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D.W. Griffith and Tod Browning, Hollywood Directors

Louisville Life’s look at local ties to Tinseltown includes profiles of two directors who turned out classic films—but in very different genres.

Once referred to as “the Shakespeare of the screen,” film pioneer D.W. Griffith was born in Oldham County. In 1889, he and his family moved to Louisville after his father died. Later, D.W.’s love for literature and the stage led him to pursue an acting career in New York. But after failing as both actor and playwright, he decided to try his luck in motion pictures.

In a period of only five years, Griffith transformed himself from a bit player into the industry’s leading director, directing more than 450 short films for American Mutoscope & Biograph alone. By 1909, he was turning out two to three films per week—while creating and perfecting such now-standard techniques as the closeup and the flashback.

In 1915, Griffith released his epic The Birth of a Nation, the longest film of its time. It held the top spot as Hollywood’s most profitable film for more than two decades, until Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs set new box-office records in 1937.

Meanwhile, a fellow Kentuckian who had started out as an actor in Griffith’s films was making his own mark in the movies.

As a young man, Tod Browning ran away from his Louisville home to join a circus, performing as a clown and a contortionist. That experience reflected his penchant for the weird and unusual, the hallmark of his later movie career.

The “master of the macabre,” Browning directed the classic version of Dracula starring horror icon Bela Lugosi in 1931. The director also appears in the film as the voice of the harbor master.

Browning’s other works include the bizarre cult classic Freaks and several films with legendary actor Lon Chaney Sr. Their collaboration has been called one of the great partnerships in the history of film.

A few more facts about the two directors and their works:

  • The Birth of a Nation was the first film ever shown in the White House.
  • In 1920, D.W. Griffith established United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks.
  • In 1953, the Directors Guild of America instituted the D.W. Griffith Award, its highest honor. Recipients have included Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, and Griffith’s friend Cecil B. DeMille. But in 1999, the guild announced, without membership consultation, that the award would be renamed the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award because of controversy surrounding the depictions of African Americans and the Ku Klux Klan in The Birth of a Nation.
  • D.W. Griffith was honored on a 10-cent postage stamp issued May 5, 1975.
  • Griffith is buried at Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Crestwood.
  • Tod Browning’s real name was Charles Albert Browning. He chose to call himself Tod (which means “trickster”) when he ran away to join the circus.
  • Browning was a nephew of “Old Gladiator” Pete Browning, a star on Louisville’s professional American Association baseball team, the Eclipse. Pete Browning was a three-time batting champ who stole 103 bases in 1887 and played a role in the creation of the famous Louisville Slugger bat.
  • Tod Browning is mentioned in David Bowie’s song “Diamond Dogs,” which was re-recorded by Beck and Timbaland for the movie Moulin Rouge (2001). He is also the subject of Tom Marksbury’s film Tod Browning: Master of the Macabre, which was supported by the KET Fund for Independent Production and has aired on KET.

Learn more about Tod Browning in our Season Two Louisville Life feature story.

Program 117
Local ties to Hollywood; Louisville fencers; and Jennifer Bielstein, the new managing director at Actors Theatre of Louisville. (#117)