Browning was born as Charles Albert Browning, Jr., in Louisville, Kentucky, the second son of Charles Albert and Lydia Browning, and the nephew of baseball star Pete Browning. As a young boy, he put on amateur plays in his backyard. He was fascinated by the circus and carnival life, and at the age of 16 he ran away from his well-to-do family to become a performer.
Changing his name to "Tod", he traveled extensively with sideshows, carnivals, and circuses. His jobs included working as a talker for the Wild Man of Borneo, performing a live burial act in which he was billed as "The Living Corpse", and performing as a clown with the Ringling Brothers Circus. He would draw on this experience as inspiration for some of his film work.
He performed in vaudeville as an actor, magician and dancer. He appeared in the Mutt and Jeff and The Lizard and the Coon acts, and in a blackface act titled The Wheel of Mirth alongside comedian Charles Murray.
Later, while Browning was working as director of a variety theater in New York City, he met D. W. Griffith, who was also from Louisville. He began acting along with Murray on single-reel nickelodeon comedies for Griffith and the Biograph Company.
In 1913 Griffith split from Biograph and moved to California. Browning followed and continued to act in Griffith's films, now for Reliance-Majestic Studios, including a stint as an extra in the epic Intolerance. Around that time he began directing, eventually directing 11 short films for Reliance-Majestic. Between 1913 and 1919, Browning would appear as an actor in approximately fifty motion pictures.
In June 1915, he crashed his car at full speed into a moving train. His passengers were film actors Elmer Booth and George Siegmann. Booth was killed instantly, while Siegmann and Browning suffered serious injuries, including in Browning's case a shattered right leg and the loss of his front teeth. During his convalescence, Browning wrote scripts, and did not return to active film work until 1917. Booth's sister, Margaret Booth, later a famous MGM editor, never forgave Browning for the loss of her brother.
Browning's feature film debut was Jim Bludso (1917), about a riverboat captain who sacrifices himself to save his passengers from a fire. It was well received.
Browning moved back to New York in 1917. He directed two films for Metro Studios, Peggy, the Will O' the Wisp and The Jury of Fate. Both starred Mabel Taliaferro, the latter in a dual role achieved with double exposure techniques that were groundbreaking for the time. He moved back to California in 1918 and produced two more films for Metro, The Eyes of Mystery and Revenge.
In the spring of 1918 he left Metro and joined Bluebird Productions, a subsidiary of Universal Pictures, where he met Irving Thalberg. Thalberg paired Browning with Lon Chaney for the first time for the film The Wicked Darling (1919), a melodrama in which Chaney played a thief who forces a poor girl (Priscilla Dean) from the slums into a life of crime and possibly prostitution. Browning and Chaney would ultimately make ten films together over the next decade.
The death of his father sent Browning into a depression that led to alcoholism. He was laid off by Universal and his wife left him. However, he recovered, reconciled with his wife, and got a one-picture contract with Goldwyn Pictures. The film he produced for Goldwyn, The Day of Faith, was a moderate success, putting his career back on track.
Thalberg reunited Browning with Lon Chaney for The Unholy Three (1925), the story of three circus performers who concoct a scheme to use disguises to con and steal jewels from rich people. Browning's circus experience shows in his sympathetic portrayal of the antiheroes. The film was a resounding success, so much so that it was later remade in 1930 as Lon Chaney's first (and only) talkie shortly before his death later that same year. Browning and Chaney embarked on a series of popular collaborations, including The Blackbird and The Road to Mandalay. The Unknown (1927), featuring Chaney as an armless knife thrower and Joan Crawford as his scantily clad carnival girl obsession, was originally titled Alonzo the Armless and could be considered a precursor to Freaks in that it concerns a love triangle involving a circus freak, a beauty, and a strongman. London After Midnight (1927) was Browning's first foray into the vampire genre and is a highly sought-after lost film which starred Chaney, Conrad Nagel, and Marceline Day. The last known print of London After Midnight was destroyed in an MGM studio fire in 1967. In 2002, a photographic reconstruction of London After Midnight was produced by Rick Schmidlin for Turner Classic Movies. Browning and Chaney's final collaboration was Where East is East (1929), of which only incomplete prints have survived. Browning's first talkie was The Thirteenth Chair (1929), which was also released as a silent and featured Bela Lugosi, who had a leading part as the uncanny inspector, Delzante, solving the mystery with the aid of the spirit medium. This film was directed shortly after Browning's vacation trip to Germany (arriving in the Port of New York, November 12, 1929).
After Chaney's death in 1930, Browning was hired by his old employer Universal Pictures to direct Dracula (1931). Although Browning wanted to hire an unknown European actor for the title role and have him be mostly offscreen as a sinister presence, budget constraints and studio interference necessitated the casting of Bela Lugosi and a more straightforward approach.
After directing the boxing melodrama Iron Man (1931), Browning began work on Freaks (1932). Based on the short story "Spurs" by Clarence Aaron "Tod" Robbins, the screenwriter of The Unholy Three, the film concerns a love triangle between a wealthy dwarf, a gold-digging aerialist, and a strongman; a murder plot; and the vengeance dealt out by the dwarf and his fellow circus freaks. The film was highly controversial, even after heavy editing to remove many disturbing scenes, and was a commercial failure and banned in the United Kingdom for thirty years.
His career derailed, Browning found himself unable to get his requested projects greenlighted. After directing the drama Fast Workers (1933) starring John Gilbert, who was also not in good standing with the studio, he was allowed to direct a remake of London After Midnight, originally titled Vampires of Prague but later retitled Mark of the Vampire (1935). In the remake, the roles played by Lon Chaney in the original were split between Lionel Barrymore and Béla Lugosi (spoofing his Dracula image).
After that, Browning directed The Devil-Doll (1936), originally titled The Witch of Timbuctoo, from his own script. The picture starred Lionel Barrymore as an escapee from an island prison who avenges himself on the people who imprisoned him using living "dolls" who are actually people shrunk to doll-size and magically placed under Barrymore's hypnotic control. Browning's final film was the murder mystery Miracles for Sale (1939).