Sunday 16 November 2008

The Blackbird (1926)

Sometimes TCM is really good to us. This isn't the legendary lost film London After Midnight, which TCM did bring us in a reconstructed version, but nonetheless it's still a combination of London as a setting, Tod Browning as a director, Waldemar Young as a writer and the immortal Lon Chaney in the lead, with a decent new score by Robert Israel to boot. I ain't complaining.

Here Chaney plays not one but two characters, though you'd have a solid case for three. He's Dan Tate, the Blackbird, professional thief and all round bad guy and scourge of the Limehouse district, itself home to all manner of bad guys. He's also the Bishop, a cripple who runs a mission whose motto is 'life is what you make it'. Everyone in Limehouse loves the Bishop and fears the Blackbird. What nobody except him knows is that the Blackbird and the Bishop aren't just played by one actor, they're one and the same person, Dan Tate apparently being able to endure the same legendary sort of dedicated pain as Chaney himself to put over an effect.

Even the toughest crook has a heart, and the Blackbird falls for a young French lady called Mademoiselle Fifi (no connection to the later Robert Wise film of that title) who is performing a cute little puppet show at a local variety house. She's played by Renée Adorée, who is far better in this part than she would be in another Chaney film a year later, Mr Wu, in which she landed the part of Wu Nang Ping, Chaney's daughter (and granddaughter: Chaney loved those dual roles), over Anna May Wong, a far better candidate who was relegated to being her servant.

The Blackbird isn't the only crook who falls for Mademoiselle Fifi. Falling just as hard is Bertram P Glayde aka West End Bertie, as high class a gentleman thief as the Blackbird is a working class version. West End Bertie is in Limehouse on a slumming party ('I say... we are going down Plum Alley to see the Chinkies smoking.'), which he's set up so that his men can rob them all in someone else's territory, and he sees Fifi at the same variety palace. Bizarrely, Bertie is played by Owen Moore, already a few hundred films into his career, who must have felt a little strange romancing Adorée, given that up until only two years earlier she was his sister-in-law. He does a great job though, in some scenes presaging Burgess Meredith's Penguin.

These two are much better than Adorée, partly because they're much better actors but partly because they have the benefit of playing contrasting opposites in a competition to win the favours of Mademoiselle Fifi. There's some great interplay between Chaney and Moore, as they sit round the table with Fifi inthe variety club and first realise just how much they're competing for her. Moore is restrained, full of quiet disdain, as Chaney seethes across the table at him. They're both excellent in this film, worthy foils, though of course Chaney gets far more opportunity to shine.

While it's annoying that Browning for some reason cut short a great scene partway through in which he transforms from the Blackbird to the Bishop, we get another opportunity to see this late in the film. It's always amazing to watch Chaney working one of his grotesque physical transformations, because he could do things that nobody else could, even today. Of course he was no slouch without such contrivances either, as his well known nickname, The Man of a Thousand Faces, would suggest. He gets plenty of opportunity here to demonstrate that and while some of it inevitably lurches into overblown melodrama there are some great subtle scenes too. Chaney was truly awesome at depicting inner pain and torment, and this film contains some great examples of that talent.

Unfortunately that talent didn't last too much longer. He had thirteen more films in him, but would be dead four years later of cancer, at only 47 years of age. That still outstripped the Renée Adorée though, who died at 35 of tuberculosis in 1933, only seven years after this film was released. Owen Moore outlived them all, dying in 1939 at the age of 46. Sometimes it seems that the silent stars either died young or lived forever. One that thankfully had a long career is Doris Lloyd, who plays the Blackbird's former wife, Limehouse Polly, here. She worked through five decades, but for some reason was never recognised as the talent she really was. She doesn't have much of a part here but she shines nonetheless, and anyone who can shine when sharing the screen with Chaney is worth watching.

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