If you’ve ever wanted to see Lon Chaney, “the Man of a Thousand Faces,” transform into one of his misshapen characters, there are a couple scenes in The Blackbird (1926) that at least give you a glimpse. He quickly pulls his ankle into the air, twisting his leg at the knee, then jerks his shoulder into the air, to change from Don (the Blackbird) into his brother, the Bishop.
Don has no physical deformities, but the Bishop has a leg he can’t straighten and uses a crutch under a shoulder that remains as high as his head. It’s no mystery that the two men, one “good” and one “evil,” are the same person, although I wonder what the movie would have been like if it was presented as a third act surprise to us as well as the other characters.
Nevertheless, Chaney delivers another great performance in a film that shares some of its themes with his previous Tod Browning collaboration, The Unholy Three (1925.) It’s all about a love triangle and the extent to which a man will go for his true love. Don is despicable to the end in this one, though, unlike Echo in the other one, that has a change of heart.
The third person in the triangle, Bertram P. Glayde, aka West End Bertie (Owen Moore), is the one with a change of heart. It’s hard to know for whom we should cheer, though, because he starts off just as despicable as Don. Also, because Owen Moore does not portray the lead character, we expect him to remain “bad” through the end. We think Chaney will “win.”
I guess I’m saying that The Blackbird defies expectations. However, if you focus on the female point of view, Fifi Lorraine (Renee Adoree) never really shows an interest in Don. There’s never a reason she should want to be with him. Confusing us, though, is Limehouse Polly (Doris Lloyd), Don’s ex-wife who see in him “the soul he doesn’t know he has.”
This is also a more coherent film than The Unholy Three, not that it is incoherent. The Blackbird just plays stronger from beginning to end without having to fit pieces together. I shouldn't blame what we’ve done to silent films over the years, but The Blackbird doesn’t utilize the filters and tinting like The Unholy Three, which is sometimes distracting.
These MGM-Browning-Chaney films are improving, and they’ll get better still with The Unknown, which arrived a year later. There’s a fourth factor in common with them all, the writer, Waldemar Young. He became part of the package when Chaney moved from Universal to MGM. There may be other factors, as well, but this “team” was made with a winning formula.
Written by Waldemar Young (screen play), Tod Browning (story)
Directed by Tod Browning
Starring Lon Chaney, Owen Moore, Renee Adoree, Doris Lloyd
RT 86 min.
Released Feb. 13, 1926
Recorded on Oct. 14, 202 (TCM)
Rating 7 Phantoms (out of 10)
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