- The IMDb summary for this film is “Performers in a Budapest sideshow encounter love, greed, and murder.” Provided this & the date, I’ll give you three guesses as to who directed it. (You’ll only need one.)
- John Gilbert starring in dark movies about sideshows & circuses always strikes me as being kind of odd. When I picture John Gilbert, I picture him in movies like FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926), QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933), and THE BIG PARADE (1925). But then you’ve got this one and HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924)…and it’s like, “Really? He did those?”
- Anyway…here Gilbert stars as a ladies man named Cock Robin (yes, for real) who works as an actor/magician (of sorts) for a sideshow of fake weirdos. (Their attractions include a girl with half a body, a girl with a spider body, and a mermaid…all of whom are optical illusions & lies, not actual oddities. Sigh.)
- Cock Robin has recently been romancing this girl (Lena, played by Gertrude Short) who is the daughter of wealthy sheep salesman. Predictably, Cock Robin is not interested in the girl herself – who he refers to as “that Butter Ball from the country” – but rather the girl’s money. Too bad Lena is a dumbass Butter Ball from the Country & doesn’t realize this, despite everyone telling her repeatedly that this is the case.
- One day, the owner of the sideshow – a character named The Greek, played by Lionel Barrymore – decides he needs to rob/kill Lena’s father the Sheepman (Russ Powell, not Glenn Ford) (ha) because a man called The Ferret (Andy MacLennan) told him to. So he does.
- Meanwhile, John Gilbert is starring in the main act of the sideshow – in which he gets “beheaded” at the request of his ex, whose fake & real names are both Salome. (I know all of this is very confusing, but remember – this is a Tod Browning film, so that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.)
- After yet another successful & rousing “beheading,” everyone finds out that Papa Sheepman has been murdered. John Gilbert comforts Lena by taking all her money.
- Hold it, though – because Salome (Renée Adorée) bursts onto the scene & is like, ‘Girl, you are being USED. This man is a straight up scoundrel.’ Good news is: Lena finally acknowledges that this is true & runs the fuck away from Cock Robin. Bad news is: she does this without taking her money back. Womp, womp.
- The Orphaned & Robbed Butter Ball from the Country reports the theft of her money (which her father had delivered to her for safekeeping before LB shot him), so Salome volunteers to hide Cock Robin in her attic.
- (Here it should be noted that Salome is a genuinely wonderful person & definite badass; Robin’s been nothing but an asshole to her, but she’s like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna protect you anyway because I care about you, the end.’)
- (Here it should also be noted that before Robin goes into hiding, LB tries to murder him. First, he thinks about shooting him…but then is like, ‘Nahhh…it’d be way more fun to insert myself into the sideshow act, “forget” to grab the fake sword when it’s time to “behead” Cock Robin, and then actually behead him! Woohoo! So fun.’ He very nearly succeeds in doing this, but Salome the Kindhearted Badass leaps across the stage & saves Robin at the last second. Because she’s a kindhearted badass, and that’s what kindhearted badasses do.)
- So then there’s this iguana…
(No, hold on – let’s put a pause on that for a second.)
- So then there’s this man who lives in the same building as Salome. He is blind, and when he gets letters from his son, he brings them to Salome to read to him. This whole subplot – of the blind man (Edward Connelly) continually demanding entrance to Salome’s room & John Gilbert getting mad because he thinks the old man will discover him & rat him out to the police – feels like it goes on for way too long & is getting way more focus than it should…until you find out that A) this soldier hero son of his is actually in prison, condemned to death and Salome has been faking these letters for months as a way to make the old man feel good and B) the blind man is her father & the soon-to-be-executed-son is actually her brother. !!!!!
- When Gilbert finds all of this out, his heart literally melts (okay, not literally), he falls into genuine love with Salome, and decides to turn himself (and Papa Sheepman’s money) over to the police.
- AS THIS HAPPENS, THOUGH – LB breaks into Salome’s attic, bringing a super poisonous iguana (which has already killed at least one other person in this movie) with him. There’s this whole intense sequence where you’re like “WHO WILL BE GOTTEN BY THIS POISONOUS IGUANA???”…which is concluded by a policeman shooting at the jumping iguana – and successfully killing not only it, but also LB.
- And everyone lived happily ever after!
…Except Papa Sheepman, The Greek, The Iguana Spectator, Salome’s Father, Salome’s Brother, and the Iguana, all of whom died.
…And that Butter Ball from the Country, who no longer has a man or a father.
But, you know…besides that.
EVERYONE LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER.
- Tod Browning, y’all. Tod Browning.