The Monday Intertitle: Broken Hearts and Flap Shoes

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The intertitle is brilliantly insane, and only enhanced by the fact that Nil Asther in this movie shares a character name with Chico Marx (no stranger to a life of self-indulgence). “Cut down on the eccentric piano playing and get a better hat and everything will be fine!”

As in my favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924), Lon Chaney’s LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH (1928) — reportedly his favourite of his own movies — features a scene where Chaney, in clown costume, argues with a member of the nobility over the hand of a woman. It’s a surprisingly uncommon theme in drama. It also has him in a quasi-incestuous relationship, a regular item in Chaney’s lexicon of emotional masochism — here he’s in love with his ward, teenage Loretta Young.

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Chaney, I submit, was wrong — HWGS is a much better film than LCL, which stinks of MGM “class” — but that’s not to say the later film is devoid of interest. Chaney, fifteen-year-old Loretta Young and Nils Asther make an intriguing romantic triangle, and the ending doesn’t leave any of the melodrama on the table. “Devastating” would be a fair description. But as attempts to inflate anecdotes to feature-length go (in this case it’s the one about the famous clown — usually Grock, sometimes Grimaldi, occasionally Pagliacci — who visits a doctor complaining of misery) it feels a little overstretched in places — even with substantial footage missing. Would that material have helped or hindered?

The ending (spoiler alert: it’s the ending) —

I think Chaney has been looking at Barrymore for those hand movements. Or is it the other way around?

The director is Irishman Herbert Brenon, who also did PETER PAN. He handles it well, but was reportedly a bully — Chaney took to hanging about the set even when he wasn’t needed for a scene, just to look out for Young.

You will also note that Chaplin stole practically the whole of LIMELIGHT from this movie — clown — in love with his ward — ballerina — stage fall — tragic death in clown makeup — fade out.

This regular Shadowplay feature may well be dominated by Chaney movies until Halloween — any objections?

8 Responses to “The Monday Intertitle: Broken Hearts and Flap Shoes”

  1. You know what they say about men with big feet?…….big socks. Anyhoo, I’ve just finished my Chaney book. Lots of fascinating details, not least of which is that he’s responsible for one of the few pieces of direction Kubrick ever gave an actor. His instructions to D’onofrio before Private Pyle’s big scene were, “Make it BIG….Make it Chaney BIG.”

  2. Chaney at his best is a good illustration of Welles’ insight that great acting can be as big as you like as long as it isn’t broad. Chaney’s tightly-focussed effects can be absolutely enormous and get away with it.

    Sternberg claimed Chaney was a good actor who came to confuse makeup with acting and became “one who poisons wells.” I disagree, and think Chaney’s own estimation, that he needed a good director to stop him overacting, is fairer. With Rupert Julian he’s melodramatic, but that’s OK for the material. With Worsley and Brenon he’s good. With Browning he’s great. And with Sjostrom, the best director he ever had, he’s beyond magnificent.

  3. Thanks for the Welles acting reference, which smartly clarifies a distinction that I’ve been worrying at for ages. (I’ve also been trying to recall his line about the vibrancy of James Cagney’s performances: something about seeing the air move? Not sure if Cagney as Chaney is up to his usual standard: never saw that film.) Found a nice picture of Brenon and Chaney in Joe Franklin’s Classics of the Silent Screen (an old standby of mine), which I’ve put on Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/215680269628213842/

  4. A slightly suggestive use of the accordion, but we’ll let it go.

    Welles actually cited Cagney as an example of how big screen acting could go — but alas I don’t know the exact quote about the air moving.

    Cagney doesn’t really work as Chaney at all — the acting style is OK but physicality is important here and he just looks pudgy and wrong in all those makeups. Maybe ten years earlier it might have worked. Robert Evans as Thalberg is kind of a brilliant casting coup though, if they had only known it!

  5. What interested me about Brenon is how solidly respectable but not stellar his career was before he got to Paramount. He was as you say a good director, with a very good c.v. but no big hits and he bounced from studio to studio – a bit of work at First National, then to Norma Talmadge (also to Italy and Marie Doro), then Fox. His career tailed off after he left Paramount, doing far fewer films though his reviews were good up through his sound film Lummox.

  6. Lummox! What a fantastic title, and so good for an Irish director to get his teeth into. It should have spawned a whole franchise. Lummox II: Electric Boogaloo; Lummox III: The Quickening; Lummox IV: The Search for Curly’s Gold.

    Alas, Brenon’s Gatsby is a lost film save for the trailer. Even F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre hasn’t seen that one.

  7. ‘Even F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre hasn’t seen that one.”

    *snort*

    And yes, more Chaney please! Before or after Halloween, it’s all good.

  8. Fiona just got a Kindle and bought Michael F. Blake’s A Thousand Faces to read on it, so she’ll be providing the historical background as I provide the prose poems.

    Also coming up on Shadowplay — a big series on neglected classic Citizen Kane.

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