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Tod Browning’s beginnings account for a variety of the themes present in his film work. Browning began his career in entertainment working in circuses and sideshows before transitioning to vaudeville. From vaudeville, Browning transitioned into motion pictures as a result of his friendship with D.W. Griffith. Between 1913 and 1919 Browning worked as an actor and sometimes-assistant director to Griffith before becoming a film director in his own right.

These early years are essential to understanding Browning’s films Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932). Both films adhere to a visual structure derivative of Griffith’s work. Each film utilizes a moving camera quite sparingly, preferring to carefully choreograph the action of a scene in a single static shot. This stylistic choice becomes more apparent when one compares Browning’s Dracula to the Spanish language version that was shot simultaneously. Though each version of Dracula is obviously indebted to the German Expressionist films of the 1920s, it appears that Browning’s framing style heavily restricted the work of his cinematographer Karl Freund (described by Harry Alan Potamkin as the “most eminent of the Europeans in the contribution of camera engineering to the cinema”), who photographed Lang’s film Metropolis (1927) and Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924).

Where Browning’s style inhibited Dracula’s visual economy, it lent a dramatic credibility to the far more personal Freaks. The nature of the narrative of Freaks calls for a more melodramatic approach akin to a chamber drama. Dracula, on the other hand, is more of a gothic fantasy, begging for a greater scope.

Freaks’ sideshow setting recalls Browning’s adolescence; a constant source for his film material. Casting the deformed or disfigured as his outsider protagonists was a motif Browning established in his best films during the twenties. Films such as The Unholy Three (1925), West Of Zanzibar (1928) and particularly The Unknown (1927) all follow this structure (just as all three of these films feature Lon Chaney Sr.).

Browning’s preoccupation with macabre narratives centered on society’s outcasts is also indicative of a deeper and more meaningful concern. The “freaks” in Freaks may appear to be frightening or evil, but once one gets beyond the superficial, beyond the biased assumptions, it’s very clear that the “freaks” are just average everyday people. In contrast, the strongman and the acrobat who are not deformed or suffering from an obscure medical condition are corrupt and evil on the inside. By casting the outsiders as “good” and the everyman as “bad” Browning indicts society as a whole. Consider the allegory at work in Freaks and very quickly it becomes clear that Browning’s vision of society is one of pettiness, greed, corruption, and sadism. Within the narrative complex of Freaks this sociological equation becomes an almost transparent allegory for the class distinctions in America, particularly during the Great Depression when Freaks was made.

The roots of Browning’s particular worldview stems not only from the Great Depression but also from WWI. Veterans who had returned home were often disfigured by wounds and unable to work. In the faces of these veterans one could see all the sorrows and despair of war. Undoubtedly this had an effect on Browning, tainting his perception of society with suspicion and apprehension, a trait he shares with the “anti-heroes” of his films in both the silent and sound periods of his career.