Archive for Wallace Worsley

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…

Advertisements

The Monday Intertitle: Aces Wild and Wicked

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

vlcsnap-2013-10-06-20h30m58s28

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.

vlcsnap-2013-10-06-20h31m44s239

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.

vlcsnap-2013-10-06-20h28m04s76