Archive for Lon Chaney

The Sunday Intertitle: A Twist in the Tale

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2015 by dcairns


I’d never seen the 1922 OLIVER TWIST, directed by Glasgow’s own Frank Lloyd (why don’t we do a retrospective on his amazing career, which includes MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY?) despite owning it in T-shirt form. It’s billed as an “all-star” version, but Time has anonymized the cast to the point where only Jackie Coogan as Oliver, Lon Chaney as Fagin, and, rather dimly, Esther Ralston as Rose have any vestigial fame left. Ralston should have chosen to play Nancy if she was looking to be memorable, but she had a good-girl image to protect (she protested when Dorothy Arzner tried to sex her up in undies) — Gladys Brockwell is rather good in the role, with her strong features, aspiring to the condition of a symbolist painting.



Audiences today are likely to come for Chaney’s sake, and he rewards with a fascinating makeup and physical performance. This is Fagin as grotesque, with the more sympathetic aspects added by Lionel Bart and Ron Moody in the musical quite some way off, but it’s not the icky ethnic stereotype of Alec Guinness either — Chaney avoids the crude beak effect, extending his nose DOWN towards his lips rather than hooking it. The straggly beard adds character, and he essays a marvelous hunch, just by stooping — no vast plaster hump required here. Despite his simpering villainy, the last shot of Fagin in prison still inspires pathos.


Good though Chaney is, the miracle of Jackie Coogan still holds the film together. Still hanging onto his infant cutes, Coogan delights with Chaplinesque business which makes Oliver far pluckier and scrappier than any other rendition of the character. In a sound film, Coogan’s accent would have killed it, but he has an edge over most filmed versions prior to the Polanski. For some reason, despite being raised in a workhouse, Oliver is always played posh. As if his mother being a respectable woman means that young Ollie would be genetically superior and would be born speaking like a BBC presenter. John Howard Davies and the eerie Mark Lester both cemented this idea so firmly that when we imagine the phrase “Please sir, I want some more,” most of us probably still hear it in a plummy soprano.


Coogan’s pantomime performance includes great details like Oliver swiping finger-smudges of gruel off the ladle even as he’s being lambasted for his temerity in requesting seconds. Details like this make the character a feisty hero, not a passive victim, and make us care MORE, even if he suffers less than most of his successors in the role.

The Monday Intertitle: His Groping Soul

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


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.


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.


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!


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


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.


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.


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.)


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