Monday, November 2, 2009

The Blackbird (MGM, 1926)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was The Blackbird, a Lon Chaney vehicle from MGM in 1926 that was directed by Tod Browning (one of their 10 films together) from a script by Waldemar Young based on a story by Browning himself. While this was one of the most highly regarded films either Chaney or Browning made when it first came out, it’s become oddly obscure and is more rarely revived than some of their others, though I remember seeing it in the 1970’s and being mightily impressed. It didn’t seem as strong this time around, mainly because it isn’t as kinky as some of their other collaborations (particularly The Unholy Three and The Unknown) and it’s an oddly static movie — much of it consists of long sequences in confined spaces — but it’s still quite good.

It’s set in the Limehouse district of London, where The Bishop (Lon Chaney), a crippled cleric, leads a mission and attempts to help the poor people in the area — and his brother Don Lee, a.k.a. The Blackbird (also Lon Chaney), is a street criminal and robs people to help support the Bishop’s mission. The relatively decent people living in Limehouse say that it’s a pity the Blackbird undoes all the good work the Bishop tries to do. The Blackbird hangs out at a combination music hall and pub where his ex-wife, Limehouse Polly (Doris Lloyd), performs — and when a new act, a puppet show in which the woman puppet is voiced by Fifi Lorraine (Renée Adorée), debuts there, he gets a mad infatuation with Fifi. The problem is Fifi has eyes for someone else: West End Bertie (Owen Moore — Mary Pickford’s first husband), who comes in dressed as an upper-class “toff” with two women on either side but still makes eyes at Fifi. Two thugs (Sidney Bracey and Ernie Adams) come in and rob Bertie’s girlfriends, and the Blackbird catches on at once: Bertie is himself a thief who robs people by encouraging them to go “slumming” in Limehouse, whereby his hired thugs stick them up and the three of them split the proceeds afterwards.

Bertie and Fifi fall in love and Bertie proposes to her; the two of them approach the Bishop, asking him to perform their wedding, and he says he’ll do it only if Bertie gives up crime. The Bishop hides Bertie and Fifi out in a secret room of the mission, and at one point when he’s summoned we see the Blackbird enter the building, then go into a quick transformation, curling up his leg to make himself look crippled, and thus two-thirds of the way through the movie we’re finally made aware that the Bishop and the Blackbird are not brothers, but are in fact the same person. (On the TCM showing I recorded Robert Osborne shamefully gave away this part of the plot in his introduction, where he said that Chaney was playing a character in disguise — undoing Browning’s carefully planted fiction that he was two separate people, though an early scene showing the Blackbird supposedly carrying on a conversation with the unseen Bishop at least dropped a hint.) It ends with the Blackbird taking a bad fall — at first it looked like he was having a heart attack, but later he explains that he had posed as a cripple so long that he had actually become one — and Chaney getting a death scene almost operatic both in its intensity and its duration before he sends the lovers on their way and expires.

Though the motives for Chaney’s disguise remain unclear, The Blackbird remains a powerful melodrama and a testament to Chaney’s skill and versatility as an actor (a versatility his son Creighton, a.k.a. Lon Chaney, Jr., regrettably did not inherit from him) as well as a clear source of inspiration for Bowery at Midnight, the best of Bela Lugosi’s films for Monogram (though Bowery at Midnight’s quality is only relative and the people who made it hardly had the imagination of Browning or the makers of the other film that inspired their plot, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), particularly in the plot gimmick of a criminal disguising himself as a mission owner doing social work in a particularly raunchy and infamous location.