Archive for The Wicked Darling

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.

The Monday Intertitle: Aces Wild and Wicked

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2013 by dcairns

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THE ACE OF HEARTS (1921) is directed by Wallace HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME Worsley and deals with a secret society of anarchists or communists or something (the film never specifies) who are plotting the assassination of a vicious capitalist, known only as The Man Who Had Lived Too Long. For ages the conspirators are the only characters we meet, and since they include hero John Bowers and heroine Leatrice Joy as well as uncertainly-positioned character player Lon Chaney we’re in the odd position of rooting for the Enemies of Society, or so it would seem. They draw cards to see who will do the honours and, lacking the advice of a South American death squad or Lemmy from Motorhead, they use the titular ace of hearts to signify the winning ticket. Bowers is delighted to get the role, Chaney is cast down at being passed over, and Leatrice is so thrilled for Bowers she marries him.

This is all played out very, very slowly, but compels just by the surreal inversion of conventional morality. Sadly, this is dissipated when the narrative, from a book by Gouverneur Morris (whose great-grandfather was the Founding Father of the same name) unveils its cunning ploy — after a night of marital bliss (while the lovelorn Chaney sits out on the stoop in the thrashing rain) the newlyweds suddenly lose their passion for homicide, and find themselves targeted by their former co-conspirators. Now the killers are the bad guys and Bowers and Joy are just wimpy love interest. Only Chaney retains interest, with his slouch hat and appalling Max Wall hairstyle.

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The print is thinly scratched in a million places, creating a sort of rain effect even when we’re not sitting with Lon in a downpour. By contrast, the earlier THE WICKED DARLING (1919) is spotted with blobs of nitrate decomposition specking the frame in a manner suggestive of a very rapid snowstorm. Neither rain nor wind nor hail nor snow / Only nitrate decomposition can stop the show.

This early Tod Browning stars Priscilla Dean, feisty thief from OUTSIDE THE LAW, as a pickpocket who works with Chaney (as Stoop Connors — one always hopes Chaney’s criminous characters will have great nicknames) but falls for a washed-up former swell (the magnificently named Wellington Playter). There are fights (complete with nose-gouging, see below), noble gestures, and some great grotesque underworld character touches. I was very taken with the hulking Kalla Pasha, apparently a popular Mack Sennett player, here making his debut. Another great name in a film of great names.

It’s minor Browning, without the truly perverse elements of the macabre maestro’s finest hours, but pretty entertaining, and Dean’s combination of fakey play-acting and occasional bursts of raw emotion makes for an amusing central perf.

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