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.
John Gilbert plays Cock Robin, the ballyhoo man at the Palace of Illusions. A character with the name of an animal is a frequent Browning trademark, and Gilbert’s Robin is a proud Cock indeed, both the character and the actor. 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 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.
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 of Cleopatra,” a disembodied hand akin to Thing from “The Addams Family.” Among Cock’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!”
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.
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!”
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!
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.