John Gilbert, Lionel Barrymore
(USDVD release date: 13 Nov 2012; USDVD release date: 13 Nov 2012)
Now available on demand from Warner Archives are two excellent prints of forgotten, handsomely designed, censor-baiting MGM silent films from major directors. Each exemplifies a certain mode that flourished in 1920s Hollywood.
Will impulsive young wife Eleanor Boardman follow the scandalous example of her mom-in-law, who ran away with a lover 30 years ago? She invites them over to see how they’ve worn in The Circle, adapted from Somerset Maugham’s play. The old folks have the juiciest parts in this comedy of adultery, where mixed messages are sent and no clear morals drawn except that the milquetoast husband (Creighton Hale) has to assert himself violently in order to keep his wife. This is supposedly his happy ending, but we’re still left with the feeling that he’s no prize. The chief interest today is that Joan Crawford appears unbilled in the opening scenes.
This is the kind of would-be saucy project that ideally should have been directed by Ernst Lubitsch, or Cecil B. DeMille before he went epic, or Jacques Feyder (check out his sparkling The Kiss with Greta Garbo), but instead it’s helmed by romantic extraordinaire Frank Borzage, who’s not exactly known for hilarity. Despite the inherent ironies in Maugham’s material, the humor is mostly broad rather than sophisticated and knowing. It’s a pleasant film whose strongest moments are Borzage’s strengths, when it’s going for tenderness over drollery.
More amazing to modern eyes is The Show, an example of a subgenre more or less invented by Tod Browning: the sordid, morbid show biz melodrama. While his most famous silents of this type starred Lon Chaney, this one uses the star power of John Gilbert, Lionel Barrymore, and Renée Adorée. The setting is a two-bit carnival called the Palace of Illusions. Amid grotesque sideshows, they stage a lovingly detailed version of Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils and the beheading of John the Baptist. They also run a side business in snake oil from a deadly poisonous iguana!
Gilbert plays a carnival barker called Cock Robin, who dresses and behaves exactly like the titular antihero of Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom, also a barker. That’s not strange, considering its Broadway popularity through the 1920s, but what’s odd is that Barrymore’s character of The Greek is essentially Mackie Messer of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, down to the knife, and yet that show didn’t open in Berlin until a year later! (The film’s stated source is a novel by Charles Tenney Jackson.) A dialogue card that refers to “vampires and freaks” will delight those who know that Browning’s most famous talkies would be Dracula and Freaks, although in this case the vampire is a Theda Bara type.
The absurd story is unremittingly brooding and unpleasant and the characters unlikable in a manner that seems uncommercial. Cock Robin is a weak, amoral, craven louse with no redeeming features. He even utters blasphemous lines that got past the censors: “Christ! He’s dead!” and “God, you’re a real dame, straight through to the core!” (a compliment). He spurns the attentions of Salome (Adorée), whose jealous obsession with him is countered by The Greek’s violent possessiveness for her. Cock Robin’s none-too-convincing moral conversion is predicated upon his being as surprised as the audience by a late revelation that, if not wholly unpredictable, is sufficiently extravagant. One doesn’t question all this nonsense; it’s all a part of the film’s strange spell.