Archive for Lon Chaney

The Easter Fools’ Day Intertitle: Lon Chaney Big

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2018 by dcairns

Yeah, sometimes the calendar makes the satirist’s job too easy.

Fiona has announced that we need to see READY PLAYER ONE today — something about it being a kids’ film with geeky references for the over-forties (or over-fifties in our case) — so it looks like we’re doing that. Sadly we missed THE POST which was the proper grown-up Spielberg film for this year — we did manage to make it to Filmhouse for a screening but sadly five hundred other grown-ups had the same idea first. So I feel we may be seeing THE WRONG FILM. I also want to see ISLE OF DOGS but, to quote Peter Falk, “You’re sick, I’ll YUMA ya.”

Our intertitle is from my favourite film of all time — it’s THE BEST FILM THERE IS, folks — HE WHO GETS SLAPPED — because the date seems to demand a martyred clown picture. And Lon Chaney was recently enjoyed in Bo’ness. He’s quite something on the big screen. I still dream of Jane Gardner getting to score this one. That would be REALLY something.

A friend, who was experiencing Chaney for the first time in THE PENALTY, thought he had a Jack Nicholson quality. He certainly does the lowered-chin malevolent glower, known as the Crazy Kubrick Stare, to perfection. It’s like the Lauren Bacall Look, but with added menace. Though I doubt Chaney, like Bacall, was doing it to steady himself against a nervous tremor. And Kubrick is known to have used the line, when directing Vincent Donofrio in FULL METAL JACKET, “Make it big. Lon Chaney big.”

 

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Lon Again

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 28, 2018 by dcairns

These are my programme notes for Hippodrome Silent Film Fest’s screening of THE PENALTY. As you’ll see, I was aiming to introduce Lon Chaney and his film to an audience who may not be familiar with him, while trying to include less familiar info or observations for those already versed in the Chaneyesque grotesque. Now read on ~

Lon Chaney was born to be a silent film actor, even though the movies didn’t exist at the time of his birth on April Fool’s Day 1883: since his parents were both deaf, he learned to communicate by pantomime from an early age. Becoming an actor, he used make-up and a powerfully expressive face and body in his performances.

Working his way up from supporting roles in the movies, he showed an ability to steal the show with eye-popping characterisations, eventually bringing to Hollywood a taste for the grotesque hitherto unknown, which would mutate in the coming years and decades into a whole new genre: the horror film.

But in Chaney’s day, these were merely melodramas, often with crime themes. But the versatile star’s use of the make-up kit, along with other, more novel tricks, brought to these movies a rogue’s gallery of physical deformities and disabilities, served up with lurid brio.

Wallace Worsley would direct Chaney in one of his signature roles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the two were already regular collaborators, uniting for the first time on 1920’s The Penalty. For this film, Chaney undertook the eye-catching role of Blizzard, a double-amputee gangster running San Francisco’s underworld without the benefit of lower legs.

Within the limits of 1920s special effects, there was no way to show an anatomically whole man moving about without legs, but Chaney undertook the task, strapping his legs up behind himself and walking on his knees, a classic instance of the love of suffering at the root of his art. Audiences of the shuddered as he strutted about with the aid of crutches, gasped as he climbed a wall, and winced as he jumped off a table. They still do.

The star’s masochism is served up with ample sadism too (a perversion that usually has more box office appeal). From its opening maiming, the movie serves up relentless displays of violence: a knifing, vicious hair-pulling,and the savagery of Chaney’s own performance, which dominates the whole film even though he’s nominally the villain.
Blizzard’s megalomania, the result of a cranial injury sustained at the same time as his loss of limb, has led him to plan to loot the whole of San Francisco. His villainy goes beyond normal mob boss ambition and into Bond villain territory. He even has an underground lair and a secret laboratory, but to what malign end?

What all this suggests, apart from an uproarious good time, is that the horror movie as we know it today evolved not purely from Gothic fiction or ghost stories, but from the gangster picture. Chaney’s films (see also The Unholy Three, The Blackbird, Outside the Law) united the dubious pleasures of that form–violence, sadism, law-breaking–with grotesque disfigurements and disguises which could exploit his mastery of make-up and willingness to subject himself to painful transformations. What unites the crime thriller with the monster movie is a thoroughly anti-social appreciation of destruction, mayhem and ugliness, not for their own sake, but as liberating escapes from the strictures of normality, peace and civilisation.

All this unalloyed evil must be punished at the end, of course, to allow the audience to feel virtuous in spite of the vicarious pleasure they’ve just experienced at wanton acts of cruelty and pillage. And so the penalty must be paid, though just how the movie-makers tried to achieve this, and what alterations they had to make to appease the censors, is best discovered by watching the movie. It turns out, however, that the arbiters of morality could be even more blood-thirsty than the filmmakers…

The Sunday Intertitle: A Gorilla in Every Port

Posted in Dance, FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2017 by dcairns

We were led to THE CHIMP by obscure means ~

Fiona got obsessed with Charles Gemora, Hollywood’s top gorilla impersonator, after seeing BLONDE VENUS with me, and discovered the existence of a documemtary, CHARLIE GEMORA: UNCREDITED. We paid to see it on Vimeo, and found it eye-opening indeed — though Gemora made the best gorilla costume in Hollywood, and performed in it with gusto (probably to the detriment of his health) there was much more to him than that.

CHARLIE GEMORA: UNCREDITED from Cloud Tank Creative on Vimeo.

The pint-sized Philippino came to America as an illegal immigrant, I guess you’d say, and his first job in Hollywood was as an extra in Lon Chaney’s HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Seeing him draw sketches of his fellow extras (who must have included future director Tay Garnett, whose experience here led to the title of his autobiography, Light Up Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights — words to live by), the bosses put him to work sculpting gargoyles for the cathedral set, “on the basis that if you can draw, you can sculpt.” Gemora didn’t even have any training drawing, and had never sculpted in his puff.

But soon he’s carving massive figures for movies, as well as getting into the gorilla work and special make-up effects, particularly for those curious jobs where it’s hard to say is it a makeup or is it a costume? Monsters, freaks, aliens. COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, WAR OF THE WORLDS. An interesting early one is Benjamin Christensen’s horror comedy SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, in which Gemora plays ape, but may also have had a hand in the stunning, grotesque and ooky make-ups.

Thelma Todd (a frequent gemora screamer), “Sir Charles” himself, and director/wrangler Benjamin Christensen.

(I’m fascinated by this: Benjamin Christensen made HAXAN/WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES the same year as Chaney’s HUNCHBACK, pulling off the tricky feat of full-body make-up effects far more effectively than Chaney’s ambitious Quasimodo design, which relies on an improbably leonine mane of body hair to disguise the neck-join. No credit is given for the designer of HAXAN’s amazing demons and imps. But it’s possible Christensen, an actor himself — he plays Satan — was responsible. Making him the link to SEVEN FOOTPRINTS, though we can also imagine a Westmore or two being mixed in, with Gemora either helping out or watching and taking notes from inside his Ingagi suit.)

Gemora painted portraits of the stars (Stanwyck, Goddard) and forged Gainsboroughs for Mitchell Leisen’s KITTY. He played many of the monsters he designed, including the Martian in Pal’s WAR OF THE WORLDS. And he could play his apes straight (the affecting THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL; PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE) but, and this brings us to THE CHIMP, could be hilarious when required.

THE CHIMP is a very minor Laurel & Hardy short, which transforms into a major Charlie Gemora short when viewed through the correct filter. It reprises the previous year’s “smuggle an animal past the landlord” plotline from the superior LAUGHING GRAVY but replaces the lovable pup with Ethel the chimp, played by Gemora in gorilla suit and tutu. Gemora’s very human gestures (shrugs, pointing, ballet dancing) had Fiona in helpless hysterics. This element of pure phantasie is somehow unsuited to Stan & Ollie’s world, I feel, but once you start watching Gemora’s performance for its own sake, it’s a thing of beauty in its own right.

Jason Barnett’s documentary is great for all this background, shining a light on Gemora’s incredibly varied and mainly uncredited contributions to Hollywood cinema. The story is assembled in a somewhat pedestrian way, and the attempts to bring the still images to life with fancy rostrum work are often clumsy: since the many of the photos, drawings and documents have presumably come from Gemora’s archive, I wanted to SEE the archive and make-up kit put in front of a moving picture camera, explored in the round, clues in a detective story. Scans give us a clear look at the contents of the Gemora papers but rob them of their personality as artifacts.

Nevertheless, don’t let me put you off — the film is incredibly well-researched and doesn’t shrink from the mysteries of Gemora’s extensive career — we will not see a better film about this fascinating artist.