Although Tod Browning directed the 1931 classic Dracula and some of Lon Chaney's best movies, he is better known today for Freaks, which effectively sank his film career. Judging from the evidence in Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning: Hollywood's Master of the Macabre, this probably wouldn't have mattered to him. Authors David J. Skal (Screams of Reason and The Monster Show) and Elias Savada faced a difficult task in recounting the life of a man who "reveled in disturbing and provoking the public ... from a position of obsessive privacy," apparently caring nothing for posterity or even his reputation during his lifetime. Because Browning chose to reveal so little of his private self, any biography of him must by default focus on his career--which is itself strange and unsettling.
As a filmmaker, Browning established a reputation as a teller of pessimistic, even perverse tales, often featuring physically deformed characters (Chaney's specialty), which doubtless reflected his youthful experiences performing in carnival sideshows. Following the enormous success of Dracula, he assembled a cast of real sideshow performers to make Freaks, which appalled nearly everyone and was quickly removed from circulation. He soon found himself being quietly pushed out of filmmaking, and spent his final years leading a reclusive, slightly paranoid existence.
Readers of Dark Carnival should not expect to come away with a very clear picture of the intentionally shadowy Browning. Skal and Savada do an admirable job of showing us both the demanding "sadist" and the "great humanist" described by his colleagues, but for the most part, Browning's own thoughts and feelings must remain mysterious--which is just what he wanted. Dark Carnival includes photo sections, a genealogy, and filmographies that incorporate contemporary reviews. --Mary V. Burke [via]