As we’ve explored in the earlier entries in this Ads For Artists series, it’s interesting to flip through movie materials from the 1920s and see page after page of unfamiliar names that were once the superstars of their time. Perhaps even more jarring than that are the dozens of movie titles credited to them that are all equally unfamiliar.
This week, however, we’ll be talking about three different directors who are a bit better known. And if you don’t know the names themselves, perhaps you know of some of their films.
I think of Tod Browning as a cult director, although that term doesn’t describe his life work so much as what he’s most remembered for.
Because Browning was actually pretty mainstream, especially early in his career. He started out as an actor and a director, making short comedies throughout the 1910s for D.W. Griffith (one of the most powerful men in movies at this time). In the late teens, his work took on a darker tone, and he started making movies about ordinary people running afoul of powerful, evil forces. By the mid-1920s, it became clear he was interested in the weird and the macabre, telling the stories of misfits and outcasts, especially those with physical deformities. He collaborated many times with Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, who became one of the silent era’s biggest stars for his ability to disappear inside so many different types of characters. One of the highlights of their collaboration was London After Midnight (1927), a notorious lost film about vampires.
In 1927, Browning’s fascinations all seemed to come together and gel into The Unknown, a horror-romance about a carnival beauty with an irrational fear of men’s arms. She becomes the object of desire for other members of the circus, including an an armless knife thrower, and the lengths they’re driven to to secure her affection are outrageously creepy.
The film reminds me of The Twilight Zone, but more immediately it serves as a precursor to Browning’s most notorious film, Freaks (1932), about a carnival of deformed circus performers and a woman who is disgusted by physical abnormalities. Again, Browning returns to the circus and explores physical horror. Interestingly, his films are reasonably sympathetic toward his handicapped characters, using deformity not so much to directly horrify the audience but to tell the stories of others who are horrified by them.
But Freaks was too disturbing for audiences of the day — indeed, seeing it today still has a powerful effect — and the controversy ruined Browning’s career. Today, though, Freaks is a cult favorite.
What Browning is most famous for, though, is Dracula (1931), which also made a superstar out of Bela Lugosi. The line “Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.” is one of the great lines of movie history.
King Vidor is probably not as familiar a name as it should be, because not only was he an A-list director in the silent era, but his career continued to thrive until well into the 1950s. And when he came out of retirement to direct a short documentary in 1980, he entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the man with the longest directorial career ever.
So in this ad, from 1927-28, he’s just barely getting started. As the ad suggests, The Big Parade (1925) was his biggest silent hit, a WWI-era romance epic, starring John Gilbert, the forgotten star of silent film. The Big Parade is seen as a masterpiece today. The Crowd (1928), if anything, has an even stronger reputation and is also considered one of the greatest of all silent films. Add to that resume La Boheme (1926) and Show People (1928) and others, and you’ve got not just a great director but a prolific one, still at the dawn of his career.
His work in sound film is perhaps better known, such as Duel In the Sun (1946) and War and Peace (1955). But probably the work of his that the most people have seen went uncredited: he directed the Kansas sequences in The Wizard of Oz (1939), most notably that ageless “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” number.
Eddie Cline…ok, first of all, I love this ad. It’s one of the only ads of this kind that breaks the standard format of a photograph and a list of movie titles.
Eddie Cline is by far the least known of these three directors, and yet his work is among the most famous. That’s because his work is largely credited to other people — Buster Keaton, for example, with whom he collaborated on 17 films between 1920 and 1923. On most of them, Keaton and Cline are jointly credited as the writers and directors. After 1923, Keaton started making his films on his own, but they would reunite decades later when Cline would direct portions of the 1951 television show “Life With Buster Keaton.”
In the 1930s and early 1940s, Cline would partner up with W.C. Fields and ultimately direct the majority of Fields’ film work, from his early shorts to his latter day features, including The Bank Dick (1940), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), and My Little Chickadee all considered comedy classics.
The last of these was a then-legendary pairing of W.C. Fields and Mae West, an inspired pairing that makes the most of these two forceful and very opposed personalities. Fields usually played a drunken womanizer, and West usually played the forward vamp with signature lines like “When caught between two evils I generally pick the one I’ve never tried before.” and “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.” The fireworks occurred off camera as much as on, and Eddie Cline later said, “I wasn’t directing, I was refereeing.”