Between 1919 and 1929, director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney, Sr. made a total of ten films together, the best of them comprising what might be called the “masochistic melodrama” genre: Chaney’s protagonist, an obsessive, often embittered individual, usually suffers from some handicap or hindrance that allowed Chaney to indulge his fetishistic love of make-up maladies–the lengths he would go to achieve his desired effects are well known (binding his arms to his sides in a harness for The Unknown, the painful facial realignment prosthesis necessary to become The Phantom of the Opera).
While the films structurally obeyed the nascent strictures imposed by the Hays Office to reign in perceived Hollywood excesses, their narratives often focused on freaks literal and figurative (drawing on Browning’s circus and sideshow background) and the overall tone was grim, intense and intensely perverse. While the forces of law and order may have triumphed in the end (and true love asserted its indomitable right), for the majority of their often truncated running times, the Browning-Chaney collaborations allowed mania and mayhem to take the spotlight center-stage.
The Unholy Three (1925) boasts a top-shelf premise, a crackerjack first twenty minutes…and then plummets steadily into the comforts of respectability. Introducing its titular trio of sideshow attractions mid-performance–Professor Echo, the ventriloquist (Chaney); strongman Hercules (future Ford fixture Victor McLaglen); pint-sized Tweedledee (Harry Earles, star of Browning’s undisputed masterwork, Freaks )–the amusements come to a grinding halt when an irate Earles kicks a taunting child in the face and an all-out brawl ensues.
The three men dedicate themselves to a life of crime, adopting innocuous disguises and using a pet store as a front for their operations. Echo assumes the identity of doddering Grandma O’Grady. Earles’ Tweedledee turns into a cigar-chomping infant. (All the best visual gags center around this incongruity.)
The ventriloquist uses his skills to sell dumb parrots to a rich clientele–the film renders this via superimposed cartoon strip speech bubbles (“Pretty Polly!”). Then, when the buyers complain, Grandma O’Grady has a prime opportunity to case their homes. Thereafter, alas, the film falls into ridiculous contrivances, predictable plotting and last minute changes of heart. (The amok ape in the third act anticipates the more disturbing finale of Where East Is East.)
The Unknown (1927) is quintessential Browning-Chaney, engaging over its attenuated 50 minute run-time the full gamut of aberrant psychological themes and grotesque, even carnivalesque imagery. Based on a novel by Tod Robbins, who also provided the source material for Freaks, the film tells the story of Alonzo the Armless (Chaney), a sideshow performer who throws knifes with his feet, who is obsessed with Nanon (Joan Crawford), his assistant, as well as the carnival owner’s daughter, who in turn is pathologically averse to a man’s touch. Alonzo is also a career criminal–having committed robbery and murder, he keeps his arms bound tightly to his sides, lest his telltale double-thumb give away his identity.
The film’s insistent reference to hands–in word and picture–aligns it with a subgenre of horror films, ranging from Mad Love (1935) to Idle Hands (1999), dedicated to rogue limbs and runaway appendages. Alonzo’s doubled thumb signifies his duplicitous nature. Nanon’s objection to being touched (pawed over, etc.) indicates the aggression at the bottom of sexual desire–there’s even the suggestion that her father’s warnings to stay away from Alonzo, though proven all too apt, stem as much from his own incestuous longings as any prudent paternal care.
Alonzo’s schemes to win Nanon’s heart by blackmailing a doctor into sawing off his arms for real meet a terribly ironic reversal when strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry) succeeds in earning Nanon’s love by encouraging her to overcome her finger-phobia. There’s nothing for it now, as far as Alonzo’s concerned, save gruesome revenge: Performing a dangerous stunt onstage, Malabar stands strapped by his wrists between two galloping horses, only treadmills running underneath to prevent them from tearing his limbs out of their sockets, Alonzo manages to deactivate the treadmills. Once again, however, the Chaney figure undergoes a change of heart, shoving Nanon out of harm’s way as she’s about to be trampled, earning his moment of rehabilitation and allowing the young lovers to live happily ever after. Regardless, it is a dark, disturbing little film, made all the more potent by a pulsating, assertive score courtesy of the Alloy Orchestra.
Alas, the last known copy of London After Midnight (1927) burned up in a MGM studio vault fire, but in 2002 TCM hired restoration expert Rick Schmidlin to attempt a still-photograph reconstruction drawing from a shooting script. The resulting 45 minute version of the original film offers a glimpse of what might have been–a straightforward murder mystery about a Scotland Yard inspector (Chaney) who uses bogus vampires as a lure to draw out the real killer, essentially the same story Browning remade as a talkie with 1935’s Mark of the Vampire. The one noteworthy element–not surprising in a Chaney vehicle–is the Man of a Thousand Faces’ vampire makeup, a fearsome combination of deep-sunken eyes and filed-down teeth.
West of Zanzibar (1928) was based on a hit Broadway play, later remade under its stage title Kongo (1932), as a sound film starring Walter Huston. Chaney plays Phroso, a middling stage magician whose assistant-wife Anna is seduced and abandoned by Crane (Lionel Barrymore). In the confrontation, Crane throws Phroso off a balcony, crippling him for life. Several years later, Phroso’s wife turns up again, her dead body splayed across a church’s altar steps. (The film never bothers to establish exactly what killed her, or how her body wound up in the church, perhaps owing to censor-demanded cuts; nevertheless, the staging of the scene encourages a blatant theatricality in an almost offhanded, surreal way.)
Eighteen years later, both men are living in East Africa–Crane now a wealthy ivory trader, wheelchair-bound Phroso (called Dead-Legs by his flunkies) acting as white witch doctor to a local tribe. Hatching a long-incubating revenge scheme, Phroso sends his crony Doc (Warner Baxter), a dissolute medico, to Zanzibar to fetch young Maisie (Mary Nolan), the offspring of Anna and Crane’s liaison, from the brothel where she works. Phroso proceeds to abuse and humiliate the girl–forcing her to eat her dinner off the floor and plying her with strong drink. The dense jungle stymies her escape attempts, she returns to the hut spattered with mud and her clothes in tatters. Meanwhile, Phroso’s underlings have filched a shipment of ivory tusks from Crane’s storehouse, bringing him on the hunt for his stolen goods to Phroso’s village.
Phroso’s plot seems to come together: Crane notices Maisie’s sorry state and tries to intercede on her behalf. His moment come at last, Phroso gives out the Big Reveal. But Crane has an even bigger revelation of his own: howling with gales of laughter, he tells Phroso the girl’s his own daughter. Chaney does a big emotional about-face–going from embittered rage to shock and contrition in the bat of an eye.
Putting the coup de grâce to the now-tragic revenge scenario, the native villagers kill Crane. Turns out, as well, they possess a novel custom (a sub-Saharan riff on the subcontinental rite of suttee)–they burn a man’s wife or daughter on the pyre along with him. Vowing to atone for his misdeeds, Phroso uses the false-bottomed coffin trick from the film’s opening scene to distract the foolish natives, while Doc and Maisie (who have, of course, fallen in love meanwhile) make their escape. The angry natives burn Phroso in her stead.
Exoticism and morbid sexuality blend in Where East Is East (1929), the final film to team Chaney and Browning. Chaney stars as “Tiger” Haynes, a wild animal trapper in Indochina, whose daughter Toyo (Lupe Velez) wants to marry the son of a circus owner, the man to whom Haynes sells his animals.
The first suggestion of peculiar sexual undercurrents glimmers through the scene where Haynes, crouching on the floor like a tiger poised to pounce, and daughter Toyo play safari. The vibe is very much crypto-incestuous, a notion only reinforced by Haynes’ reaction when Toyo introduces him to her intended, Bobby (Lloyd Hughes). Haynes’ scarred face contracts into a scowl of disapproval, his sexual possessiveness and jealousy obvious.
Further complicating matters, Bobby soon falls under the spell of Madame de Sylva (Estelle Taylor), the “spider woman” who abandoned Haynes and Toyo after giving birth to her. (The mother-daughter resemblance is underscored when Madame de Sylva makes her grand entrance at a dinner party wearing the same midriff-bearing outfit Toyo had on in an earlier scene.)
In the improbable, perverse finale, at a loss to prevent the older woman making off with his daughter’s fiancé, a desperate Haynes unleashes a caged gorilla (the intertitles make clear the creature was an earlier target of Madame de Sylva’s abuse). The beast makes its way upstairs, where Madame de Sylva awaits Bobby, spritzing on perfume and sprucing herself up. Her mauling–offscreen, alas–is thereby equated with a romantic rendezvous. The bestial nature of human desire has seldom been more literally rendered on the silver screen.