A class MGM product from the height of Gilbert's career
This one, directed by Tod Browning, is a perfect Gilbert silent. It takes place in the sort of sordid and atmospheric world Browning loved -- in this case in Budapest, surrounding a "Palace of Illusions" (an urban sideshow).
Gilbert is re-teamed with Renee Adoree, and once again they work extremely well together. He's the barker and all-round utility performer (he has to be John the Baptist and take part in the beheading trick that's part of their little Salome play). It's part of the fable-quality of the story that he's simply given the name Cock Robin, from the nursery rhyme:
Who killed Cock Robin? I, said the sparrow, With my little bow and arrow ....
Adoree is the cooch dancer who plays Salome, and that's what she's called too. Lionel Barrymore is "The Greek," a brutal thief and murderer, who has taken on the role of her boyfriend. It isn't very clear how far this has gone, but it seems to be something new. He is basically forcing himself on her. She used to be involved with Gilbert, and still carries a torch for him. The jealous and dangerous Greek has a watchful eye out for any signs of rekindling, and a knife at the ready (Gilbert has a knife too; I said it was sordid).
Gilbert is a womanizer with no respect whatsoever for the female sex: he's perfectly willing to marry a stupid country girl who has just been orphaned, to get hold of her father's "whole hillsides of sheep." He's catnip to the female sex, and every woman in the movie desires him (this was the height of Gilbert's career and MGM was still handling him just right).
The story is compelling and very well plotted. You only have to accept a conveniently timed melodrama natural death and (this is only a problem now, with nature docs on TV) that a perfectly ordinary iguana is actually an extremely poisonous lizard from Madagascar. Everything else is pretty convincing. You think for a considerable time that you're in an early Von Stroheim film, a colorful movie in a convincing European setting, without a heart. You begin to think there's not a speck of redeemable stuff in Gilbert.
But the movie has something up its sleeve, and in the second half you may find yourself sobbing.
Nobody in silent films ever looked at a woman the way Gilbert did. The cynical look where he's on to the dame and her games, undresses her with his eyes, and sees all the bad in her .... that Valentino could do. But the other look, where he comprehends a woman in all her power and goodness, or absorbs all her allure like a blow, is Gilbert's alone.
To know something of his history is to know that his mother was a popular actress who abandoned him to relatives and strangers while she went on seedy tours with a repertory company. He never had a loving mother or, it would seem, a loving substitute. His first girlfriend, another actress, died horribly at Ince studios when a balcony set collapsed.
Gilbert was a ladies' man, and there were a lot of women in his life, but he seems to have genuinely adored them and always relied on their kindness and warmth to him. Women dug him right back, in life and on the screen. He's able to put all his emotional need into one intense look from those dark and brooding eyes.
Adoree isn't our present idea of a beauty. She has -- as we see in her Salome dance in a two piece Harem outfit -- no waist. But it doesn't matter a speck here, as it adds to the ordinariness and seediness of this claustrophobic world of the urban poor. And her acting is highly effective. Actually, so is all the acting. There's an ensemble of very able players in a lot of colorful and distinctive parts.
The print TCM showed is terrific, and it has an unusually effective new orchestral score by Darrell Raby. This one was well worth copying and will be well worth keeping.
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