Cast & Crew
The Black Bird is a thief in London's Limehouse district who in another identity is known as his own brother, a crippled keeper of a rescue mission where he is affectionately called "The Bishop." The Black Bird and his rival, West End Bertie, both love the same girl, Fifi, and both promise her a diamond collar owned by a member of London's aristocracy. A contest of wits between the two crooks results in The Black Bird's shooting a Scotland Yard man and having to retreat quickly behind the disguise of The Bishop. But this time--so to speak--his joints permanently lock and he cannot resume his original shape; in atonement for his sins, therefore, he decides to give up his underworld life and live as The Bishop. West End Bertie wins Fifi's love.
Ernie S. Adams
The Blackbird (1926)
In Behind the Mask of Innocence, film historian Kevin Brownlow roots Chaney's popularity in his historical era. Medical advances before and during World War I had made it possible for veterans to survive injuries that would have killed them in earlier wars. These included major facial disfigurements. In the late teens and '20s, it was not uncommon to see veterans wearing facial masks to hide scars and missing portions of their faces, like Richard Harrow, the character played by Jack Huston in HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Chaney's various depictions of the crippled and disfigured provided a very human, often romantic view of such men, aestheticizing a harsh fact of life many '20s audiences witnessed on a daily basis.
The Blackbird is set in London's Limehouse district, a lower-class waterfront area named for the large warehouses where the British Navy stored the citrus fruit that protected its sailors from scurvy. Chaney stars as a criminal kingpin who hides from the police by pretending to be his own twin, a beloved mission worker who devotes his life to aiding the poor. He falls in love with music hall performer Renee Adoree, only to lose her to a more refined thief, West End Bertie (Owen Moore), triggering a tragic outcome.
This was the fourth of ten films teaming Chaney with Tod Browning in one of the silent screen's most productive actor-director partnerships. The Man of a Thousand Faces, who learned acting by communicating with his deaf parents, and the director who had started out working carnivals and side shows, were an inspired match, each dedicated to putting a human face on the unfortunate. Browning's creation of hermetically sealed environments shot almost entirely on studio stages, provided the perfect setting for Chaney's transformations and the often delicate delineations of character and thought.
The film opens with close-ups of faces as the downtrodden denizens of London's Limehouse district walk in and out of the fog. The claustrophobic interiors are among the darkest in any of Browning's work, which intensifies the feeling that The Blackbird takes place in a world of its own. While showcasing Chaney's versatility, Browning also explores some of his recurring themes, most notably the contrast between upper and lower classes and the regeneration of the wicked through love. The name West End Bertie suggests that the character is a gentleman thief, coming from the more fashionable side of London. This helps create the contrast to Chaney's Blackbird, who is more a common thief. That's carried out throughout the film in their dress and manners, with Chaney dressed as a street tough while Moore appears in evening wear. When Adoree joins them at their table, Chaney simply gestures at the chair where she should sit, while Moore rises to hold it for her. And the flowers Chaney gives her are a small, wilted bouquet, soon to be replaced by a more impressive, fresh arrangement bought by Moore. In his own way, each man is saved by his love for Adoree, with Owen giving up crime to marry her and Chaney, as the Bishop, eventually officiating at their wedding.
Chaney captured the Bishop's deformities by twisting his right hip and arm and by having the character's suit built with its right side slightly larger than the left, giving the impression that the twisted arm and leg were also withered from disuse. In truth, this was one of his less punishing physical characterizations. His transformation from Blackbird to Bishop is more a matter of showmanship, while he creates the character's condition simply by holding his right and left leg still while bent at a 90-degree angle.
Browning created the story for the film himself, while frequent collaborator Waldemar Young turned it into a complete scenario. Chaney's character may have been inspired by Deacon William Brodie, an 18th-century Scott who led a criminal gang by night while posing as a God-fearing carpenter by day. When Brodie was finally caught, he was hanged on a scaffold he had built and donated to the city in his secret identity. The character inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as Browning's film.
Chaney's romantic rival is played by Moore, an actor best known today as the husband Mary Pickford divorced to marry Douglas Fairbanks. Leading lady Adoree had risen to stardom as John Gilbert's love interest in The Big Parade (1925). In only her fifth film, Doris Lloyd received solid notices as the Blackbird's ex-wife, who still loves him. She would build a long career, specializing in playing British maids and cleaning ladies into her seventies. The old man seen frequently during sequences set in the Bishop's mission is actually 38-year-old actor and makeup artist Cecil Holland, in his last film role before taking over MGM's makeup department. In 1927, he would publish the first book on movie makeup, The Art of Make-Up for Stage and Screen. He and Chaney were close collaborators and good friends. The Blackbird was filmed from October 29 through November 28, 1925 for an estimated budget of $166,000, low for an MGM film featuring one of its top stars. The film's $36,000 profit was the lowest for any of Chaney's MGM films. Although the film received strong reviews, historians have noted that the films for which Browning created his own stories were often his weakest at the box office, possibly because of his predilection for melodramatics and contrived plots. Despite that, MGM picked up Chaney's contract, raising his salary to $3,000 a week and gave Browning a new contract doubling his salary to $20,000 a picture with a $5,000 bonus for each film brought in on time and on budget.
Director: Tod Browning
Screenplay: Waldemar Young
From a story by Browning
Cinematography: Percy Hilburn Score: Robert Israel (2005) Cast: Lon Chaney (The Blackbird/The Bishop), Owen Moore (West End Bertie), Renee Adoree (Fifi Lorraine), Doris Lloyd (Limehouse Polly), Andy MacLennan (The Shadow), William Weston (Red), Cecil Holland (Old Man at Mission), Polly Moran (Flower Lady)
By Frank Miller