Tag Archives: Lon Chaney

WALLACE WORSLEY’S THE PENALTY (1920) STARRING LON CHANEY

Wallace Worsley made five films with silent movie icon . Lamentably, two of those, Voices of the City (1921) and The Blind Bargain (1922), are lost. The Ace of Hearts (1921) survives, but their most famous collaborations remain The Penalty (1920) and the epic Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).  It is for these two films Worsley, an otherwise undistinguished commission director, will be remembered, if at all.  The Penalty was Chaney’s first starring role, and the film justifiably made him a major star.

The plot of The Penalty is beautifully absurd, operatic, and addictive.  An injured young boy has been unnecessarily mutilated by a young Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary).  A seasoned colleague arrives and tells Dr. Ferris that amputating the boy’s legs was not at all necessary, but the veteran promises to remain silent about the malpractice.  The bed-ridden boy hears the conversation and tells his parents what has transpired.  However, the boy’s revelation is dismissed as delirium cause by a contusion.

Twenty seven years later, the boy has become Frisco’s criminal master-mind, nicknamed the Blizzard.  Chaney’s performance as the Blizzard is a tour-de-force that was achieved through a painful pulleys, belts, leather stumps, and a harness which strapped his legs behind him.  Because of the extreme contortion and discomfort to the actor, Chaney’s scenes were filmed in short takes.  His performance is amazing.  He swings, pulls, and climbs with such robust, Tex Avery-like vigor that the illusion is feverishly complete.  Only Douglas Fairbanks could exude as much screen energy, but while Fairbanks grinned his way through elaborate stunts, Chaney invited you to see him sweat and even laugh with him through his pain.

Still from The Penalty (1920)The Blizzard runs a complex syndicate which local law enforcement cannot penetrate.  Desperate, officials send an undercover agent, Rose (Ethel Gray Terry) into Chaney’s lair.  The criminal is abusive, misogynist, seedy, and initially lacking in sympathy.  There is a dark, latent sexual undercurrent between the Blizzard and Rose.  Only music calms the Blizzard, and Rose serves as his feet, pushing the pedals of his piano while he plays.

The Blizzard is part Ahab and part Dr. Mabuse, plotting an elaborate (and far-fetched) revenge against the entire city (which involves utilizing the straw man communist menace.  The fifties was not the first Red Scare era, and Worsley’s earlier Ace of Hearts projected a similar paranoia).  Continue reading WALLACE WORSLEY’S THE PENALTY (1920) STARRING LON CHANEY

VICTOR SJOSTROM’S HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924) STARRING LON CHANEY

He Who Gets Slapped (1924) is part of the 2011 Warner Archive Lon Chaney collection, and in this film Chaney gives one of his most natural, assured performances—in no small part due to director ,  who also directed Chaney, with Norma Shearer, in the following year’s Tower Of  Lies (unfortunately, yet another lost film).  Victor Sjostrom is something of an icon.  He was a favorite director of stars Greta Garbo and Lillian Gish, and his masterpiece, The Phantom Carriage (1921), was a considerable influence on .  After the coming of sound Sjostrom retired from directing to return to his first love of acting, but he still served as mentor to the young Bergman; Bergman repaid the favor by casting Sjostrom in the extraordinarily beautiful role of Dr. Isak Borg  for Wild Strawberries (1957, possibly Bergman’s greatest film).

After seeing the films Sjostrom had made in Sweden, Producer Irving Thalberg  recruited Sjostrom to Hollywood.  He Who Gets Slapped was the first film the director made at MGM, and it proved to be a lucrative endeavor for all concerned.  Sjostrom was one of the few directors respected by both Louis B. Mayer and Thalberg.  He Who Gets Slapped is based off the 1914 play by Leonid Andreyev.  The resulting film looks, thinks and acts far more European than anything Hollywood studios had produced at that time.

It is a tale of degradation, humiliation, pathos, and sacrifice.  Thankfully, it is a film in which we do not find ourselves rooting for the Donald Trumps or Paris Hiltons of the world.  Chaney is the destitute but prolific scientist Paul Beaumont, so dedicated in his work that he, inevitably, is rendered the oblivious fool.  Beaumont’s filthy rich patron is the Baron de Regnard (Marc McDermott).  Regnard has been helping himself to Beaumont’s selfish wife Maria (Ruth King) and additionally plans to steal the fruit of Beaumont’s scientific labors.

Still from He Who Gets Slapped (1924)The world of Paul Beaumont comes crashing down when Regnard presents Beaumont’s work, as his own, to the Academy.  Beaumont tries, in vain, to convince the Academy of the theft, but they take the side of the affluent Regnard as opposed to the unknown, poverty stricken Beaumont.  Beaumont is belittled  by his patron’s betrayal, by the mocking laughter of the academy, by the discovery of his wife’s infidelity, and, finally, by Regnard’s humiliating slap to his face.  It is a slap which Beaumont now obsessively echoes in repetition every night.  On the Continue reading VICTOR SJOSTROM’S HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924) STARRING LON CHANEY

ROLAND WEST’S THE MONSTER (1925) STARRING LON CHANEY

The Monster (1925) is part of  the extensive Warner Archive Collection 2011 releases. This film, directed by Roland V. West and starring Lon Chaney, goes a considerable length to prove the adage that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Essentially, The Monster is the precursor for the tongue-in-cheek old-dark-house-with-malevolent-horror-star-as-host movie. Considerably later,Vincent Price and William Castle visited The Monster‘s familiar territory in the House on Haunted Hill (1959), a film that has become the stereotypical example of the genre.

Director Roland V. West revisited The Monster territory again in the following year’s hit, The Bat and, yet again with sound in The Bat Whispers (1930) (for which he is most remembered—well, he may actually be best remembered for giving  a deathbed confession that he murdered his girlfriend Thelma Todd).The Monster is the least known of West’s dark house trilogy and, although it is the weakest of the three, it retains interest for several reasons.

The Monster is an oddity in the way it uses star Chaney. Chaney’s body of work goes a considerable distance in debunking his reputation as a “horror” actor.  The few horror films Chaney appeared in are more aptly described as bizarre, densely psychological melodramas.  The Monster, however, could serve as a prototype for a genre celebrity in a B-movie parody. Chaney’s Dr. Ziska is strictly cartoon horror.  He could romp with Baron Boris in Mad Monster Party (1967), or brew up a Gossamer with Bugs in Hare-Raising Hare (1946).

Hick amateur Johnny (Johnny Arthur) has just gotten his detective license in the mail, just in time to try and solve a local whodunit disappearance. Johnny, the local nerd, has his eye on Betty (Gertrude Olmstead) but she’s on the arm of the local jock hero. If only Johnny could solve the case and win the girl. This setup leads the three teens to the local spooky house run by Dr. Ziska, a mad surgeon running a former sanitarium. Ziska is aided by caped ghoul who rolls imagined smokes and, with the aid of a mirror, plays saboteur to cars on lonely back roads. Ziska is also assisted by the hulking mute, Rigo.

Still from The Monster (1925)Trap doors, laundry chutes, secret basements and an electric chair are the props in West’s dream-world. Chaney’s Ziska is surprisingly foppish with smoking jacket, a flapper-like quellazaire, and a wayward eyebrow. Ziska wears a menacing grin at all times, making him a possible first member of a Grand Guignol Three Stooges which might include Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi in their lean salad days. Foppish or not, Ziska is man enough to get aroused when he straps poor Betty to the table. With Rigo’s Frankenstein monster-like presence, about the only thing missing is a Vampirella to play opposite Ziska’s Dr. Deadly.

The Monster is not great cinema, its not the best West, best Chaney, or best Old Dark House movie ( would deliver that seven years later), but it is silent pulp and, in the right mindset, it can take you back to the days of milk duds and acne.

TOD BROWNING’S OUTSIDE THE LAW (1920)

Although Lon Chaney has two roles in Outside the Law (1920), he is not the star; rather, the film features early Tod Browning favorite Priscilla Dean.  Dean plays Silky Moll, daughter of mobster Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis), and both are attempting to reform under the guidance of Confucian Master Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren).

Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) interrupts the reformation by framing Silent Madden for murder, so that Silky Moll, like Lorraine Lavond in The Devil Doll (1939), now has a wrongly imprisoned father.  Silky and Dapper Bill Ballard plan a jewel heist with Black Mike.  Unknown to Mike, Silky is aware of his betrayal of her father and, with Bill, she double-crosses Mike.

Escaping with the heisted jewels, Silky and Bill hole up in an apartment.  The time the criminals spend holed up in a claustrophobic setting  is awash with religious symbolism that points to transformation.  Browning, a Mason, repeatedly used religious  imagery and themes.  In West of Zanzibar (1928) Phroso stands in for the self-martyred Christ and calls upon divine justice under the image of the Virgin.  In The Show (1927), the sadomasochistic drama of Salome is reenacted and almost played out in the actors lives (Martinu’s opera ‘The Greek Passion’ would explore that possibility in a much more sophisticated, and jarring, degree). Where East is East (1929) utilizes Buddhist and Catholic symbology.  Priests and crucifixes play important parts in The Unholy Three (1925), Road to Mandalay (1926), Dracula (1931- possibly the most religious of the Universal Horror films) and Mark of the Vampire (1935).

Poster for Outside the LawHere, Bill tries to convince Silky that they can have a normal life.  Puppy dogs and small boys begin to have effect on Silky, but it is not until she sees the shadow of the cross in her apartment that her tough facade gives way.  Browning is not one to allow for a genuinely supernatural mode of transformation and reveals that the cross shadow is merely a broken kite, but its psychological effect on Silky is manifested in her actions, and her beauty.  Bill notices the origin of the cross shadow and, realizing that Silky’s  naive interpretation of that image has inspired her to renounce her crimes, Bill allows her to continue in her naivete.  He draws the blind so she cannot see that her inspiration comes from a child’s kite.  As Silky begins to drift away from a life of bitterness and crime, towards redemption, she physically grows more beautiful (a transformation achieved through soft lighting and composition).  It is not the inspired symbology of the cross alone, but the prophecy of Chang Lo that frames the outcome.  Chang Lo has been consistent in his belief that Silky will reform and he strikes a deal with the investigating constable that, should Silky return the jewels, all charges have to be dropped.  Here again, Browning’s heart is too much with the criminal to allow for a full-blown punishment, something that later Hays Code Hollywood would demand.

Chaney’s small bit as Ah Wing is so subtle and so effective as to almost be unnoticeable.  Browning remade Outside the Law in 1930.  The remake starred Edward G. Robinson and received comparatively poor reviews.  While the remake is not available on DVD, this original is.  Kino Video has done a good job in its presentation, but the last quarter of the film is marred by nitrate deterioration, which is not altogether intrusive to viewing.

TOD BROWNING’S WHERE EAST IS EAST (1929)

Like a true auteur, Tod Browning essentially kept remaking the same film. He was a peculiarity in Hollywood. He refused an agent, generally refused assignment scripts and, instead, consistently sought out material that interested him.

Poster for Where East Is EastWhere East is East (1929) was the last of the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaborations, it was the last of Browning’s silent films, and it contained many themes from their previous efforts together.

The heavily scarred, large-feline-monikered Tiger Haynes (Chaney) is an animal trapper who has an uncomfortably playful relationship with his daughter Toya (the bubbly Lupe Velez).   Their relationship alters between games of feline patty cake and overt protection.  Daddy and Toya’s relationship gets thrown its first monkey wrench when Toya acquires a new boyfriend, Bobby (Lloyd Hughes).

Acting like a jealous lover, Tiger refuses to warm up to Bobby, until Bobby assists Tiger in saving Toya from a real tiger. Now Bobby is a real swell and welcome to the pride. While delivering tigers on a cruise to the East, Tiger and Bobby run into Tiger’s ex-wife and Toya’s mother, Mme. de Sylva (Estelle Taylor, the real-life one time wife of Jack Dempsey).  For Bobby, Sylva is the embodiment of oriental fantasy.  She is a true tigress with a jealous, soothsayer-like female servant (hints of a lesbian relationship). Sylva spews her man-baiting poison on the intoxicated Bobby, in order to exact sexual revenge on Tiger and parental revenge on their daughter,Toya. This is a reversal of West of Zanzibar (1928), in which Chaney was the parent exacting parental revenge on a whelp. The incestuous relationship hinted between Tiger and Toya (on Tiger’s part, twice unrequited) is paralleled in Bobby and Sylva.

Sylva enters Toya’s world and repressed, invisible secrets threaten the illusory fabric of Tiger’s world.   Of course, some animals devour their young, and Sylva, one step removed, attempts to incestuously devour Toya.  Unfortunately for Sylva, behind a fragile cage she has a nemesis in a gorilla holding a grudge for secret, past abuses.  It is the savage animal kingdom that will exact revenge.  Chaney, impotently declawed, scowls and threatens Sylva from the sidelines until he unleashes the beast, which will end in paternal sacrifice for the daughter he cannot possess (shades of West again).

Where East is East hands the film to Taylor, who, reportedly, managed her off-screen relations with men in a fashion similar to Sylva.  Luckily, Taylor is up to the part, as is Velez, who conveys innocence, diverse emotions, and energetic sexual charm. Chaney is excellent as usual, in the secondary, castrated role.

One off-screen note of interest: “Mexican Spitfire” Velez and Taylor became quite close after working together in this film. Velez, pregnant and abandoned, spent her last hours on earth with Taylor, before departing her mortal coil with the aid of Seconal. Somehow, in the Browning universe, that is an apt, dark underside to the narrative.

Needless to say, Where East is East does not subscribe to any sort of orthodox realism. It is representative of the blue collar surrealism that both Browning and Chaney espoused and can be best enjoyed with a heaping plate of elephant ears and cotton candy, along with a well-worn copy of “The Interpretation of Dreams.”

TOD BROWNING’S THE BLACKBIRD (1926)

The Blackbird (1926) is a typically deranged underworld melodrama from the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney canon. It has, lamentably, never been made available to the home video market, even though the restored print shown on TCM is in quite good condition and, surprisingly, is missing no footage. The Blackbird is also one of the most visually arresting of Browning’s films, which makes its official unavailability doubly unfortunate.

Still from The Blackbird (1926)Browning opens the film authoritatively with close-ups of Limehouse derelicts fading in and out of the foggy London setting. Lon Chaney plays dual roles, of a sort. He is the debilitated cripple Bishop who runs a charitable mission in the squalid Limehouse district. Bishop’s twin brother is Dan Tate, better known as the vile thief The Blackbird. Actually, in this highly improbable (and typical, for Browning) scenario, Bishop and the Blackbird are one and the same. The Blackbird feigns the role of his own twin brother as a front, which means contorting his body as he acts as if he’s in excruciating pain (shades of Chaney, behind the scenes).

The Limehouse district unanimously loves the Bishop and dreads the Blackbird, save for the Blackbird’s ex-wife, Limehouse Polly (Doris Lloyd, the only one of the principals players who did not die young). Polly inexplicably still loves and believes in Dan. In a vignette, Browning does not hesitate to show the ugliness of the Blackbird’s racist side (an extreme rarity for the time), but the Blackbird has a slither of a soft spot himself for French patroness and music hall marionette performer Fifi (Renee Adore).

Dan is competing for Fifi’s attention with his partner in crime, West End Bertie (the amazingly prolific silent actor Owen Moore). At times, Bertie resembles a virile, monocled Bond villain. The suave Moore makes a worthwhile nemesis for the grimy Chaney. Unlike the Blackbird, Bertie is willing to convert from the dark side, for the love of a classy woman. Of course, this turn of events arouses jealousy and leads to intensified competition between the former partners, a frame-up job, and an ironic twist of fate when the two “brothers” will merge into a third, ill-fated persona.

The scenes of Chaney frantically changing identities with constables from Scotland Yard waiting below are deliriously incredible. The constables buy it, and so does an audience open to allowing the capered stream to wash over it.

Browning spins his elastic yarn a bit like Albert Finney’s Ed Bloom in Big Fish (2003). Aided enormously by Chaney’s energetic conviction, and with his penchant for a tenebrous, commanding climate, Browning pulls the ultimate con job on his audience. During its running time we are so drawn into the commanding perversity of  Browning’s fable that the inherent haziness of the narrative’s essence rarely obscures his inclusive vision.

TOD BROWNING’S LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) & MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)

London After Midnight (1927) is the most sought after and discussed lost film of the silent era.  Whether it actually deserves to be the most sought after has been intensely debated, but the fact that London After Midnight is lost is solely the fault of MGM.

MGM head Louis B. Mayer was something akin to the devil incarnate.  For Mayer, film was strictly profitable, escapist fare to corn feed and increasingly dumb down audiences.  At the opposite end of the spectrum was his in-house studio competitor, producer Irving Thalberg, who nurtured the Tod Brownings and Lon Chaneys of the world.  Thalberg was hardly infallible (he sided with Mayer, against Erich von  Stroheim’s 9-hour version of Greed [1925,] which resulted in the film being excised and led to an actual fistfight between Mayer and Stroheim).  However, Thalberg’s concern was to make quality films, as he saw quality.  Hardly the egoist, Thalberg never took a producer’s credit.  He could turn out escapist family fare, but he was eclectic in his tastes and had a penchant for edgy, risk taking films with only the side of his eye on the profit meter.

London After Midnight (1927) lobby cardSometimes the devil wins, and when Thalberg died at the age of 37, Old Nick (Mayer) had no one to rein him in.  MGM, under Mayer, had a notorious  habit of buying out rivals—the original versions of the studio’s watered-down remakes—and then would make every attempt to destroy and/or suppress the superior original.  For instance, they bought out the 1940 British version of Gaslight and unsuccessfully attempted to destroy all the copies just in time for the debut of their inferior 1944 version, starring Charles Boyer.  MGM did destroy many, but not all, Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) & MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)