Archive for Lon Chaney

The Monday Intertitle: His Groping Soul

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on November 11, 2013 by dcairns

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Our Lon Chaney binge reached a fitting climax with a screening of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME at the Usher Hall (surrounded by people in fancy dress, for it was All Hallows’ Eve, an occasion we take seriously in Scotland) with live organ accompaniment by Donald Mackenzie.

The Usher Hall’s organ is massive — no sniggering! —  it towered from behind the screen, which itself must have been sixteen foot high. There are sixty settings, sixty different sounds it can make, and Mackenzie had to play it with both hands and feet — fortunately his score was improvised, so he didn’t have to follow sheet music at the same time, just the action on his monitor. Though extemporaneous, it did incorporate some well-known classical bits, as well as the original love theme which formed part of the film’s original score upon release.

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These screenings attract a big crowd — the joint was packed — the Film Festival, based right across the road, ought to put on an Usher Hall silent every summer — and the audience is not one particularly familiar with silent pictures. Mackenzie’s introduction stressed that while some of the acting might seem humorous today, the film was not a comedy. People did laugh, but never at Chaney, who rivets. It’s a very different performance from Laughton, and though I prefer the 1939 version in absolutely every single respect, Chaney’s very physical, ape-like approach is effective. Fiona was convinced he must have been studying chimpanzees at the zoo, and he even beats his chest at one point. Gargoyles are the other point of reference, hence his introduction, squatting still as a statue on the facade of the cathedral, and hence all that disgusting tongue work.

Rather than laughing at Quasi, the audience vented its ridicule on Phoebus, which is fair enough I suppose. He can take it. The Disney version makes him a buffoon from the off, and that approach works OK.

The comedy relief poet, Gringoire (Raymond Hatton) might actually be the stand-out performance — he’s robbed of Edmond O’Brien’s best moments in the ’39 version, but grabs his own. He was in 365 movies, by the IMDb’s count — you could watch one a day for a year, in a leap year (admittedly, they’re not quite sure about the numbers). In fact, he may be the most historically well-placed actor ever, appearing in the first Keystone cops short, BANGVILLE POLICE, the first Hollywood feature film, THE SQUAW MAN, the first version of THE CHEAT, the first version of HUNCHBACK, FURY, the US debut of Fritz Lang. He finished his career with IN COLD BLOOD in 1967.

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A reminder, meanwhile — above you can see Akira Kurosawa thanking a small boy for appearing in what would be the final shot of the final scene of his final film, MADADAYO. Which I hope to finally watch and write about during the week of December 1st-7th, since that is when THE LATE SHOW: The Late Movies Blogathon will be happening here. There are some groovy people already promising pieces or thinking about it, but this does not mean that YOU are no also welcome. No invitation or official decree is needed, just join in and let me know about it!

Limerickman

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 10, 2013 by dcairns

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What with one thing and another and yet another, I haven’t kept you posted on my postings at Limerwrecks, home of the noir and horror limerick. So let’s catch up.

Limerlinks:

CARRY OFF SCREAMING. SWAMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE. Karloff in retreat — the latter is a collaborative piece with Hilary Barta.

WHIP REPLACEMENTTHERE WAS A CROOKED DAN. These are about J. Carroll Naish, who I was sort-of pleased to see getting a shout-out from Orson Welles in My Lunches with Orson. Welles calls Naish a bad actor who was always an absolute delight to see.

THE UNDYING MISTER. This is about Lon Chaney Jnr’s unexplained inability to stay dead. Co-authored with Hilary Barta.

YOU THAW THE HOWL OF THE MOON. Another collab on Lon.

FROSTY THE WOLFMAN. And another.

HUMPED DAY. Horrid one about Naish.

PLOTZ STRUCTURE. Examining the weird shape of HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

WINED AND CARRADINED. Mocking John Carradine’s drink problem. But it comes from a warm place. THIN WHITE SPOOK. Also pointing out that Carradine is very thin. This may be envy.

KISMET OF DEATH. Karloff never gets scorn or snark.

THE CREATURE WALKS A MONGREL. Karloff’s man-dog transplants sparked a great many rhymes…

But rather than just reading my limericks, go to the site and read everything! Maybe not all in one sitting though. (A better policy is to drop by on a daily basis.)

The Monday Intertitle: Scream, Blakulla, Scream!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 4, 2013 by dcairns

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Amused to discover, at an Edinburgh Filmhouse screening of Benjamin Christensen’s nutty HAXAN (WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES) that in Swedish, the Brocken, the place where witches gather for their midnight sabbats, is known as “Blakulla.”

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Other aspects of the film are amusing too, deliberately so — Christensen’s sardonic wit emerges in the strangest places, but most often to pour scorn on the absurdities of the holy witch-hunters’ beliefs and actions (it’s a seriously anti-clerical film!). Interesting to hear the audience’s laughter dry up as the realistic horror of the witch trials emerges to swamp the surreal-mythological-grotesque elements of the cavorting demons and sorcerers.

There’s so much in this film! It was strange to have seen the Chaney HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME the previous night (more on this later) and thus to have encountered to silent films in two nights featuring darting tongues, church stabbings, and molten lead.

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Fiona and I were both very impressed with the demonic makeup, even when it’s deliberately absurd. One reason was perhaps having just seen HUNCHBACK, where Chaney’s body make-up is so peculiar and over-the-top — Quasimodo has an actual MANE of body hair around his neck, presumably to conceal the join between the actor’s putty-covered face and his nude-effect upper body costume — a wave of discomfort seemed to sweep across the Usher Hall as the feeling that what we were looking at was no longer in any way good enough settled over us like a pall. “Well, I guess almost nobody had ever done body makeup before,” I assured myself. But one year earlier, here’s Christensen doing it with scores of supernatural characters, all of whom look completely convincing within the heightened reality of the movie.

No information seems to be available about who designed or executed the remarkable makeup and costuming for the creatures, or who animated the brief stop-motion sequences, including a scary bit when a tiny demon is glimpsed through a disintegrating door. He’s coming for you! Who were the Swedish animators at this time?

It’s interesting and suggestive that Christensen’s SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN (still disgracefully unavailable in any decent form) also features some disturbing/goody makeups. He’s like the Lucio Fulci of Sweden — able to conjure disturbing deformities at will.

Oh, the striking musical score at our screening was performed by Verity Susman. Perhaps I could have done without the recognizable snatches of English-language speech used as samples. Spoken words, or decipherable ones, seem to add a critical/intellectual commentary onto the film. This is sort of OK for music to do, but only sort of. In a sense, the score was engaging in a dialogue with the film… interesting.  If I can formulate any objection it’s merely that Christensen’s film is already so rich and open to interpretation that to include a kind of critique in the soundtrack presupposes that one has fully processed everything he’s on about. There was a slight sense in Susman’s program notes that she intended to add a layer of modern sophistication. I actually think the film is more sophisticated than anything that’s been said about it.

But the soundtrack was beautiful and disturbing in its own right and it didn’t stop me engaging with the movie, so no harm was done.

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I feel I ought to start promoting the annual Shadowplay blogathon — The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon. So here is a short, tantalizing mention.

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