Saturday January 09, 2021
Movie Review: The Black Bird (1926)
Lon Chaney was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and this film is a kind of primer on that. He has a dual role and we get to watch his character physically transform from an able-bodied man to one crippled by childhood disease. It's stunning. Ironically, the one thing that doesn’t change much is his face. His saintly character never looks saintly enough. He looks like the same bastard both ways.
When I began the film it seemed an earlier version of “San Francisco”—crook on one side, saint on the other, music hall in between—but instead of boyhood friends, they’re brothers, twins, who live in the Limehouse District in the East End of London at an unspecified time. It feels 19th century. The Bishop (Chaney) runs a mission and is beloved by all. He’s also crippled, with a gnarled right hand, an arm held at a 90-degree angle, and a useless, dangling leg, who gets around by means of crutches. His brother, Dan Tate, or the Black Bird (also Chaney), is a despised thief.
As the movie opens the cops have come calling about a recent crime, but the Bishop says no, Dan was there all night, and goes upstairs to get him. That’s when we discover the Bishop is the Black Bird. Dan simply contorts his body into the Bishop’s shape.
Then the movie forgets about the Bishop for half its length.
Instead, we follow Dan, usually at a rundown music hall, with its cheap liquor and crappy acts, along with groundlings drinking the former and hooting the latter. The one act everyone seems to love is a bizarro puppet show put on by Fifi Lorraine (Renée Adorée, née Jeanne de la Fontein). It’s a regular puppet show but her actual (large) head is on one of the puppets, while one puppet can elongate its neck to extreme degrees.
This is one of the moments that remind us that Tod Browning, famed for the 1932 movie “Freaks,” directed “The Black Bird.” Another is the movie’s opening: a series of close-ups of the tough, grotesque faces that populate the Limehouse District.
A Browning moment.
Of course Dan falls for Fifi. So does another thief, “West End Bertie” (Owen Moore, Mary Pickford’s first husband), who, with his top hat and prince nez, is slumming with his society friends at the music hall. The next half hour is each man trying to outdo the other for her hand. As for what Fifi thinks? She likes the necklace on one of the society friends, so Bertie steals it for her, but, amid negotiations, loses it to Dan. Not that it matters. She’s scared of Dan—Chaney has that great glowering presence throughout—and winds up engaged to Bertie.
Except who do they ask to marry them? The Bishop, who is secretly his rival. Seems a stretch, but sure. And it sets up the rest of the movie. First, to Fifi, the Bishop outs Bertie as a jewel thief, but Bertie owns up. He also promises to return all the jewels he stole. Ah, but the necklace Fifi liked? Dan anonymously returns it to the cops, fingering Bertie, and when they show up at his place, Dan shoots a cop from the shadows and everyone blames Bertie. Now he’s truly on the lam and the Bishop offers to hide him. And this is where the Bishop/Dan becomes like Iago in his machinations. After three days, the Bishop lets slip that Fifi has been going around town with Dan (she's not); and to Fifi he lets slip that Bertie plans to leave town that night without her (he's not). Then he puts them in the same room and lets them peck at each other.
The finale is interesting. Someone “peaches” to the cops that it was Dan who shot the Scotland Yarder; and while Dan hurriedly tries to change back to the Bishop, the door to his room is flung open, he’s knocked on his back, and actually becomes the painful cripple he’d long pretended to be.
The original plan was to have him become a better person as a result. Instead, he simply dies, and the down-and-outers gather around his bedside and praise him: “God will be good to you, Bishop … cause you were good to us.”
It's not a bad movie—although apparently at the box office it did poorly for a Chaney flick. Browning did the story, with dialogue from Waldemar Young, who had a long career in the silents and then went on to write screenplays for such acclaimed talkies as “Island of Lost Souls.” I like one bit in particular here. A flower lady, wearing the same type of hat Audrey Hepburn would wear in “My Fair Lady,” tries to sell her wares to the necklace-clad society lady, but the woman mostly ignores her while holding a handkerchief to her nose. So, while leaning across the table, the flower lady purposely steps on her toes. The woman yelps.
Society dame: I wish you’d put your feet where they belong.
Flower lady: If I did, you wouldn’t sit down for a month!
The best part is the dawning realization of the insult by one of the swells, who, after a beat, roars his head back with laughter.
Things I learned: Chink was an already epithet back then. A white girl shows up at the music hall with a Chinese man (Willie Fung), which enrages Dan. He scares the man way and roars at the girl: “Want me to tell your dad you’re drinking with a chink?” before literally putting his boot to her backside. Not sure how we’re supposed to feel about that scene—or how audiences were at the time.
None of the principles survived long. Chaney died of a throat hemorrhage in 1930 (age 47), Adorée of tuberculosis in 1933 (age 35) and Moore of an alcohol-induced heart attack in 1939 (age 54). It’s as if even silent stars couldn’t last long in the sound era.