WILTON – He is best known as the director of the original “Dracula” (1931) starring Bela Lugosi and the first cult classic “Freaks” (1932), a horror film starring disabled circus performers.
But long before these macabre masterpieces, director Tod Browning pushed the boundaries of cinema while developing his craft in the silent era.
Often collaborating with legendary actor Lon Chaney, Browning specialized in twisted melodramas, crime thrillers and bizarre stories that draw on his own past as a carnival artist.
Browning’s early work will be featured in a two-month series of rarely screened silent feature films at the Town Hall Theater, 40 Main St., Wilton, NH
The screenings are free and open to the public; a donation of $ 10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theater silent film programming.
All screenings will include live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.
“These first images of Tod Browning are going to change your mind about silent film,” said Rapsis. “When presented in a theater with live music and an audience, Browning’s first images really come to life. They are a great example of why people first fell in love with cinema. “
The series opens on Sunday, September 19 at 2 p.m. with ‘Derivative‘(1923), an exotic crime drama directed by Browning. The film, a story of opium smugglers and set in a remote Chinese village, stars Priscilla Dean, Wallace Beery and Anna May Wong.
Additional screenings include:
• Sunday October 10 at 2 p.m .: ‘The White Tiger‘(1923). Police drama about a gang that uses a chess device to defraud unsuspecting wealthy victims. With Priscilla Dean, Raymond Griffith and Wallace Beery.
• Friday Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m .: Lon Chaney at ‘Robin‘(1926). A bizarre melodrama in which Chaney leads a double life as a criminal brain in the slums of London and also of Bishop, his pious but misshapen brother. Will the entry of a new woman reveal her secret?
• Saturday October 30 at 2 pm: Twisted Halloween Weekend double functionality. Lon Chaney stars in a pair of detective melodramas directed by Browning. ‘Outlaw‘(1920) presents Chaney as a gangster who frames a former rival and turns his young daughter into a life of crime. In ‘The three ungodly‘(1925) Chaney is a criminal ventriloquist who runs a pet store that presents a masterful plan to defraud wealthy clients.
• Sunday Oct. 31 at 2 p.m .: Lon Chaney at ‘Where east is east‘(1929). Chaney, as “Tiger Haynes,” a jaded animal trapper in the Laos jungle, only cares for his young daughter, Toyo, who plans to marry the son of a circus owner. But the couple’s happiness is threatened by the appearance of a mysterious woman.
Browning was born in 1880 in Louisville, Kentucky, under the name of Charles Albert Browning’s uncle, Jr. Browning, baseball star Pete “Louisville Slugger” Browning, who gave the iconic baseball bat his nickname.
As a child, Browning was fascinated by the circus and carnival life. Before graduating from high school, at the age of 16, he ran away from his wealthy family to join a traveling circus, from which he never returned.
In 1901, at the age of 21, Browning was performing song and dance routines on riverboats plying the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, while also acting as a contortionist for the Manhattan Fair and Carnival Company.
Browning developed a live burial act in which he was billed as “The Living Hypnotic Corpse”, and performed as a clown with the Ringling Brothers Circus. He will later rely on these first experiences in his cinema.
During this time, he showed his fascination with the macabre by adopting the professional name “Tod”, after the German word for “Death”.
Browning began acting in films in 1909, first as a burlesque comedian, before working under the direction of legendary first director DW Griffith. While continuing to perform in front of the camera, he also embarked on the making of short films.
In 1915, Browning was seriously injured when a car he was driving collided with a railroad locomotive. According to biographers David J. Skal and Elias Savada, the tragic event transformed Browning’s creative vision:
“A distinct pattern had emerged in his post-accident work, distinguishing it from the comedy which had been his specialty before 1915. Now he focused on moralizing melodrama, with recurring themes of crime, guilt and retaliation.”
Hired to direct by Universal Pictures in 1919, Browning focused on exotic thrillers often starring popular star Priscilla Dean. Later, at MGM, Browning often worked with legendary actor Lon Chaney in melodramas known for their bizarre stories and emotional intensity.
Although Browning continued to work in the 1930s, alcoholism contributed to the gradual cessation of his career. He retired from the cinema in 1942 and died in recluse in 1962.
Over time, critics came to recognize Browning’s distinctive contributions to cinema, particularly in his silent-era collaborations with Chaney at MGM from 1925 to 1929. Today his films are considered a unique body of work that reflects Browning’s unique vision and outlook on life. .
Accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who will provide the music for all of the films in the series, improvises live scores for the silent films using a digital synthesizer to recreate the texture of the entire orchestra.
“It’s kind of a high-flying act,” Rapsis said. “But for me, the energy of the performing arts is an essential part of the silent film experience.”
The two-month retrospective of Tod Browning’s early works will open with ‘Drifting’ (1923), an exotic crime drama starring Priscilla Dean, which will air with live music on Sunday, September 19 at 2:00 p.m. at the Town Hall Theater, 40 Main Street, Wilton.
The screening is free and open to the public; a donation of $ 10.00 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theater silent film programming.