November 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood's Master of the MacAbre

Current Status
In Season
Tod Browning, Elias Savada, David J. Skal
Biography, Movies
We gave it a B

What a surprise to learn that Tod Browning, the director of 1931’s Dracula, used to have himself buried alive in a coffin as part of a carnival act. Or that he spent a youth immersed in the seedy world of sideshows, soaking up experiences that he later used in his notorious 1932 film Freaks. Yet much about Browning’s life remains a secret; he rarely talked about himself and left no papers of consequence. The authors have pieced together a patchwork of interviews with actors and studio personnel who worked with him, along with newspaper clips, film reviews (too many), and information recycled from David J. Skal’s previous book, The Monster Show. Browning still comes across as an alcoholic cipher, though a strong case is made for his influential art (a filmography takes up almost a third of the book). A director who thrived in the silent era — particularly in his Grand Guignol collaborations with Lon Chaney Sr. — Browning faltered in the sound era: Freaks, for example, caused a scandal and lost MGM money. After retiring in 1942, the director spent the next 20 years drinking and watching old movies on television, leaving unrealized such dream projects as a film version of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (made in 1969 by Sydney Pollack). What a movie Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood’s Master of the Macabre would make. If only Browning were around to direct it.

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