As in Show-business, the most explicit of Tod Browning’s allegories of film as a carny’s art. "Ballyhoo man" John Gilbert unveils his Palace of Illusions for the crowd, Cleopatra’s disembodied arm collects the tickets, the Half Lady ("no cold feet to bother you, boys"), the Queen of the Mermaids, and the Human Spider are all on display; the tour culminates in the proscenium, where Salome (Renée Adorée) undulates nightly for her beloved’s mutilation. One of the sideshow beauties slinks over to Gilbert in the dressing room, he adjusts the wall mirror to check out her legs (and to shift the dense composition), but Adorée reminds her of their job as "freaks, not vampires"; Gilbert seeks riches by wooing a merchant’s daughter (Gertrude Short), rival lout Lionel Barrymore is more direct and simply shoots the old guy, leaving a wad of cash in Gilbert’s hands and the police on his tail. The melodrama is brought to the stage lights, a confrontation structured by Browning as a series of ominously changing camera views (full-body documentary shots of the spectacle, reverse shots of the eager audience, a nearly ground-level angle of the blade about to fall on Gilbert’s neck) until the culprit is outed in an image revised by Hitchcock for The Lady Vanishes. The juicily tawdry Liliom travesty threatens to succumb to sentimentality (its redemption autopilot contrives to get Gilbert posing as a blind soldier’s son while the real lad marches to the gallows across town), but Browning’s feel for the macabre triumphs with a venomous iguana lunging inside a closet, plus the final kiss directed to a mock-severed noggin as the curtains are drawn, to self-reflexive applause. With Edward Connelly, and Andy MacLennan. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce