TOD BROWNING’S THE SHOW 1927

Tod Browning The Show John Gilbert

The screenplay for The Show (1927) was written by frequent  Tod
Browning collaborator Waldemer Young (with uncredited help from Browning). It
is (very loosely) based on Charles Tenney Jackson’s novel, “The Day of
Souls.” Originally titled “Cock O’ the Walk,” The Show is one of the
most bizarre productions to emerge from silent cinema, nearly on par with the
director’s The Unknown from the same year.

Tod Browning The Show poster

John Gilbert plays Cock Robin, theballyhoo man at the Palace of Illusions. A character with the name of an animalis a frequent Browning trademark, and Gilbert’s Robin is a proud Cock indeed,both the character and the actor. The Show amounted to punishment forstar Gilbert, who had made what turned out to be a fatal error. When co-star
and fiancee Greta Garbo failed to show up at their planned wedding, Gilbert was
left humiliated at the altar, where studio boss Louis B. Mayer made a loud
derogatory remark for all to hear. Gilbert responded by thrashing Mayer. Mayer
swore revenge, vowing to destroy Gilbert’s career, regardless of cost (at the
time Gilbert was the highest paid star in Hollywood). Mayer’s revenge began
here and climaxed with the coming of sound, when he reportedly had the actor’s
recorded dialogue manipulated to wreck Gilbert’s voice and career. Whether
Mayer’s tinkering with Gilbert’s voice is legendary or not, Mayer did
intentionally set out to give Gilbert increasingly unflattering roles, and the
consequences were devastating for Gilbert. Having fallen so far, so fast,
Gilbert took to excessive drink. He actually had a fine voice and starred in a
few sound films, including Tod Browning’s Fast Workers (1933) and with
Garbo in Queen Christina (1933) (she insisted on Gilbert, over Mayer’s
strenuous objections). Gilbert died forgotten at 37 in 1936, and became the
inspiration for the Norman Maine character in a Star is Born (1937). The
Show
was the first film after Gilbert’s aborted wedding incident, and
instead of playing his usual role of swashbuckling matinee idol, Gilbert is
cast as a cocky lecher.

Tod Browning The Show 1927

Cock Robin is the barker for a Hungarian carnival, dazzling the ladies and bilking them of their hard earned silver. He ushers patrons in to the show with the help of “The Living Hand ofCleopatra,” a disembodied hand akin to Thing from “The Addams Family.” AmongCock’s unholy trio of mutilated-below-the-waist attractions is ‘Zela, the Half
Lady.’ “Believe me boys, there are no cold feet here to bother you!” Zela is
followed by ‘Arachnadia! The Human Spider!,’ a heavily mascaraed, disembodied
head in a web (played by the enigmatic Edna Tichenor, Lon Chaney‘s nocturnal Goth companion Luna in London After Midnight and ‘Neptuna, Queen of the Mermaids!’ who inspires the divers to “go down deep!”

Tod Browning The Showv1927

Next up in the Show is a reenactment of Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils. Browning ups the ante here well past Oscar Wilde. Cock disappears behind a door and re-emerges as the bearded John the Baptist. (This is another frequent Browning theme; a
character, via a door, is transformed into a new character and transported into
a new world). Awaiting him is Salome (Renee Adoree, who became an instant sex
symbol when she starred with Gilbert in 1925′s the monster hit The Big
Parade
—like Gilbert, Adoree tragically died in her mid thirties). Salome
demands the head of the Baptist from Herrod. Thanks to a trap door and fake
sword, the head of Cock’s Baptist is severed but still living, at least long
enough to react to the big wet kiss Salome plants on its lips.

Tod Browning The Show GilbertTod Browning the Show still

Behind the act, Salome and Cock have a broken relationship. She is currently mistress to the nefarious and extremely jealous Greek Lionel Barrymore while Cock is attempting to latch onto Lena (Gertrude Short), the daughter of a wealthy shepherding merchant. The
Greek may have a jealous streak, but so does Salome, who shoves Spider Baby
Edna aside when she flirts with Cock, telling her “Away from him. You’re
freaks, not vampires!”

Tod Browning The Show still

Cock gets blamed for the murder of Lena’s daddy after Salome tells Lena that he’s a hedonistic opportunist. The real murderer is none other than The Greek who, aware of the continued chemistry between Cock and Salome, plans to give Cock a disembodied head for real. In the arena of sexual resentment The Greek gets his comeuppance via the
animal kingdom (typical Browning theme number five, or six, if you’re still counting).
This time, the instrument of revenge is none other than a poisonous iguana in a
closet!

Tod Browning dean of horror

Unfortunately, The Show is flawed by a saccharine finale. Cock sees
the light of redemption through Salome and a selfless act. It may be high
cholesterol sentiment but it’s served up in the director’s unique, devious
style, with the principals finding nirvana in the only place they could in a
Tod Browning melodrama; on the carnival stage.

Tod Browning directing Salome scene in The Show

 

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About Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker is fine arts painter, filmmaker, and has a masters degree in theology. He currently lives in Portland, oregon with his wife: Aja Rossman-Gray.
This entry was posted in BLUEMAHLER'S WORLD OF SILENT CINEMA, Film Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to TOD BROWNING’S THE SHOW 1927

  1. Venkatesan Iyengar says:

    The review of the movie as well as the piece on the cockfight (pun intended) between Mayer and Gilbert made interesting reading.

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