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In a none-too-prestigious side show in Budapest, a performer named Cock Robin has a jealous lover who plays Salome in a decapitation-illusion act. He also has a vicious rival in a quack medicine show entrepreneur who plots to rig the act so to do in Robin. Written by
John Gilbert plays Cock Robin in this very archetypal Tod Browning melodrama. Robin is a showman whose act includes having his head chopped off and whose show includes a mermaid, a woman's head pinned on a spider web and the living hand of Cleopatra, which conveniently collects the tickets of the patrons.
Lionel Barrymore is an evil character named the Greek, who tries to pin a murder he commits out of greed, on Robin, who despite being innocent is a rough, energetic man who looks out for himself first. Robin's girl named Salome, well-played by Renee Adoree, is not quite the unsympathetic vamp he thinks her to be. She has a secret that will in the end lead him to a true purpose for his life.
This is really one of Browning's best films. His direction is inspired. The sets and design are meticulous and create a perfectly sinful world for the heroes to live in. He uses some surprising low and high camera angles and the cutting is fast-paced.
While the story is similar to most Browning-Chaney films of the period, this one comes off better. John Gilbert is excellent and proves an asset whereas if Chaney had played the part, he probably would have made it too much Chaney. Robin is a handsome, fiery man and Gilbert is perfect for the part.
This is one of only two MGM silents that Browning made without Chaney and it's a shame he didn't make more solo efforts. Not that their collaboration was not great, but this film seems to have freed up Browning just a bit more for him to be a little more creative in his own ways. Freaks may be the penultimate Browning film, but this one ranks right near the top of his catalog.
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