Thursday, April 4, 2013


Why does he do it? Not even Tod Browning himself seemed to comprehend why he put Lon Chaney Sr. through such contortions in his movies, or why Chaney did so himself for other directors. A famous anecdote has Browning offering Herman J. Mankiewicz a screenwriting credit if only he can invent a reason why Chaney should in once scene be a soulful street violinist, and in the next be revealed as an obscene vivisectionist performing transplant experiments on women and gorillas. The conversation supposedly inspired Mankiewicz to send his famous telegram to Ben Hecht inviting the latter to make millions writing movies since "your only competition is idiots." If so, that seems slightly unfair to Browning, who probably was more lunatic than idiot and was, in any event, sincerely if naively committed to depicting the unfathomable or, as another of his Chaney films puts it, the unknown. Chaney, known for his makeup skills, had some ability as a contortionist, or at least a pantomime approximation of one. Browning exploited this to the hilt yet struggled to account for it in the quasi-rational terms required by the plot mechanics of melodrama. Compared to the madness of The Unknown, in which Chaney binds his arms to his sides to perform as an armless knife thrower, then has his arms cut off because his beloved despises a man's touch, The Blackbird is almost sane. In this tale of London Chaney is the title character, a Limehouse gangster grown besotted with a French music-hall puppeteer (Renee Adoree). Dan "the Blackbird" discovers a rival in crime and romance in  West End Bertie (Owen Moore), a slick con man who lures swells to Limehouse as a tour guide to lowlife and pleads innocence to conspiracy when the swells are robbed because he's robbed too -- only he gets his stuff and everyone else's back afterward. This triangle occupies most of the film and allows Chaney to be "normal" most of the time. Dan is a genial, charismatic crook so Chaney gets to smile a lot. The Browning factor comes in when Dan wants to lay low. Limehouse believes that the Blackbird has a brother, "the Bishop." Everyone knows this gentle soul, cruelly crippled yet charitable toward all. Mostly paralyzed on one side, the Bishop hobbles around with the aid of a crutch and is often heard arguing with his criminal brother, struggling to get Dan back on the straight and narrow. But Browning isn't out to insult anyone's intelligence. He knows why the audience is here, so he confirms within a few minutes what most expect already: the Blackbird and the Bishop are one and the same. Dan has a trick where he can dislocate his right arm and contort his right leg to assume the Bishop's gnarled posture, thus hiding in plain sight and even helping the law look (in vain) for the wayward Blackbird. But wasn't there an easier way? Doesn't that hurt? Why does he do it?

The real question, no more easy for Browning or Chaney to answer, may be "why do we imagine it?" Maybe show people can't help themselves. Maybe Browning was onto something when his subconscious told him that the mask of benevolence too often was just that. Maybe he saw deformity and grotesquerie slightly differently from his peers. The typical view was that ugliness indicated bad character, that you could tell a criminal by his hard or brutish features. Yet the Bishop is more grotesque than the Blackbird, but is intended by the latter as a false embodiment of good. For Browning, I suspect, Chaney's contortions reflect the ongoing contortions of his character's soul -- not degeneracy but the constant struggle of contradictory impulses. For Chaney himself, they seemed like a necessary ordeal to elicit the right interpretation of each role. Browning would raise these questions of bodies and souls most alarmingly in Freaks, but the tone is necessarily different when your star only pretends -- physically, at least -- to be a freak

As in The Unknown, Chaney's imposture eventually becomes reality. Dan has pulled off a quick change and is hobbling out to receive investigators when one of the latter pushes his way into the Bishop's room, whacking the poor unfortunate with the door. The impact knocks Dan on his back, and that impact, given his weird posture, fractures his back. "Now I'm a real cripple!" he moans in agony to his last confidant, his former flame Limehouse Polly. At this point, O. Henry or Al Feldstein would pause, their point having been made. Browning goes further. To a point, The Blackbird has been a parody of Chaney's own attempts to milk his contortions for pathos, to make his antiheroes misunderstood misfits. The Bishop would be an object of pathos if he saintliness wasn't just the Blackbird's cynical disguise. Yet I'll be damned if they don't play for pathos at the very end after all, as Dan lies literally broken. It's nothing so hokey as Dan acquiring his alter ego's holiness, but as Polly tries to quiet his agony our hardened criminal becomes something like a pathetic child. He knows that if the coppers see the Bishop howling in pain they'll know that he ain't been crippled before. She comes up with the obvious solution: go to sleep. Easier said than done given his pain, but she exerts a kind of hypnotic power on him, calming him as he murmurs proudly about fooling the law one more time. He never wakes up. It could almost pass for a martyrdom, if only because that was Chaney's specialty. He got to play plain old tough guys sometimes, but as we remember him today the ordeal was his performance art, his method. Browning's probably weren't the only fantasies inspired by his cinematic suffering; a generation of pulp fiction, for starters, tells the tale. It's the dark side of the pathos silent cinema audiences craved so much, and sometimes more horrible than the movie horrors that followed. Chaney's films often remain disturbing because retain that incomprehensible element -- not just why he does such strange things, but why they were even imagined, much less embraced by the public. He and Browning are emissaries from a past that is our own yet may as well be an alien world in some respects. That's a little scary in its own right.


Meredith L. Grau said...

Awesome. My favorite! (PS, you have The Unknown as The Uncanny sometimes) ;)

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for catching my mistake, Meredith. Perhaps it was a Freudian slip -- seeing in Browning what I subconsciously want or expect. He does that to folks.