Tod Browning‘s White Tiger (1923) finds the director revisiting intimate motifs and has an unusual connection to Edgar Allan Poe (Browning, who has often been referred to as the Poe of cinema, listed the classic author as his favorite). In 1836, Poe wrote an exposé of the touring “Mechanical Chess Player” Automaton. In the article Poe revealed that inside this mechanical chess player was a concealed, quite human, operator. Poe’s article was the seed for Browning’s film, which the director co-wrote with screenwriter Charles Kenyon.
White Tiger stars Browning regular Priscilla Dean, Raymond Griffith and Walter Beery. Griffith, who got his start with Mack Sennett, was once considered a rival to both Chaplin and Keaton. Due to a childhood injury to his vocal cords, Griffith was practically mute, quashing any chance he might have had for surviving into sound film. Most of Griffith’s films are lost, but the most celebrated, the Civil War comedy Hands Up (1926), survives, and is thought by some to be nearly as good as Keaton’s (somewhat overrated)The General from the same year. Although that comparison is highly debatable, Hands Up is a unique film and worth seeing. It is available from Grapevine Video, but otherwise it is hard to find.
Griffith’s screen persona was that of a debonair comedian, a la Max Linder, but Browning, of course, used him quite differently. Griffith plays Roy Donovan. Sylvia (Dean) is Roy’s sister, but they are separated at childhood when Hawkes (Beery) betrays their father, Mike Donovan (Alfred Allen), which results in Mike’s murder. Hawkes takes Sylvia with him. She believes her brother has also died and is unaware that Hawkes was her father’s Judas.
Years later, Sylvia is a professional pickpocket under the guardianship of Hawkes, who now goes by the new identity of Count Donelli. Sylvia stakes out her victims at the London Wax Museum. There she meets The Kid, who, unknown to her, is her long lost brother, Roy. Roy has his own nefarious gig; the Mechanical Chess Player. When Sylvia introduces the Kid to her “father,” Count Donelli, the three form an unholy alliance, which leads them and the Mechanical Chess Player to a new land of opportunity in America.
Roy develops incestuous feelings for Sylvia (of course, he is still unaware that she is his sibling), which leads to jealousy when Sylvia falls for goody two shoe Dick Longworth (Matt Moore). Tension between the unholy three builds with the arrival of Dick. After a jewelry heist in a mansion, utilizing the Mechanical Chess Player, the trio hole up at a claustrophobic cabin in the mountains. The final quarter of the film casts a Poe-like eye on imagined (and real) enemies. Mistrust between the trio is sowed and much coffee is downed, in an effort to stay awake and keep an eye on each other and the hidden jewelry.
The truth about Hawk’s betrayal of Sylvia’s real father comes out, as does the revelation that the Kid is none other than her brother. The Oedipal killing of a (surrogate) father, mistrust among a trio of criminals, theft of jewels, false identities, the double cross, staged gimmickry, deception (which the spectator audience is privy to), latent incest, followed by jealousy for a righteous rival, a claustrophobic getaway retreat, and a finale in which one of the criminals deeds goes unpunished are familiar Browning themes. Poe’s deceptive Mechanical Chess Player is a bizarre, added quirk.
According to several Browning biographers, acquaintances of the director and his wife, Alice, would often be forced to lock up the jewelry when the two came to visit because the Brownings had a notorious reputation for swiping any stones they could get their hands on. At least Tod Browning’s empathy for the criminal mindset was an honest one.