Very few of the great directors of the silent era were American. Even when the films were made in the States, the directors were still usually emigrees from Europe, like Victor Sjöström, Fritz Lang or even Charlie Chaplin. But there were a few homegrown American directors who made their presence very well known, and the one that I find consistently most fascinating is Tod Browning, who really made genre films from before there ever were such things. They're full of horror, mystery and weird fantasy and I revel in that. Browning had run away young to join the circus and so knew of what he spoke when it came to such material. That's why Freaks rang so true and so honest and why it was so completely beyond the pale in 1932.
I'd never seen The Show before, mostly because it's one of those many silent films that languished for years without a musical score, having been played with live accompaniment on original release. Now with its use as material for the TCM Young Composer of the Year competition, it now has a score and a pretty good one too, by newcomer Darrell Raby. Quite apart from being happy to see anything new to me from the silent era, an unseen Tod Browning is high on the list, especially one set at the carnival. This one has the added benefit of also being a Lionel Barrymore and a John Gilbert film too, both names I've come to enjoy hugely.
John Gilbert is Cock Robin, a lively and dynamic carny who rings very true in Gilbert's portrayal. He plays the character like a coiled spring, oozing arrogant charisma and ready to either kill or blow with the wind at a whim. He's half hero but when he strikes a woman we're not surprised in the slightest. He presents the freak show, fake this time unlike the awesome reality of Freaks, which is unfortunate. I'd loved to have seen real freaks that approximate to Zela the half lady, Arachnida the human spider and Neptuna, the queen of the mermaids, let alone the Living Hand of Cleopatra who handles the tickets! Robin also appears in his show's chief attraction, as John the Baptist, here called Jokanaan, in a scene depicting his beheading at the request of Salome after her dance for Herod. Here Browning shows us how the fakery works, and yet it's still done very believably indeed.
There's a plot in here somewhere too, having to do with the money of Konrad Driskai, a sheep farmer who has just sold his flock in Budapest and then been murdered for the take. Maybe the surname means unlucky thirteen in some Eastern European language or other. Lionel Barrymore plays the man behind the theft, a character called the Greek who will stop at nothing to get the money. However his timing was far less effective than that of Robin on stage, as Driskai's daughter Lena had the bankroll at the time and it quickly ends up with Robin who has been courting her on the sly.
The story doesn't matter too much, nor the acting which is certainly exaggerated, though not to the degree that silent films often were. It's the atmosphere that Browning works at here and he excels himself. The film feels dangerous, pure and simple, seething menace. It almost made me check for my wallet, even though I was watching from the privacy of my own home! Sound films were never this creepy, at least with a few notable exceptions in the precode era like Svengali, Freaks or Island of Lost Souls, and I almost didn't miss the presence of Lon Chaney, Browning's muse and almost constant collaborator. I hope this gets released on DVD soon as it would play with Browning's next film, The Unknown, as a great double act.
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|I'm also driving the highway to Cinematic Hell for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.|
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