The screenplay for The Show (1927) was written by frequent 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.
John Gilbert plays Cock Robin, the ballyhoo man at the Palace of Illusions. A frequent Browning trademark is a character with the name of an animal and Gilbert’s Robin is a proud Cock indeed, both in character and in the actor playing the character. The Show amounted to punishment for star 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 alter when boss Louis B. Mayer made a rather 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 Mayer reportedly had sound recording manipulated in order 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.
Cock Robin is the barker for a Hungarian carnival, dazzling the ladies and bilking them of their hard earned silver. He issues patrons in with the ticket collecting help of The Living Hand of Cleopatra, who is a disembodied hand, something akin to Thing from Addams Family. Among Cock’s unholy trio of mutilated below the waist attractions is Zela, the Half Lady. “Believe me boys, there is no cold feet here to bother you!” Zela is followed by Arachnadia! The Human Spider! , a heavily mascaraed disembodied head in a web (the enigmatic Edna Tichenor, Lon Chaney’s nocturnal Goth companion Luna in London After Midnight-1927) and Neptuna, Queen of the Mermaids! who inspires the divers to “go down deep!”
Next up is a reenactment of Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils. Browning brings the ante up well past the likes of 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 characterization and transported into a new world. Awaiting is Salome (Renee Adoree who became an instant sex symbol when she starred with Gilbert in the monster hit The Big Parade-1925. Like Gilbert, Adoree tragically died in her mid thirties). Salome demands the head of the Baptist from Herrod. Via a trap door and fake sword, the head of Cock’s Baptist is severed but still living, at least enough to react to Salome’s planted big wet kiss on the lips.
Behind the act, Salome and Cock have a broken relationship. She is currently mistress to the nefarious and extremely jealous The 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 Cock flirting Spider baby Edna aside, telling her “Away from him. You’re freaks, not vampires!”
The Cock gets blamed for the murder of Lena’s daddy after Salome tells Lena that Cock is a hedonist 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 (repeat Browning theme number five, or six, if still counting). This time the catalyst for revenge is none other than a poisonous iguana in a closet!
Unfortunately, The Show is somewhat 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.