Saturday, December 3, 2016

#245: The Show (Tod Browning, 1927)

Yet another fascinating gem from the great Tod Browning, The Show is an offbeat, visually expressive obscurity that resonates in its own strange frequency, hovering in the spaces between genres without committing to one. Browning, the Louisville-born director of The Unholy Three, Freaks, Lugosi's Dracula, Mark of the Vampire, The Devil-Doll, and the famous lost film London After Midnight, had a knack for striking images, great faces, and unusual stories, and he mined a rich vein of weirdness in films about people living on the fringes of society, particularly carnival workers and low-level show-biz types, small-time criminals, and supernatural figures of menace.
The Show combines pieces of the crime thriller, horror, melodrama, romance, dark comedy, and the backstage lives-of-show-people drama with a subtle German Expressionist influence and a clairvoyant eye toward the film noir of the future to tell a story about a seamy traveling carnival and medicine show performing a string of dates in Budapest. The show features a menagerie of deadly animals, phony circus freaks, and a theatrical retelling of the Salome story, complete with a fake beheading.
Performing double duty as ringmaster and actor in the Salome portion of the show is Cock Robin (John Gilbert), an opportunistic ladies' man always on the make for sex and money, making his living off the charity of the women he seduces. His current target is naive farmer's daughter Lena (Gertrude Short), whose father has just come in to a nice pile of money after selling several sheep. Gilbert is great as Cock Robin, with his rakish demeanor, pencil-thin mustache, stylish 'do, and hilarious self-regard.
Robin's attention on other women draws the ire of Salome (Renee Adoree), who has been having an affair with him. In bad news for everyone, the black-hearted entrepreneur who runs the carnival, The Greek (a hilariously evil Lionel Barrymore), thinks Salome is his property and is willing to murder the star of his show if his suspicions of their affair are confirmed. He tries to intimidate Robin in a hilarious macho dick-measuring scene by casually taking out his switchblade and flicking it open. Robin responds by taking out a blade that's three times bigger and even more casually using it for a few housekeeping chores.
The film spends the next breakneck 30 minutes tying together a performance of the show, some stolen money, a murder and robbery, an attempted murder, two love triangles, a giant lizard attack (!), and a police pursuit before the tone dramatically flips and The Show becomes a slow-paced melodrama about Robin, Salome, and a blind man who lives in Salome's apartment building. The film loses a little momentum here, and the change in atmosphere and scope is jarring, but Browning's sure direction and his actors' performances maintained my interest. The wild plot strands wind their way back into the melodrama by the film's end, and the viewer is left wondering how Browning can fit so much into 76 minutes.
Browning creates one expressive image after another and many great scenes. It's a pleasure to see a director who cares about everything in his film and knows how to realize it. The beautiful sets, the framing of shots, the movement of the camera, the actors' faces and bodies and their inhabiting of the characters, the structure and movement of the story, the little details that go so far in making a movie a self-contained world of its own and not just a filmed plot, all this is why Browning is one of the greats.
The film's leads, John Gilbert and Renee Adoree, had successful show-business careers, but they both died tragically young. Adoree, a French woman who moved to New York in her early twenties to pursue her stage and screen dreams, slowly built up her credits until becoming a major star in 1925. Hollywood is fickle, though, especially to women, and Adoree's career was on the wane when she retired in 1930 after a tuberculosis diagnosis. She died of the disease in 1933 at the age of 35. The film that made Adoree a star in 1925, King Vidor's excellent WWI film The Big Parade, also starred her Show co-lead John Gilbert. Gilbert was one of the most popular actors of the silent era (another great film of Gilbert's is Erich Von Stroheim's The Merry Widow), and the tabloids loved him for his on-set affair with Greta Garbo that turned into an on-going romance. Gilbert and Garbo were engaged to be married, but Garbo dumped him before the wedding, and Gilbert withdrew into a deep depression, drinking heavily. Gilbert's career also suffered in the transition from silent to sound. The oft-repeated legend is that audiences found his speaking voice weak compared to his silent film heartthrob image, but many film historians dispute this story. What no one disputes is that the major roles dried up for him. Garbo got him a leading part in 1933's Queen Christina, but his drinking continued, and he stopped acting shortly thereafter. He died of a heart attack in 1936 at the age of 36.

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