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Throughout his career, director Tod Browning was drawn to carnivalesque settings for his macabre thrillers. The dime museum (The Unholy Three ), music hall (The Blackbird , West of Zanzibar ), gypsy wagon show (The Mystic ) and morbid wax museum (White Tiger ) are but a few of the tawdry amusement-places that provide the stage for his thieves, murderers and schemers -- and the innocent victims thereof.
MGM Production # 294 was filmed under the title Cock o' the Walk, and later released as The Show (1927). It is set in a small Hungarian attraction called the Palace of Illusions, which offers a risqu blend of magic, the grotesque and the titillating. Aptly-named womanizer "Cock" Robin is the "ballyhoo man" for the showplace, guiding the viewer past a series of beautiful, yet misshapen, women, sprinkling his spiel with sexually suggestive patter. He shows us Zela, the legless woman ("Believe me, boys...there's no cold feet here to bother you."); Arachnida, who has the head of a woman, the body of a black widow; and Neptuna the mermaid ("Now I know why the divers go down," quips one spectator). A decapitated queen was also filmed, but later cut from the film (no pun intended).
As a climax to the Freudian festival of mutilation, the company recreates "The Great Terpsichorean Tragedy." Posing as John the Baptist, Cock permits himself to be beheaded, after Salome performs a vibrant dance of the seven veils.
Into this chamber of horrors wanders Lena (Gertrude Short), an innocent farmgirl whose father has come to town to sell his sheep. The father is murdered by the Greek (Lionel Barrymore), only to find that the daughter is holding the cash. The principal cast converges in overlapping triangles of jealousy (Salome loves Cock, but belongs to the Greek) and greed (Cock tries to seduce the money from Lena, but the Greek wants it for himself). The melodrama swells to a climax when the Greek first sabotages Cock Robin's act (in hopes of staging a real beheading), and then unleashes a venomous reptile upon his rival.
In the midst of this mayhem, Cock is confined to a small apartment with Salome and her blind father, the "Old Soldier" (Edward Connelly) and encounters an unexpected opportunity for moral redemption.
Connelly, striving for realism in his performance as Salome's blind father, induced a form of temporary blindness prior to shooting his scenes by staring into the studio's powerful spotlights. According to The Show's pressbook, Connelly suffered "from badly inflamed eyes and a mild case of 'klieg eyes' which [took] some days to recover from."
The Variety film critic observed that a body double performed Renee Adoree's dance ("And boy, what a 'grind' she staged!"). This may be true, since Salome's back is awkwardly turned to the camera during the more provocative moves. But Adoree had previously worked as a dancer, so it is possible that all the moves were, in fact, her own.
When it came time to shoot the reptile attack, the crew had difficulty making the docile iguana appear sufficiently ferocious. The solution was to place the reptile on a metal plate and send a substantial charge of electricity through it, which created the illusion of a vicious attack (according to a 1932 article on Browning, which appeared in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin).
The Show garnered mixed, but largely favorable, reviews. It was called "one of the most thrilling films ever made... [Browning's] best film to date" (Los Angeles Record). "If you have nerves prepare to shed them at the door...It has twists and turns more tangled than a volt of lightning" (Los Angeles Herald).
Much of the criticism was leveled at the largely unsympathetic character of Cock Robin. Variety predicted The Show "undoubtedly will hurt [John Gilbert's] general popularity with the women, for while he is a great lover there is nothing romantic in the character, it being a sordid role of the type which tends to degrade." The New York Times's Mordaunt Hall indignantly wrote, "He stares, he becomes violent, and he poses, so much so that when there appears to be a chance of the villain...beheading this Cock Robin, one is, if anything, somewhat disappointed that he is saved."
The dangerous nature of Cock's aggressive libido is aptly symbolized in the phallic walking stick he carries with him everywhere, within which a long dagger is carefully concealed.
Gilbert was at the height of his career when The Show was made, and he characterized the film as "illegitimate spew." This may sound purely dismissive, but there is more meaning behind his words than is evident. The Show was an attempt to capitalize on a variety of other properties, and was lacking in individuality. Its pairing of Gilbert and Adoree was a throwback to the wildly successful The Big Parade (1925). The swaggering Cock Robin was lifted from Ferenc Molnar's play Liliom, which Gilbert had been trying to convince someone to produce, with him as the star. The subplots of the blind father and Cock Robin's moral redemption are virtually the only ingredients that survived from Charles Tenney Jackson's novel The Day of Souls (from which the script was officially adapted). Many elements of the story (the carnival/freak show setting, the unleashed wild animal) were borrowed from other films, such as Browning's The Unholy Three and Victor Sjostrom's He Who Gets Slapped (1924, in which Gilbert also appears).
Browning was apparently testing the waters for a horror film set at a circus and later the same year would unleash upon the world his fully-realized carnival of terror: The Unknown (1927), starring Lon Chaney. Browning returned to the erotic Palace of Illusions in his 1930 film Outside the Law, and revisited the freak show in his notorious 1932 film Freaks.
Browning and Gilbert reteamed in 1933 for the racy pre-Code drama Fast Workers, where Gilbert plays "Gunner" Smith, another detestable womanizer in need of redemption.
Director: Tod Browning
Screenplay: Waldemar Young, based on the novel The Day of Souls by Charles Tenney Jackson
Cinematography: John Arnold
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons, Richard Day
Music (2006) by Darrell Raby
Cast: John Gilbert (Cock Robin), Renee Adoree (Salome), Lionel Barrymore (The Greek), Edward Connelly (The Old Soldier), Gertrude Short (Lena), Andy MacLennan (The Ferret), Zalla Zarana (Zela), Betty Boyd (Neptuna), Edna Tichenor (Arachnida).
by Bret Wood