot selection and editing begin to correspond to the bizarre quality of the story.
Browning's two best directorial efforts in sound horror film are usually obscured by the reputations of DRACULA and FREAKS. MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935), a remake of LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, maintains a consistently eerie atmosphere and contains several understated scenes of chilling beauty featuring Lugosi and the ethereal Carol Borland as a "vampire" couple. Despite the fact that the film's supernatural elements give way by the conclusion to a standard mystery story, Browning here displays more control and visual polish than in either DRACULA or FREAKS. THE DEVIL-DOLL (1936), in which Devil's Island escapee Lionel Barrymore shrinks the partners who framed him for embezzlement to the size of toys, is in many ways a standard revenge melodrama. But the director makes inventive use of a wide variety of cinematic toolsócanted shots, a moving camera, montagesóto enhance the suspense and charge of the science fiction trappings. Only a protracted denouement mars what is certainly Browning's best film.
While Browning's movies have certainly provided audiences with a few shudders, he is no longer considered "the Edgar Allan Poe of the cinema." Critical opinion in the past twenty years has found his work to be infused with a curious indifference; something which would seem to be corroborated by his decision to retire from directing in 1939 to concentrate on his real estate holdings.
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