Sunday, November 17, 2013
The Show (1927)
Carnivals tread a fine line between entertainment and pity. The performers are talented and they work hard; but they live a transient life that, we suspect, they might not have chosen if their luck had been better. We feel much worse for the carnies we see in old films—especially the fat ladies and dog-faced boys and the like. What a way to make a living. But then again, at least they made one.
Tod Browning understood the complexity of audience reactions when it came to this world. He knew it better than most, having worked in carnivals as a talker (like a barker) and a clown. Some of his films, include the silents, The Unholy Three (1925) and The Show, and the early-talkie, Freaks (1932) are set in carnivals of one kind or another. Though these films are very different, they all present us with real characters—people with real problems—who make their way in a business built on the weird and the phony. The films’ structures reflect this: the dignity of their leads juxtaposed with high kitsch. Browning, no arthouse snob, never polished the carnival life for the sake of ‘deeper meaning.’ What you see is what you would have got, had you been there.
The Show stars John Gilbert as Cock Robin, a man well-equipped to survive in a carnival in this time and place. Robin’s charismatic, even charming when he has to be, but amoral: finding ways to make a lady foot the bill when he can, and failing that, stealing from her. He always gets by. Robin’s role as a carnival talker (the one who gets your attention, then urges you into the tent for the real show) makes the most of his talents. But it’s his secondary role, as the man beheaded in the carnival’s campy, stage-produced bible story, that matters more for the film.
I’ve never much appreciated Gilbert’s acting, but I’m starting to change my tune. Here, as in some other films, his leading-man presence is distorted in a fascinating way—allowing him to play a rake and a scoundrel who quite obviously lacks the moral core of, say, a Clark-Gable type. Dig deep enough and you’ll find a hero in Rhett Butler. Burrow into Cock Robin and you’ll find a coward, or worse.
His physicality is part of it. Gilbert had a long, lean body, topped with a large head. His face was handsome, but it belied the actor’s youth. He was almost unnatural. Gilbert spends much of The Show in a skin-tight, striped top and high-waisted pants that accentuate his tapering midsection and thin limbs. His Robin treads lightly through the world: a cruel, trickster sprite, disconnected from serious things.
The Show stars two other silent actors of note: Renée Adorée (“Salome”) and Lionel Barrymore (“The Greek”). Salome (so-named because she portrays a dancing girl in the stage show) is Robin’s former lover, and apparently the Greek’s current girlfriend, though they exhibit no obvious affection. The Greek is a mobster. Salome still pines for Robin, which makes for an interesting love triangle, as Robin does not pine back, but could still get shot if The Greek got wind of Salome’s intentions.
The bulk of The Show concerns Robin’s attempts to leach money from his current girl, the wealthy daughter of a sheep farmer (Gertrude Scott, playing another twit); and avoiding both Salome’s advances and The Greek’s aggression. We also get some fun sideshow moments, my favourite being The Living Hand of Cleopatra: a disembodied hand, attached to a pillar, which receives the rubes’ money on their way into the tent. It is not clear how this illusion is performed, but if Browning filmed it, I believe it was possible.
There is more here than spectacle, however. Browning’s point is that things may be more than they seem; more, in fact, than even the participants in this story are aware of. Sometimes we see this literally, as in one neat little scene when The Greek pulls a switchblade on Robin and Robin produces his walking stick in response—which he then uncaps to reveal a much larger blade. Other times the disguises are more subtle. Robin, we learn, may have more substance to him than it appears. And Salome, who seems pathetic for much of the film, proves to be rather powerful in the end.
Salome’s turn takes the film with it. And the turn is big. I think you’ll appreciate it—I certainly did, and would recommend the film as something special based on that final 25 minutes or so. It turns out that Salome is dealing with a profound problem—one requiring a level of maturity well beyond what Cock Robin is capable of, and one so stirring that even he is given pause. Really, Salome is leading a double life.
It occurred to me that the least worthy characters in the film are the ones who do not. Even The Greek, who seems diabolical enough, thanks to Barrymore, is in the end no more than the common hood he appears to be, and bit of a bumbler. He thinks small, and only about himself, and in time those flaws will put an end to him. The Show causes us to question whether Cock Robin is the same. We don’t know, and for much of the film, neither does he.
Where to find The Show:
The Show is part of the Warner Archive Collection, available as a made-for-order DVD from WBshop.com.
Special thanks to Caren Feldman, of the Toronto Film Society, for screening this film. And for baking her meatloaf. I am a fan of both.