Archive for Tod Browning

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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Monster-out-law

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on October 3, 2013 by dcairns

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A Lon Chaney double feature over at The Notebook, with OUTSIDE THE LAW (Tod Browning) and THE MONSTER (Roland West) paired up on a crazy whim. For all that it doesn’t have much story not nearly enough Chaney, the latter film clearly inspired the climax of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, where Fay Wray (above) is strapped to a slab, naked under a sheet, like Gertrude Olmstead before her. It’s a good way to end any movie — can there be any doubt that such a scene would much have improved any film in the career of Ken Loach? And most Mike Leigh joints too.

UK: Lon Chaney: The Warner Archive Classics Collection [DVD] [1930] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

US: Lon Chaney: The Warner Archive Classics Collection (He Who Gets Slapped / Mockery / The Monster / Mr. Wu / The Unholy Three / The Unholy 3)

Meanwhile, at Apocalypse Now, the ’68 Comeback Special continues its journey through the Cannes Film Festival entries for that year looking at the largely forgotten Hungarian film THE UPTHROWN STONE — with no subtitles available, Scout Tafoya has had to assess Sandor Sara’s film using somewhat different criteria, but what he finds is fascinating.

The Monday Intertitle: Low Amperage Rampage

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on September 30, 2013 by dcairns

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WHERE EAST IS EAST — well, isn’t that everywhere? Despite its mystifying title, this is less perplexing than many Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaborations, being a fairly conventional melodrama in which Chaney, as scar-faced big-game hunter “Tiger” Haynes, tries to protect his beloved daughter Toyo (Lupe Velez) from her debauched mother Estelle Taylor.

At the climax, a gorilla runs amok, as it so often does in Browning pictures (see also THE UNHOLY THREE) — this one being set in Malaysia, the presence of the great ape is particularly unmotivated, though it should be noted that the excuse used in the earlier film is that Chaney is running a pet shop. And pet shops always have a gorilla or two on hand, don’t they? Yes they do. They keep them round the back so they don’t scare the budgies.

The movie is a soundie, so we get a few gimmicky bits of crowd noise, but this is a weak sister to WEST OF ZANZIBAR, which is grittier, darker and dirtier in every way. It feels like the censor has intervened to prevent the gorilla action getting too intense, which means the whole climax is offscreen, a rather unsatisfactory state of affairs. This only really feels like a Browning picture in the queasy intimations of incest and perversity, which are kept low-key.

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Also — rare use of early zoom lens — untranslated intertitles (anyone here read Malay? Or Chinese, possibly? Or maybe it’s just made-up squiggles from the MGM titles department?) — and the classic Browning device (featured in half his oeuvre, it seems) of an exotic animal appearing somewhere it clearly doesn’t belong. I love the opossum and armadillos of DRACULA, and here we have an extremely rare Malayan gorilla.

This vengeful female ape, Rangha, is played by one Richard Neill, in drag I guess you could call it, and is the most nearly spherical fake ape I’ve ever seen, Neill seems to have been playing leading roles circa 1910 (Hefty in THE ROMANCE OF HEFTY BURKE) and only declined to simian roles in the twenties, but was able to maintain some kind of fringe relationship to showbiz up until 1959, mainly playing humans. He died in 1971. “And leave showbiz?”

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