The Show, Tod Browning’s 1927 semi-salicious silent drama starring John Gilbert, is both a great bit of fun as well as a great example of Browning’s skill in visual storytelling. It’s a gorgeously shot film with plenty of the offbeat elements that have made Browning a lasting figure in cult cinema.
Gilbert plays Cock Robin, a charismatic sideshow barker, who seems to consider making flirty eyes at pretty ladies in the audience as an essential part of his act. Currently, he’s also juggling two women more seriously: Lena, a wealthy, lovesick sheep farmer’s daughter, and “Salomé,” one of the actresses who appears with him in the show. Trouble begins when Salomé’s jealous boyfriend, “The Greek,” murders Lena’s father while attempting to steal his wad of cash from a recent sale, not realizing that the father had already dropped off the money with Lena. When the enterprising Robin realizes just how wealthy Lena is now, he proposes marriage to her, but Salomé bursts in and scares Lena away–leaving the money in Robin’s possession, with a killer on the lookout for it.
The drama is all very heightened, with some nice nuances to the characters as the film progresses. Robin starts out as a bit of an unlikable rake, callously using the naive Lena for her money, but he ultimately redeems himself in Salomé’s eyes. And Salomé might play a seductive femme fatale on the stage, but through learning her back story, we discover that she’s kind and sensitive, with a gentle heart.
Really, the only character who doesn’t undergo some sort of transformation is the Greek, played by Lionel Barrymore with near mustache-twirling finesse. He serves as an all-purpose villain–murderer, thief, AND romantic rival–which is especially helpful considering Robin, at first, doesn’t appear particularly heroic.
As a proper movie villain, the Greek has thought up some fantastic methods for getting his revenge on Robin for “stealing” his girl and his money (both of which were never really his in the first place, of course). His first attempt is to replace a fake sword used onstage for a beheading gag, but Salomé notices the dress shoes under his costume before he can decapitate Robin with his stealthy real sword.
The Greek’s final murder attempt is really magnificent and makes the movie enormously entertaining, as he goes big this time: death by lizard. Earlier in the film, we had been introduced to the deadly, venomous Gila monster, who killed an audience member at the sideshow when it escaped its cage. Now, the Greek captures the lizard and releases it into Salomé’s apartment, where Robin is hiding from the policy on robbery charges. With all of these different elements vying after each other, this scene quickly becomes a fast-moving, madcap climax.
The greatest part of the deadly lizard though (and yes, the lizard amused me so much that I will be devoting an entire paragraph to it), is that the Gila monster is, in fact, played by a decidedly non-poisonous iguana. This was probably safer than having an actual Gila monster on set, and I’m guessing that iguanas were more of a rarity in 1927–most viewers probably wouldn’t immediately identify them as a fairly innocuous lizard that some people keep as pets. This makes the thrilling finale in which the lizard leaps, bites, and snarls at the characters all the more entertaining–and almost heartbreaking when the police offer saves the day by shooting the creature with a GUN. Even then, the lizard is depicted as so powerful that it requires the officer four shots to actually take it down.
The Show is a beautifully photographed, melodramatic silent picture, and Browning’s mastery of the medium makes it a joy to watch. It’s a populist kind of mastery–it might not be high art, but it’s impeccably done and wildly entertaining.