Gutter Blossom

THE WICKED DARLING (1919) is Tod Browning and Lon Chaney and so it’s of interest, but that interest mainly plays out in the trainspotting exercise of spotting the Browning motifs when they appear, as they do intermittently. And so we have —

GROTESQUERIE

The toothless pedlar, embedded in his wares, is a pure Browning touch, and entirely gratuitous. Chaney plays without any makeup gimmicks but manages to be terrifying and freakish with what nature gave him. And there’s a big role for Kalla Pasha, not so much an actor as a super-dense physical object, an asteroid of gristle with a head shaped like a rotary phone (a grid of metallic teeth in place of the dial).

VIOLENCE

Two big brawls and a shooting. The wonderfully named Wellington Playter (there’s also a Spottiswode Aitken in the cast) grapples with Chaney and also receives the bullet. The fights are dynamic and scary, which isn’t usually the case in that period. Actors hadn’t learned how to throw a punch and miss, while positioned so that the camera can’t see whether the impact is real. The “recipient” of the fake blow sells it by his reaction. But it really helps if you dub on a SMACK sound, which the silents were not in a position to do. Instead, silent film fighters had to pull their punches, which always looked weak. Supposedly it was John Wayne who invented the three-quarters-view punch, drawing back his fist slowly to pre-sell the haymaker (a practice mocked in Hawks’ THE BIG SKY, where the guy raising his fist slowly gets punched out before he can swing).

To get around this yet-unsolved problem, Chaney uses vigorous wrestling moves, contorting his body in a rapidly shifting set of holds, creating an impression of tremendous murderous aggression without relying on phony wallops.

Leading lady Priscilla Dean, discovered here behind Wellington’s couch, is lively and pert. She’s very good in the wicked scenes, playing a jewel thief in thrall to Chaney and his accomplices, but rather overdoes the sweetness once she;s redeemed by the love of a good Wellington. By 1927 her star had dimmed and she was acting at Hal Roach in an early Laurel & Hardy.

Chaney is introduced as a pair of shiny shoes. How did he do such amazing makeups with such tiny feet?

I had actually seen this film before, a fact I only discovered when preparing to write about it. So it’s not the most memorable entry in the Browning and Chaney oevres.

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