I was alerted to the existence of this silent film by the wise and great Stuart Douglas. I'll quote him: "The plot is officially the most mental thing ever (even more mental than the fact Joan Crawford was quite fit as a young woman)."
That sounded like a recommendation to me, although understandably I wasn't expecting the most mental thing ever to be (a) from 1927, and (b) not from Japan. This was a mistake. This thing is raving bugnuts. I'm not going to try comparing it with stuff like Tokyo Gore Police
, but it's certainly more deranged than anything else I've seen from Tod Browning, including Dracula
and Freaks. I suspect it would even outdo the original 90-minute version of the latter that annihilated test audiences and got cut to shreds by a terrified MGM. Even by the fifteen-minute mark, this film had got sufficiently extreme that I assumed we must have reached the end. Nope, not a bit of it. Tod Browning never stops inventing new levels of intensity and taste. Contemporary reviews advised that it was as pleasant as visiting a hospital dissecting room. Needless to say, I thought it was awesome.
The film is set in a gypsy circus, which is significant since Browning also penned its story. He'd run away from home to join a circus when he was 16. This kept him busy for many years, in such roles as being a talker for the Wild Man of Borneo or being buried as "The Living Corpse". He'd also be a dancer, actor, magician and clown. Anyway, our film's hero is Lon Chaney, playing Alonzo the Armless. His best friend is a dwarf called Cojo and he's in love with a young, hot Joan Crawford.
I know what you're thinking. "Alonzo the Armless." He's not, is he? Yes, he is. We first see him doing an original twist on the traditional circus act of narrowly failing to kill a beautiful woman. Using only his feet to handle the weapons, Chaney shoots most of Crawford's clothes off and then puts half a dozen knives into the board she's standing in front of. Admittedly Browning isn't going quite as far with the physical deformity as he later would in Freaks, but I did notice that a random group of circus folk running past at one point includes someone who's, um, not right. To be honest, in this film no one's normal. Even the ones who don't have actual physical abnormalities either have super-strength or mental problems. Crawford's character has a phobia so weird that not only have I never heard of it, but I suspect it probably wouldn't even occur to a normal person.
There's little I can say about the story without spoilers, but I liked the dialogue. Yes, in a silent film. Firstly there's very little of it, with Browning being just as likely to expect us to lip-read, or even never tell us what Chaney's saying because we already have a good idea of what's in his demented head and we neither want or need a caption screen underlining the obvious. (Did any silent films try to do subtitles?) Secondly, the caption screens we do get are often more vividly phrased than you'd expect. "Alonzo, all my life men have tried to put their beastly hands on me... to paw over me."
Even the opening credits look modern, somehow. I recognised the font type.
The best thing about it though is Lon Chaney. This is one of the great screen performances, blasting a hole in the silent medium and putting all the hams to shame. Joan Crawford always said she learned more about acting from working alongside Chaney in this film than she did from everything else in her career put together. He's obviously brilliant, but on top of that there's also the laugh-out-loud factor of seeing him using his feet like hands. I adored this. It's not just the obvious stuff like lighting cigarettes and pouring wine, but subtle moments like twiddling his "thumbs" or rubbing his chin when he's troubled. Admittedly those sometimes weren't really Chaney's feet but those of an armless man called Paul Desmuke, but the illusion's so seamless that you'd never guess. Chaney sells it like a master, blasting past "convincing" up to "the coolest thing in the world".
Crawford's good too, by the way. In fact the acting's solid throughout, avoiding the ham one so often sees in the silent era. I liked everyone.
The very end of the climactic scene is the only bit I'm not entirely sure about. It's good, but a bit abrupt. I'd have liked to see Chaney's decisions more clearly, whereas in the event everything just sort of happens and then it's over. However my notes for the finale include "this is going to get nasty" and "that's [expletive] gross", so all things considered I'm more than satisfied.
This is an unbelievable film. It's more than watchable even if you're not used to silent cinema, which I'm not particularly, and its story is a unique combination of simplicity (two men, one woman) and insanity. I like Browning's fondness for the abnormal, for instance making Cojo the dwarf both a major role and the film's most sympathetic character. It opened my eyes to the magnificence of Lon Chaney (Snr). If nothing else, it's a film that you can talk about using the word "prehensile".