By Brian Lafferty
August 16, 2012 (San Diego) – Tod Browning is a director whose career I lament as much as I admire. He began as a comedic actor who appeared in dozens of shorts (almost all of them directed by Edward Dillon) for Mutual Film Company. Then he turned his eye to directing, where he slowly established himself as a reliable helmsman of mostly crime and mystery films. He’s best known, however, for his work in the horror genre. In 1931 he directed the now-immortalized Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. After many years pounding the pavement, he seemed destined for even more greatness.
Then he directed Freaks.
Just as one role can wreck an actor's career, one movie can ruin a director. Freaks is now considered a classic of Pre-Code cinema, but back in 1932 it was a disaster for Browning and MGM. The cast consisted of many former deformed sideshow performers. Among them were Siamese Twins Daisy Hilton and Violet Hilton, "pinhead" Schlitzie, and Prince Randian (who was born without arms and legs and was known as the "Human Caterpillar"). Though very much tame today, Freaks was so shocking to audiences back then that local cities passed laws banning its exhibition. Browning's career suffered as a result; he only directed four more movies, the last being Miracles for Sale, released in 1939.
I mention Freaks because it provided a framework for my critical approach to The Blackbird, which came out six years before. I think of Freaks as the culmination of Browning's career, the quintessence of his filmic style. The Blackbird, one of a number of collaborations between Browning and legendary actor Lon Chaney, contains hints of Tod Browning’s trademarks: immoral and twisted characters, dark cinematography, and psychological horror.
Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, plays a thief with two polar opposite identities. As the "crippled" Bishop, he's a kind soul who runs a rescue mission and is beloved by all. As The Bishop's "brother", The Blackbird, he's a cruel human being and thief, a twisted man despised by all he encounters. The Blackbird meets and falls for Fifi (Renee Adoree), but she prefers the company of West End Bertie (Owen Moore), an ostensibly rich man, but later revealed to be himself a thief. Bertie wins over Fifi, though, and the two become engaged. This enrages the Blackbird, who tries to keep the two apart so he can have Fifi for himself.
Chaney may be known as the "Man with the Thousand Faces," but in The Blackbird, it's what he does with his body that's more impressive. As The Bishop, he ably contorts his legs and back into an exaggerated, but believable, position. He looks so comfortable for someone putting his body into such a weird shape for half the length of the film. This allows Chaney to truly bring out his gentle, fatherly persona that stands in marked contrast to his alter ego’s mean streak.
The film is dark, twisted, and seedy. The opening credits set the tone with a parade of hideous faces surrounded by fog. The working class townspeople often wear dirty clothes, and their bodies are caked in grime. They frequent a performance hall polluted with smoke. It's so filthy that when the clean-cut, well-dressed Fifi and her small entourage arrive, all the space they occupy acts as an impenetrable bubble that keeps out anything dirty.
Browning, as I mentioned earlier, was a master of psychological horror, and The Blackbird is no exception. Even though the film isn’t of the horror genre, he constructs an uninviting atmosphere via the multitude of shadows and darkness that cover the foggy streets. His script explores the twisted depths of The Blackbird’s mind. As I write this review, I still can’t shake it off. But then I still can’t stop thinking about Freaks.
The Blackbird is available only via manufacture-on-demand from the Warner Archive Collection. You can buy it here.
A Warner Archive Collection release. Director: Tod Browning. Screenplay: Tod Browning, Joseph Farnham, and Waldemar Young. Original Music: Robert Israel. Cinematography: Percy Hilburn. Cast: Lon Chaney, Owen Moore, Renee Adoree, Doris Lloyd, Andy MacLennan, and William Weston. 86 minutes. Unrated.