Archive for Lon Chaney

Alonso and Michel’s Lowlife Reunion

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2022 by dcairns

The last day of Hippfest began, for us anyway, with a Laurel & Hardy triple bill — restorations of DUCK SOUP, TWO TARS and LIBERTY, all of which brought the house down, or would’ve if the Hippodrome had been less solidly constructed 110 years ago.

This was followed by A STRING OF PEARLS (YICHUAN ZHENZHU, 1926), one of the few surviving Chinese silents, a loose adaptation of Maupassant’s The Necklace, complete with happy ending. Though the whole point of the story, if it has one, would seem to be the utterly miserable ending Maupassant provided, the plot’s reworking was done with some skill and logic, and might have succeeded had not the screenplay, by Hou Yao, resorted to every possible means to pad the story from the original few pages to feature length. This became tiresome, but then hilarious, especially when we discover that one character, a wealthy businessman who looks oddly like a twelve-year-old girl in drag, is being blackmailed.

Little girl man looks thoughtfully at the blackmail note which demands a thousand pounds, “or I will reveal your secret.” Flashback: little girl man receives his first-ever blackmail note, demanding a mere one hundred pounds. Carefully he removes the money from his safe. Goes to meet the blackmailer. Pays him. We come out of this flashback. Little girl man wistfully remembers his second blackmail note. We see him receive it. It is identically worded, but demands two hundred pounds, “or I will reveal your secret.” He takes the money…

John Sweeney on piano accompanied this insane, ritualistic repetition with a straight face, somehow bringing out the comedy without spoofing. It was cheering to learn that the screenwriter published a book on the art of writing for films.

The intertitles were also a joy: decorative and bilingual, the English parts obviously penned by someone just as skilled at bluffing as Hou Yao. Maybe Hou did it himself. When little girl man (back in the present tense at last) refuses to pay the thousand pounds, the blackmailer sets about him with a dagger. Mrs. Little Girl Man visits her injured husband in hospital and asks, “Tell me. What’s the trouble between you and your murderer.”

The titles also featured some nifty animation (including pearls rearranging themselves into the Chinese character for “misfortune” and some random drawings of camels. This was probably the worst Chinese silent yet (I don’t even like the classic, THE GODDESS, that much — too much propaganda) and my favourite.

Then we had two films for which I wrote the notes — THE UNKNOWN and L’HOMME DU LARGE. Since the notes for the latter were written back in 2020 the programme has changed, and it was John Sweeney who accompanied that one with Frank Bockius, and very glorious it was. Johnny Best, who threw himself into a rambunctious accompaniment to the L&H trio (with Frank ram-Bockius on percussion), played solo for the Browning-Chaney film, where Alonso the armless knife-thrower finds that the course of tearing one’s rival apart with wild horses never does run smooth. Best, in this case, opted for a restrained, even muted approach, since what was going on up there on the screen was more than demented enough. In the L’Herbier, Charles Boyer somehow gets top-billing for a fairly tiny supporting role (well, he’s electrifying to watch even if Nosferatu-gaunt) and L’Herbier’s partner Jaque Catelain plays Michel, the no-good son of a sea-worshipping fisherman. Paul McGann narrated, since it would be a crime to stick subtitles on those beautiful art intertitles. Impossible to believe this film was made in 1920. The music, sonorous voice-over, and conducive setting all worked their magic…

The full array of Hippodrome programme notes is available here. I seem to have written quite a few over the years.

Gutter Blossom

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2021 by dcairns

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.

Mohr and Blore

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2020 by dcairns

Thinner than the Thin Man! Saintlier than the Saint! Crimier than the Crime Doctor and more masonic than Perry Mason! Michael Lanyard, the Lone Wolf, is back, accompanied as ever by his faithful manservant, Jamison… wait, how can he be a lone wolf if he’s accompanied?

We sold Marvelous Mary on the idea of a Lone Wolf watch party so she can feed her Eric Blore addiction (for it is he who essays the role of Jamison, apart from one outing where Alan Mowbray stepped in, with Ron Randall in his only appearance as Lanyard — I’m saving that one for a day when it is not only rainy, but SUBMERGED).

Our double-feature was to consist of ONE DANGEROUS NIGHT, Warren the starving lion’s penultimate Lanyard performance, and then THE LONE WOLF IN MEXICO, in which the now ailing WW is subbed out by pod person Gerald Mohr, a Columbia upstart best known for fading into the background of GILDA. Both films acquired in suitably ratty form, poor prints duped from VHS off-air recordings, the latter one graced with massive, decomposing Spanish subtitles crawling over half the image, through which the actors peered like convicted felons, as perhaps they were. A good evening in.

These subtitles are illegible, it’s a good thing I don’t understand Spanish.

Mary suggested we invite our mutual chum Stuart to partake also. Stuart produced my first short film, so would seem to have much to answer for, but he answered for it fully at the time, I can assure you. I don’t know what he’s done since to make him deserving of this cinematic treat, but probably plenty. I sold the show to him as “pre-televisual time consumption units.” There was eventually a Lone Wolf TV show, after Ron Randall murdered the movie series, and it starred Louis Hayward who seems like excellent low-budget casting, which lets face it is all the series ever got. I might check it out, Alfred E. Green directed some and there are exciting guest stars like Denver Pile and Morris Ankrum. Oh goodie!

I am curious about THE FALSE FACES, the silent Henry B. Walthall vehicle which is available purely because Lon Chaney’s in it. Curious about the numerous other silents also, but none is within my grasp, and the part-talkie THE LONE WOLF’S DAUGHTER is considered lost. Maybe I’ll never find out if Bert Lytell was a worthy precursor to the Starving Lion. With a name like Bert, it’s hard to picture him doing the suavity.

Curious also about the early talkies with Melvyn Douglas (pretty classy casting) and Francis Lederer (pretty surprising casting, though Lederer is ALWAYS surprising, not to say alarming, in any role). I can get those.

ONE DANGEROUS NIGHT is standard Lone Wolf stuff, enlivened by WW failing to take himself or anything else seriously, and by Blore’s “bits”: he’s called upon to impersonate an entire 4th of July party, to loudly feign illness, and to fire a prop Tommy gun, all of which he does so with his usual enthusiasm, which rightly should belong to a man twice his size, but who’d pay for the damage?

Blore being a party.

Blore feigning illness.

Michael Gordon directs, having worked his way up from Boston Blackie by way of the Crime Doctor, with Cyrano still in his future.

Sample dialogue from a henchperson: “Kid’s got a bad case of ants, always in a stew.”

Eric Blore gets to say: “We’re being followed, sir. Couple of storybook characters.”

Anne Savage gets to say: “Come on, honeybunch, let’s go places.”

MEXICO, despite Mohr being somewhat overshadowed by his immediately predecessor, is the same kind of fun. Co-writer of DETOUR, Martin Goldsmith, is one of the credited scribes, and the dialogue has zest. It’s directed by D. Ross Lederman, whose first initial and middle name seem to form their own critical commentary.

Weirdly, though Jamison/Blore is characterised as a reformed thief in all the films, these two are the only ones I’ve seen where he’s portrayed as a sort of kleptomaniac, snatching purses in both flicks to jump-start a spare bit of narrative.

Eric Blore gets to say: “What have we done now??” Also he gets to wear a sombrero and sing the “Ay, ay, ay!” song. You know the one I mean.

Last line of the film is a Mexican policeman saying “…I thee-eenk.” More innocent times. Subtitling this for the Spanish market may have been an act of post-war optimism.

ONE DANGEROUS NIGHT stars Paul Kroll; Cedric Cosmo, aka Captain Braceridge Hemingway; Eve Corby; Stephanie ‘Steffie’ Hajos; Eloise Matthews; Vera; Mr. Bel-Goodie; Sgt. Murphy; Noah Joad; Buddy De Sylva; Capt. Delgado; Joe Brody; Count Alexis Rakonin; The College Cad; Gort; Spat; Leatherstocking; Trustee, Boston Waif Society (uncredited); and Steve McCroskey.

THE LONE WOLF IN MEXICO stars Capt. Delgado again; Cedric Cosmo, aka Captain Braceridge Hemingway again; Ann, Cowgirl in Movie (uncredited); Mona Plash; Minor Supporting Role (uncredited); Roy Church; Megalos (uncredited); Reverend Hawthorne (uncredited); Bret Harte (uncredited); Mendoza (uncredited); Reuben Klopek; Cannabis Dealer (as Leon Lenoir); Samaris (uncredited); Spectator at Medusa Presentation (uncredited); and Leatherstocking again.