MOD of the Week: "The Show" and "Vitaphone Varieties Volume 2"
Though not quite the same jaw-dropping spectacle as Freaks (1932), director Tod Browning's silent melodrama The Show (1927; Warner Archives) offers its own array of startling and contextually loaded visual images, as well as a robust performance from its lead, John Gilbert. Set in a Hungarian carnival, the film's central love triangle, between barker/rogue Gilbert, former flame Renee Adoree and the malevolent Greek (Lionel Barrymore), is really just the framework on which Browning hangs his true interest: the macabre denizens of the carnival sideshow, which includes the disembodied hand of Cleopatra (who collects tickets), a mermaid, half-lady, and most arresting of all, "Arachnadia, the Spider Lady," a baleful, glaring woman's head atop a huge spider body (played by Edna Tichenor from Browning's London After Midnight). It's a marvelously perverse showcase for the director's particular brand of erotically charged horror, as is the recreation of Salome's Dance, with Adoree smothering the severed head of John the Baptist (Gilbert) with post-decapitation kisses. The rest of the picture is moderately engaging, thanks in part to the leads and a genuinely bizarre moment involving a poisonous lizard, but the picture's real passion lies behind the sideshow curtain.
Only slightly less head-spinning is Vitaphone Varieties Volume 2 (Warner Archives), a two-disc collection of vaudeville shorts made by Warner Bros. and First National in the late '20s and early '30s using the titular sound-on-disc system. A wide variety of acts, from Hawaiian music quartets, jazz orchestras and early comic teams to the indescribable Chaz Chase, are showcased in the 35 shorts included in the set, as well as established stars of the period, like comic Joe E. Brown and actress Blanche Sweet. The shorts also provide a glimpse at name performers in the natal stage of their careers, like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Wizard of Oz co-stars Jack Haley and Bert Lahr (in separate shorts), radio icon Fred Allen, actor Pat O'Brien and a young Natalie Schafer decades before her turn as Mrs. Howell on Gilligan's Island. The clips are energetic and more than a bit off-beat - how else to describe Guido Deiro, "The World's Foremost Piano-Accordionist" or the aforementioned Chase, whose act hinges on his consumption of paper and other found objects? Though the technology is dated, the sheer drive of the performers featured in the set outshines even the most ardent hopefuls on American Idol and the like, and makes for a fascinating glimpse at what kept audiences entertained nearly eight decades ago. -- Paul Gaita