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.
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London After Midnight (1927) is the most sought after and discussed lost film of the silent era. Whether it actually deserves to be the most sought after has been intensely debated, but the fact that London After Midnight is lost is solely the fault of MGM.
MGM head Louis B. Mayer was something akin to the devil incarnate. For Mayer, film was strictly profitable, escapist fare to corn feed an increasingly dumb down audiences. At the opposite end of the spectrum was his in-house studio competitor, producer Irving Thalberg, who nurtured the Tod Brownings and Lon Chaneys of the world. Thalberg was hardly infallible (he sided with Mayer, against Erich von Stroheim’s 9-hour version of Greed [1925,] which resulted in the film being excised and led to an actual fistfight between Mayer and Stroheim). However, Thalberg’s concern was to make quality films, as he saw quality. Hardly the egoist, Thalberg never took a producer’s credit. He could turn out escapist family fare, but he was eclectic in his tastes and had a penchant for edgy, risk taking films with only the side of his eye on the profit meter.
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The Unknown (1927) is one of the final masterpieces of the silent film era. Suspend disbelief and step into the carnival of the absurd. The Unknown is the ebony carousel of theTod Browning/Lon Chaney oeuvre, the one film in which the artists’ obsessions perfectly crystallized. This is a film uniquely of its creators’ time, place and psychosis and, therefore, it is an entirely idiosyncratic work of art, which has never been remotely mimicked, nor could it be. That it was made at MGM borders on the miraculous, or the delightfully ridiculous, but then this was an era of exploratory boundaries, even at the big studios (again, the risk-taking Irving Thalberg produced).
“There is a story they tell in old Madrid. The story, they say is true.” So opens the tale of “Alonzo, the Armless.” Browning spins his yarn like a seasoned barker at the Big Top of a gypsy circus where “the Sensation of Sensations! The Wonder of Wonders!,” Alonzo (Lon Chaney), the Armless, throws knives, with his feet, at the object of his secret affection, Nanon (an 18 year old Joan Crawford).
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The Road to Mandalay (1926) & West of Zanzibar (1928) represent the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaboration at the height of its nefarious, Oedipal zenith, brought to you, for your entertainment, by Irving Thalberg.
Unfortunately, The Road to Mandalay exists only in fragmented and disintegrated state, a mere 36 minutes of its original seven reels. In this passionately pretentious film, which is not related to the Kipling poem, Chaney plays “dead-eyed” Singapore Joe (Chaney achieved the eye effect with egg white) who runs a Singapore brothel. Joe’s business associates are the black spiders of the Seven Seas: the Admiral Herrington (Owen Moore) and English Charlie Wing (Kamiyama Sojin), the best knife-thrower in the Orient. Joe’s relationship with his partners is tense and, often, threatening.
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