"The comedy…has ended."
For certain actors, their fame is in their face—a look, a profile, a particular glint in a sultry pair of bedroom eyes. Talent is usually required to capture the mood and the inner life of a role, but for many in the movie trade, being easy on the eyes has meant stardom and respect. The same can be said for the character actor as well, the distinct seeming individual who immediately comes across as unique and intriguing by merely entering a room, giving a glance, or uttering a single line. This foundational cast member keeps a film from sinking or stinking by merely offering their curious presence. And lest we forget, there is a wealth of wonderful thespians whose powerhouse performing skills more than compensate for a lack of good looks and specialized personas. For them it is easy to merely "become" the individual, to move into their emotional skin and serve up a heart-stopping portrayal that stirs the soul.
In the long history of Hollywood, there was perhaps only one man who encompassed all three of these divergent attributes. He was an attractive, broad-shouldered being with a tough guy image and a tender hidden heart. He was a eccentric entity, essaying people (and…"others") of ethereal strangeness. And he used his face as a canvas, a blank slab of marble from which he would carve some of the most memorable, magical, and monstrous façades ever conceived. Indeed, Lon Chaney was the man of a thousand faces, a make-up wizard so ahead of his time that three quarters of a century later highly skilled technicians still marvel at the visual effects he achieved.
But he was more than a fright mask master. He was a gifted actor, a complex man and an enigmatic personality that, sadly, few modern audiences have had a chance to appreciate. But thanks to Turner Classic Movies, who are releasing three films, a photographic recreation of yet another, and a documentary about the man as part of their new to DVD The Lon Chaney Collection, modern moviegoers can finally learn to appreciate what the silent film buff already knew: In addition to his horror leanings, Lon Chaney was the consummate performer and person.
Facts of the Case
The Lon Chaney Collection contains three silent films from the later part of Chaney's long career, a still picture recreation of a lost Chaney classic, and a documentary on the famous actor/makeup artist. The plots of each offering are as follows:
The Ace Of Hearts (1921): A strange "brotherhood" meets every night to discuss their agenda and to instigate their "cause." These social anarchists want to destroy men of means and they use clandestine methods, hoping to find a way of eliminating them. With their next victim already selected, the group determines who will murder the so-called "man who has lived too long." Mr. Forrest pulls the symbolic Ace of Hearts. He is chosen to do the deed. Immediately, he professes his love to Lilith, the sole female group member and asks her to marry him. This shocks Lilith and infuriates Mr. Farallone, another member of the group. He has secretly loved this idealistic woman but could never find the proper words or timing to profess it. After their honeymoon evening together, Forrest has doubts. Perhaps love is better than hate. Maybe he won't kill the targeted man. But treason to the group is also a death sentence. So as Forrest walks off to an uncertain fate, Lilith asks Farallone for advice, and protection, in case Forrest does not go through with it. What happens next will forever change the threesome. Score: 86
Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928): Tito and Simon are a couple of traveling performers crisscrossing Italy. They have a clown act and are immensely popular with the people. One day, Tito finds a little girl abandoned near a lake. He convinces Simon to let him raise her, and in a gesture of friendship, he names her Simonette. The child grows up to be a beautiful woman who catches the eye of the wealthy Count Lavelli. At first she rejects the young cad, but as years pass and Simon and Tito become wealthy and famous as the duo Flik and Flok, Simonette seems to take a shine to the young man. This destroys Tito, as he loves her too. Unrequited and fighting the urge to tell her, Tito sees Lavelli attempt to win Simonette's hand. Soon the couple is engaged, but after discovering how much Tito cares for her, Simonette leaves Lavelli. Although he loves her, Tito just doesn't have the heart to break up the lovers. A tragic end befalls this funnyman who entertained everyone but could never be truly happy. Score: 94
The Unknown (1927): Alonzo the Armless works as a trick knife thrower in Zanzi's gypsy circus. He is also in love with the boss' daughter, Estrellita. She particularly likes Alonzo because he has no hands, and Estrellita has a psychological fixation about men touching her. That is why she constantly rebuffs the pawing advances of the strong man Malabar. After some bad advice from Alonzo, Estrellita reject Malabar outright. But then Zanzi confronts Alonzo about his own intentions. In a fit of rage, Alonzo kills him. Seems he has arms and hands after all and conceals them purposefully to avoid detection as a wanted criminal. His genetically defective double thumbs would give him away. With Zanzi dead, Alonzo looks after Estrellita and decides to take drastic measures to win her once and for all (as well as to remove any "tell-tale" evidence from his body). He blackmails a doctor to perform a drastic surgery, leaving him a true amputee. But is that what Estrellita really wanted, or is she too changing herself to accommodate a new love? Score: 90
London After Midnight (1927): A rich manor owner named Roger Balfour is found dead and visiting Professor Burke wants to solve the case. He discovers a suicide note, and after questioning daughter Lucille and Balfour's neighbors Sir James Hamlin and his nephew Arthur Tibbs, he reluctantly concludes that the man took his own life. Five years later, the abandoned Balfour manor suddenly has some strange, creepy new tenants. The servants in Hamlin's adjoining estate think they are vampires. But Burke, back to try and settle the facts one last time, thinks they could have some connection to the crime. As weird events surround the "newly" haunted home, Burke hypnotizes Tibbs to try and get information. He also argues with Hamlin as to who…or what…is living next door. When Lucille goes missing, everyone converges on the Balfour home. The eerie head "vampire" hypnotizes Hamlin and soon the events of that fateful evening are played out for everyone to see. Score: 89
Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000): Following Chaney's life from his birth to deaf-mute parents (which many point to as the source of this silent expressiveness) to his untimely death of lung cancer at 47, A Thousand Faces tries to explain some of the mystery behind Chaney as a man, an actor, and most importantly, a makeup artist. Talking to a few of his friends and co-stars and using archival clips to highlight his most important performances, this documentary gives us insights into his character and career. Highlights include his multiple collaborations with the twisted Tod Browning, the myth busting description of the actual makeup techniques used to achieve the Hunchback and Phantom of the Opera creature faces, and scenes from "lost" Chaney movies. As a chance to see a long forgotten boogieman work outside the genre for which he is best remembered, this is a wonderful retrospective. Score: 92
Lon Chaney started life with challenges. His parents were both deaf mute and at a young age, Chaney quit school and starting working with his brother in the theater. Just as his career seemed to take off (traveling the nation working with his singer wife Cleva), petty jealousies over their success (or lack thereof) caused Cleva to drink a brochloude of mercury in an attempt at suicide. After she recovered, Lon divorced her and was forced into movies since the scandal had successfully killed his theatrical opportunities. Beginning with minor bit parts, he soon found there was more character work for those with an ability to use makeup. Chaney's skills with greasepaint and nose putty quickly made him known as a "go to" guy when a specialized look was needed. He made dozens of films, but it wasn't until The Hunchback of Notre Dame, one of the first cinematic spectacles ever created, that Chaney became a certified superstar. He was hence dubbed "the man of a thousand faces." Thanks to The Phantom and the Opera and The Unholy Three, Chaney became a household name and fan favorite, yet he was unsure that he could carry his career over into talkies once they became the rage. His final film was a sound remake of The Unholy Three. Sadly, it would be his final success. He died of lung cancer seven weeks after filming completed. He was 47.
The real shame in any look back at the silent era of movies is how poor a job has been done preserving our thousands of historical cinematic precedents. Sure, it's unfair to condemn those living over 100 years ago for failing to take us digital devotees into consideration when deciding how to safeguard the classic hand-cranked pictures for generations to come. But when faced with a package like The Lon Chaney Collection and the wealth of wonderment inside, it's hard not to feel a little cheated. Chaney made over 180 pictures in his lifetime, and while many are not worthy of study or celebration, rumor has it that only about thirty still exist. Many performances discussed by scholars as being "brilliant" or "groundbreaking" were destroyed or lost over time or through studio stupidity (some of his movies were actually eliminated to retrieve the silver from their print). What makes it ever worse is that, when it comes to Chaney, all we really have left of this gifted, gigantic talent are the monster movies that made him famous. Chaney was known for much more, for comedy and drama, for playing hard-boiled detectives and larger than life military men. The chance to see any of these films, to widen our perspective on the evocative entity, would be wonderful. But alas, all we have are a chosen few films remaining and a studio like Warner Bros. willing to let us see them again.
The Lon Chaney Collection is a magnificent, maudlin box set that exhilarates as it exhausts. Fans of cinema, silent or not, will marvel at the acting, the production design, and the inventive nature of the movies, photographic recreations, and documentary material presented. This disc also traumatizes you because it offers tantalizing snippets of information, scenes from now considered lost must-see silent film classics and less than lovingly restored prints, all to tease and torture you. One hopes that this collection is the start of a trend in re-releasing all of Chaney's movies that still exist. If not, many cinephiles (this critic included) will cry foul when viewing moments from The Miracle Man, The Unholy Three, and The Penalty, knowing that their ability to actually view these films in full is close to none. Indeed, the one disheartening part about the box set is how ludicrously it whets your appetite to see more of Chaney's movie work. A modern analogy one can conceive of is if you looked 100 years into the future and saw a box set released—on whatever technology they'll use then—of Jack Nicholson's career. On closer inspection, however, you see it only consists of The Witches of Eastwick, About Schmidt, and Ironweed. True, those are all fine films with great performances, but scholars and true film fans will question where Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, Carnal Knowledge, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are?
Still, what is here is premium filmmaking. Those of you with an anti-silent "don't like to read my movies" mindset should find enough evocative imagery here to still those rather silly sensibilities once and for all. And Chaney is such a commanding screen presence that it is easy to forget that these films are not dialogue driven. Indeed, almost all of the films in The Lon Chaney Collection are exciting visual feasts showing soundless cinema at its inventive apex. Individually, the movies have differing issues either in print quality or completeness, and some of the arcane practices of old-fashioned films (shooting through gauze, the incessant music, the constant onscreen movement) may put off some people. But if you stick with it and simply let the wonder of Chaney and his acting move through you, this will quickly become a beloved collection.
The Ace of Hearts: The earliest of the films offered here, it also has one of the more unique premises for a Chaney project. The notion of a violent underground group hell-bent on destroying upper crust society reeks of the socialist splash that engulfed Hollywood throughout much of the late 1900s and early 1920s. Without naming names, but definite in its depiction, these are left-leaning militants out to undermine the US system. Perhaps the best aspect of the film is the ritualistic way in which these radicals go about their business: the oblique planning, the sanctity of the card draw, the solid attention to duty. All this elevates the story above the simple secret assassins arena. At first, the love triangle story line seems completely superfluous to the far more deadly intrigue, but then The Ace of Hearts finds a way to make it as suspenseful and satisfying, incorporating it and its ramifications perfectly into the final act of the story.
The theme of unrequited love is in almost all of Chaney's films (London After Midnight being the exception here), and it is odd that a man as virile and commanding as he would be the butt of such an emotional joke. Why he loses the lass to men of lesser caliber is an obvious Tinseltown trick made up to increase box office and actor identification. And yet it always works. Lon looks best when he is forlorn and stoic, trying to overcome the personal pain of love lost with reserved defeat in his eyes. Chaney played the overlooked lover to the hilt and his performances really touch the heart (when he stands in a driving rainstorm and watches the honeymoon couple turn off the light to their room, his devastated face is incredible). So perhaps the real reason this theme turned up time and again was not because of Chaney the ladies man, but because of Chaney the actor.
The print of The Ace of Hearts has real problems. Many scenes are covered in surface scratches to the negative, and there are a couple of moments where the scene seems to jump, as if missing a frame. You can also tell that portions of the print are missing, as the title cards are held still for several seconds, as if to compensate for a lack of linking footage. These defects never take away from the overall presentation, and the musical score by Young Composer contest winner Vivek Maddala is eloquent, passionate, and precise offered in atmospheric Dolby Digital Stereo Surround. But this is not some pristine image overhaul.
Laugh, Clown, Laugh: Anyone who considers Chaney's acting as filled with mannered monster mania need look no further than this gentle, touching tale of (again) unrequited love and inner pain. Chaney sets the standard for all "smiling on the outside, crying on the inside" clichés to come after. His turn as the sad sack secretly pining away for the young woman he saved from starvation as a child years before (no, this is not some early endorsement of incest—there is no real legal or biological connection between the two) is overwrought without being melodramatic and superbly performed by the entire cast. This is as pure an example of modern moviemaking within the silent era, without the benefit of sound or special effects, that you are likely to see. Everything on screen is masterful, both in the acting and artistry. While his co-stars (including a very "young" Loretta) provide ample support, this is Chaney's movie all the way.
Probably the first thing you'll notice about Laugh, Clown, Laugh is how little attempted dialogue there is. The title card is used infrequently. The vast majority of this movie is told in near pantomime: gestures, facial expressions, and stage direction. It is also eloquently plotted, so we understand the situations and dramatics instantly and inherently. Like most silent films, the story takes place in just a few select settings, so we understand the important spatial relationships between the players. Yet without Chaney, this film just would not work. It would seem forced or flashy, almost hyperactive in some ways. Chaney is the anchor, the solid center whose pure motives move quickly over to the mixed when he realizes the emotional bond between Simonette and himself is growing more "physical." Without the seriousness, the emotional concrete that Chaney provides to tie the movie to a core concept, the flighty nature of Loretta Young or the overacting of Simon and Count Lavelli would forever damage the narrative. Chaney is the epitome of a clown laughing on the outside as he is dying on the inside, and Laugh, Clown, Laugh is a classic film.
The Lon Chaney Collection provides a very nice print of Laugh, Clown, Laugh with few scratches and just a couple of moments of missing footage. Overall, the monochrome is sharp and succinct, without the foggy features apparent in The Ace of Hearts. Clownalso has a Dolby Digital Surround Stereo score by a Young Film Composer contest winner, and H. Scott Salinas' work here is just outstanding. This is one of the lushes, most beautiful and evocative scores ever recorded, filled with emotion and excitement. Salinas captures the scenes onscreen perfectly and this makes Laugh, Clown, Laugh a joy to see and hear.
The Unknown: Tod Browning is one of the few unjustly forgotten filmmakers of the last century. Celebrated for Dracula and castigated for Freaks, Browning's legacy is always tainted by an unknown force, a kind of diabolical damper that cheapens his masterpieces and reinforces his critics. But Browning was a master, a visionary with a keen eye for the details that make a movie really come alive, and The Unknown is no different. Browning enjoyed creating precise, distinct looks for his characters, allowing the audience to read all the necessary undercurrents from the visuals. In this film, the porcelain beauty of an incredibly attractive and unimaginably young Joan Crawford matches Chaney's angry armless antagonist magnificently. The attraction between the two is noticeable and real. When the less specific Maladar makes his appearance, he equalizes the opposites in a way that accentuates Chaney's strangeness and Crawford's naturalism. By the time we start to uncover Chaney's secrets, we believe he is capable of anything and this is what, ultimately, makes The Unknown a fascinating and exciting film.
A great deal is made out of Chaney's performance here. You will hear it mentioned in the commentary track, in the documentary on his life, and even in notes about the film. True, Chaney does make his final confrontation with Crawford and the strongman quite memorable, but the better performance is in those moments of everyday interaction. Chaney is playing a limbless man, and even with a stand-in for a couple of sequences, he gives off the aura of being someone used to living without the benefit of arms. Never once do you see him make a false gesture or produce an unrealistic movement. Later, when circumstances have gone from fraud to actual, Chaney does a perfect job of suggesting the difference. The overwrought emotional scenes always get the gravy, but his total performance, in every aspect, is simple amazing. Anyone who ever doubted it should view the films in this box set to realize what a great actor Chaney really was. The fact that he was only considered a horror fiend sells him far too short.
The Unknown is missing some subplot material (the commentary confirms this) and, as such, the movie feels a little rushed, never settling into a solid narrative flow until the final twenty minutes or so. The print presented here also has some scratches and looks well worn. It is better than The Ace of Hearts, but not as good as Laugh, Clown, Laugh. The Unknown also employs that strange gauze technique that makes many scenes look like ancient woodcarvings. At first, the effect is intriguing. After a while, it grows irritating. The score here is by a professional composer and it shows: it has none of the wit, imagination, or experimentalism of the Young Composers work. While the Dolby Digital Stereo Surround makes the music come alive, there is nothing particularly memorable about it.
London After Midnight: A murder mystery wrapped in monster trappings with a little hypnosis thrown in on the side, London After Midnight is an interesting experience on this DVD. More or less a glamorized gallery feature, it is still a worthwhile cinematic offering. This currently lost film is "dramatized" using still snapshots, title cards, and dialogue snippets to tell the tale. Since we cannot witness the acting or direction (even though Tod Browning's standard gothic gift is all over the production photos), we are still drawn in by the visual style and the story it tells. London is a vampire film in the guise of a detective story, or maybe it is the other way around. It contains some of Chaney's most challenging make-up work, a fiend face that has stood the test of time to find many a homage in modern movies like Trilogy of Terror and The Nightmare Before Christmas. It's too bad we don't have the film here, but we can recreate at least portions of it within our own imaginations and the gorgeous black and white still photos sell the scares and scenarios well.
As a one-hour presentation, this slide show can't really capture Browning or Chaney's genius. Indeed, in the documentary, people proclaim that London After Midnight would probably disappoint filmgoers if they were to actually see the real, and in their opinion, rather routine story. Overall, the movie does appear to be a drawing room who-done-it with hints of the supernatural and the eerie tossed in to increase box office visibility. But Chaney's incredible make-up job and Browning's sense of set design still make this an interesting addition to the package. Offered in a crisp, video fresh transfer and employing a slightly more moody musical score than the other films, London After Midnight is a terrific test in recreating lost film that more or less succeeds.
The bonus material on this disc includes commentary tracks for all three "films" by Chaney biographer and film historian/make-up artist Michael Blake. Mr. Blake is a walking, well-worn encyclopedia about Chaney, and you can sense that he has a certain set selection of anecdotes and factoids in preparation whenever he discusses the man. Blake handles all three commentaries alone, and while occasionally sparse, does a fine job with each. Heavy on specifics, production notes, industry information, and historical context, Blake takes us behind the making of each movie and discusses issues such as missing scenes, alternative, cuts and casting trouble. While it would have been nice to have a bit more critical analysis of the films (Blake mostly thinks Chaney is "great"!), these are wonderful alternative audio tracks.
Aside from the short snippets showing the winners of the Young Composers Competition, complete with their comments about getting the chance to score these classic films and some still galleries, the only other major extra is the 2000 documentary produced for Turner Classic Movies entitled Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces. This walk through Chaney's life and career is fascinating beyond words. Unlike most TCM biographical overviews, this one doesn't skimp on the career highlights and offers so many tantalizing views of Chaney in action that your must-have wish list of movies seems to increase every couple of minutes. Scenes from The Miracle Man, The Penalty, and other forgotten films will have you wondering aloud why (a) we don't have copies of these films to view and (b) why Hollywood doesn't mine this material for some remake fodder (Miracle Man seems especially ripe for a rehash). As Robert Osbourne says in his introduction to this collection, the films here barely scratch the surface on Chaney's body of work. Thanks to the archeological efforts of film historians and the interviews with scholars, co-stars, and crew, we begin to see beneath the façade and into the real man and his real career.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Just a quick gripe about the prints used. This is a chance to rehabilitate Chaney, to give him his rightful place in the pantheon of past silver screen superstars. Yet The Ace of Hearts and The Unknown have so many print issues that they may prevent the casual fan from seeking out this set. DVD maniacs are a notoriously anal lot about image quality and transfer. One look at the flurry of scratches in Ace and they will be crying foul while failing to take into consideration the time and effort it took to make the movie look the way it does today. Unlike Chaplin or Keaton, whose prestige demands crystal clear images, Chaney is perceived as a bit of a secondary consideration, unless you are talking about his classic hits (i.e. Hunchback or Phantom). Perhaps the cost of digitally erasing all the defects was prohibitive, but some effort should have been made to make the movies look better. Fanboys will be shrieking about the value here, avoiding all other issues. And for Lon's sake, that's a shame. TCM would be advised to clean up their next batch of Chaney titles before taking the DVD plunge again.
If he had lived, what would Lon Chaney have accomplished? Would he have several nominations and a couple of Oscars his credit? Would he have championed the movement in Hollywood toward more complex makeup techniques, perhaps being the actual forerunner to such effects icons as Dick Smith, Tom Savini, and Rick Baker? Sure, he has a lasting legacy, one built on myth, miscommunication, and the man himself. But when watching the films in The Lon Chaney Collection, one gets the impression that this was a man of limitless imagination and possibility, who could play any role and find the requisite look for it in his tiny leather case of creativity. At only 47, he had decades of life and work ahead of him. He could have played anything. He could have been anyone. And yet cancer took him from film just as he proved he could successfully speak within the new realm of sound. Chaney could have been, perhaps, the greatest America actor of all time, an icon to supplant Cagney, Bogart, and Stewart as a cinematic specialty all his own. It's a shame that so much of his work is missing. It's almost as if fate is fighting to keep Lon as its own private possession, to only tantalize us with what could be versus what is. For most, he will always remain the humpbacked bell ringer or the skull-faced opera house phantom. Lon Chaney was more than that, though. He was an incredibly skilled actor and, thankfully, The Lon Chaney Collection lets us see that. Beyond all the thousands of faces, there was one true Chaney: an incredibly gifted artist. Too bad we don't get to see it more often.
The Lon Chaney Collection is a wonderful box set filled with fascinating, if occasionally flawed minor masterworks from this gifted, unceremoniously forgotten film star. TCM and Warner Bros. are issued a warning that, next time out, they should take more care (if they can) with the quality of print they release.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Chaney Biographer Michael F. Blake
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