Tag Archives: Tod Browning

TOD BROWNING’S THE BLACKBIRD (1926)

The Blackbird (1926) is a typically deranged underworld melodrama from the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney canon. It has, lamentably, never been made available to the home video market, even though the restored print shown on TCM is in quite good condition and, surprisingly, is missing no footage. The Blackbird is also one of the most visually arresting of Browning’s films, which makes its official unavailability doubly unfortunate.

Still from The Blackbird (1926)Browning opens the film authoritatively with close-ups of Limehouse derelicts fading in and out of the foggy London setting. Lon Chaney plays dual roles, of a sort. He is the debilitated cripple Bishop who runs a charitable mission in the squalid Limehouse district. Bishop’s twin brother is Dan Tate, better known as the vile thief The Blackbird. Actually, in this highly improbable (and typical, for Browning) scenario, Bishop and the Blackbird are one and the same. The Blackbird feigns the role of his own twin brother as a front, which means contorting his body as he acts as if he’s in excruciating pain (shades of Chaney, behind the scenes).

The Limehouse district unanimously loves the Bishop and dreads the Blackbird, save for the Blackbird’s ex-wife, Limehouse Polly (Doris Lloyd, the only one of the principals players who did not die young). Polly inexplicably still loves and believes in Dan. In a vignette, Browning does not hesitate to show the ugliness of the Blackbird’s racist side (an extreme rarity for the time), but the Blackbird has a slither of a soft spot himself for French patroness and music hall marionette performer Fifi (Renee Adore).

Dan is competing for Fifi’s attention with his partner in crime, West End Bertie (the amazingly prolific silent actor Owen Moore). At times, Bertie resembles a virile, monocled Bond villain. The suave Moore makes a worthwhile nemesis for the grimy Chaney. Unlike the Blackbird, Bertie is willing to convert from the dark side, for the love of a classy woman. Of course, this turn of events arouses jealousy and leads to intensified competition between the former partners, a frame-up job, and an ironic twist of fate when the two “brothers” will merge into a third, ill-fated persona.

The scenes of Chaney frantically changing identities with constables from Scotland Yard waiting below are deliriously incredible. The constables buy it, and so does an audience open to allowing the capered stream to wash over it.

Browning spins his elastic yarn a bit like Albert Finney’s Ed Bloom in Big Fish (2003). Aided enormously by Chaney’s energetic conviction, and with his penchant for a tenebrous, commanding climate, Browning pulls the ultimate con job on his audience. During its running time we are so drawn into the commanding perversity of  Browning’s fable that the inherent haziness of the narrative’s essence rarely obscures his inclusive vision.

TOD BROWNING’S LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) & MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)

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 and 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.

London After Midnight (1927) lobby cardSometimes the devil wins, and when Thalberg died at the age of 37, Old Nick (Mayer) had no one to rein him in.  MGM, under Mayer, had a notorious  habit of buying out rivals—the original versions of the studio’s watered-down remakes—and then would make every attempt to destroy and/or suppress the superior original.  For instance, they bought out the 1940 British version of Gaslight and unsuccessfully attempted to destroy all the copies just in time for the debut of their inferior 1944 version, starring Charles Boyer.  MGM did destroy many, but not all, Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) & MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)

TOD BROWNING’S THE UNKNOWN (1927)

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 the Tod 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).

Illusions abound.  Alonzo  is actually a double-thumbed killer on the lam.  With the aid of a straight jacket and midget assistant Cojo (John George, who worked with Browning in Outside the Law [1920]), Alonzo feigns his handicap and performs the facade of one mutilated.

In addition evading the law and securing employment, Alonzo’s act of the armless wonder benefits him greatly.  Nanon has a hysterical, obsessive repulsion to the very touch of a man’s arms.   She calls on the Almighty to take away the accursed hands of all men.  Nanon vents histrionic, sexual anxiety to Alonzo every time Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) puts his vile hands upon her.  Alonzo, ever the performer, simulates expressed sympathy, although his affection for Nanon is the one thing about Alonzo that is genuine.

Still from The Unknown (1927)Alonzo, secretly venting enmity, advises Malabar on how to win Nanon.  It is, of course, intentional ill-advice which will eventually karmically rebound and become genuine ill-advice for Alonzo. Malabar’s arms are muscled and strong, compared to Alonzo’s armless torso, or compared to Alonzo’s deformed, hidden double thumb—the very same double thumb which he used to strangle the ringmaster of Browning’s perverse milieu: Nanon’s sadistic Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S THE UNKNOWN (1927)

TOD BROWNING’S WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928) & THE ROAD TO MANDALAY (1926)

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.

Still from The Road to Mandalay (1926)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.

Apparently, Joe’s wife is long dead.  The two had a daughter, Rosemary (Lois Moran), who Joe left at a convent in Mandalay, under the care of his brother, Fr. James (Henry Walthall).  Joe, a repulsive sight, occasionally emerges from his sordid, underworld activities to visit Rosemary, who works in a bazaar.  Joe plans to clean up his act within two years, once he has enough money  to undergo plastic surgery and retire.  Joe wants to be a reborn man, so he can reunite with his daughter and rescue her from the confines of poverty. Rosemary, however, unaware that Joe is her father (a frequent Browning theme), is repulsed by dead eyed Joe, understandably mistaking his friendliness for sexual predation.  Fr. James  warns  Joe that waiting two years is too long.  Joe’s insistence for patience only makes Fr. James skeptical that Joe can actually achieve or sustain the redemption necessary to give Rosemary a good life.

One day the Admiral walks into Rosemary’s Bazaar and discovers love at first sight when Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928) & THE ROAD TO MANDALAY (1926)

TOD BROWNING’S THE UNHOLY THREE (1925)

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In 2011 Warner Brothers has finally released a series of Lon Chaney films on DVD. Of these, the 1925 Unholy Three, directed by Tod Browning, is of considerable interest. The Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaborations The Unknown (1927) and a photo still reconstruction of the legendary, lost London After Midnight (1927) were released  a few years ago on a box set highlighting the actor.  Before that, Image Entertainment released the first two films Browning made with Chaney, The Wicked Darling (1919) and Outside the Law (1920).  Their The Big City (1928)  also seems to be forever lost, which leaves four neglected films: Where East is East (1929), West of Zanzibar (1928), The Road to Mandalay (1926, in truncated and badly deteriorated form), and The Blackbird (1926).   Hopefully, the release of The Unholy Three is a sign that the studio will release the remaining films of  the strangest collaboration between director and actor in cinema history.

Among the new Lon Chaney DVD releases is the 1930 sound remake of The Unholy Three with Jack Conway directing Chaney and a mostly different cast. The only point of  interest in the latter film is the novelty of hearing Chaney’s voice.  As in the silent film, the actor took on various disguises, this time allowing 1930 audiences to potentially envision the famed “Man of a Thousand Faces” as, additionally,  the “Man of a Thousand Voices.”  It was not to be. Chaney died shortly after filming and the resulting one and only film to feature the actor’s voice does not realize that potential.   Chaney, dying of throat cancer, is hoarse throughout the film. To make matters worse, actor Harry Earles was far more magnetic and compelling in silent films.  His thick German accent in the sound remake is an epic distraction.

Still from The Unholy Three (1925)Lon Chaney’s style of acting was so ingrained in the silent film style of emoting that he was understandably reluctant about making the transition to sound.  Knowing Browning to be equally uneasy with sound, Chaney unwisely requested the pedestrian Conway to direct.  Under Conway, who had no feel or vision for the strange, the remaining cast in the sound remake are sanitized, hack versions of the far more eccentric and genuine cast in Browning’s silent film.

The original, silent Unholy Three (1925) catapulted Browning into star director status.  Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S THE UNHOLY THREE (1925)