Category Archives: lon chaney
The Revenant ~ This black comedy revolves around a American soldier killed in Iraq who comes back from the dead with a thirst for blood to survive. Seeking his best friend’s help, they become vigilante crimefighters, feeding on their prey. Imagine a zombie version of The Boondock Saints and you’ve kinda got the picture. Fun if you turn your mind off, better than a Troma flick, but it’s no masterpiece.
Tit for Tat ~ This great Laurel and Hardy short from 1935 was nominated for an Academy Award. The boys run a hardware store and feud with the grocer next door. Look for the ever popular Mae Busch as the grocer’s wife, slightly worse for wear from her Rosie O’Grady role in The Unholy Three a decade earlier. She actually had a successful career in the Laurel and Hardy comedies, a sort of second coming for the ‘versatile vamp.’
He Who Gets Slapped ~ This silent film from 1924 is based on a Russian play and later film set in a circus where a clown, played by the master Lon Chaney, takes grisly revenge for the unwanted affections of a baron on the woman that he loves. It is the sort of twisted revenge story Chaney would become known for when later working with Tod Browning and Valdemar Young. A spectacle featuring Chaney at his emotive best, also starring Norma Shearer and John Gilbert as leads, and directed by Victor Seastrom, this was MGM’s first film.
Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic ~ An excellent documentary from Showtime about the genius comedian. Great footage of concerts and behind the scenes stuff, as well as interviews with friends and family, however, much was edited out for the sake of his family if the rumors are true. That said, still the best doc on Pryor done so far.
The Terrible Truth ~ A couple decades earlier, and a lot less graphic, this ten minute anti-drug propaganda short subject is like a “Dead Is Dead” for the 1950s. Like a cross between Duck and Cover and Reefer Madness, this color short from 1951 has a good message, if dated and funny. The hipsters will probably laugh their asses off.
Cobra Woman ~ My friend Dan turned me on to Maria Montez and Jon Hall. I was aware of and knew about them but their films are not all that easy to find. Imagine my surprise recently when cruising HBO Go on my iPhone one late night looking for something to cure my insomnia when I came across Cobra Woman. On HBO of all places! Insomnia hell, I settled in for the long haul.
The first thing that hit me just in the opening credits was just how brilliant and striking the Technicolor was. Very bright, very crisp. The other thing that surprised me was that both Miso and Get Glue, the two apps I use to post on social media what I’m watching, had no recollection of the flick. This truly was a forgotten movie.
Sabu, who was Mowgli in the original Jungle Book the year before, gets third billing in this 1944 cult classic from Universal after Montez and Hall. Lon Chaney Jr. is also in there as well. The exotic Montez plays dual roles as kidnapped bride and her evil sister, high priestess of Cobra Island, Hall is the heroic groom, and Sabu the plucky sidekick.
Cobra Woman is pretty typical fare for Universal horror of the time had it been in black and white, but the lush and lavish Technicolor raises the bar on this one. The set design and the costumes more than make up for the clichéd story and adequate acting. Well, less than adequate acting for Montez, but her dazzling beauty helps to erase that.
Adventure, horror, romance, musical, and spectacle – why don’t they make movies like this any more? If you get a chance to see it, don’t miss Cobra Woman.
The Magician ~ This 1926 silent film is based on the 1908 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, which was in turn, based on the infamous Aleister Crowley. It was directed and adapted by Rex Ingram and starring his then-wife Alice Terry (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Prisoner of Zenda). As presented on TCM’s Silent Sundays, this was a crisp clean print, something always important when dealing with the silents. It might be noted that while Ingram and Terry mentioned above had many films to their name, few survive.
A sculptress is nearly killed when her sculpture, a big scary thing, falls on her. A young surgeon miraculously saves her life and a romance blooms. Meanwhile Oliver Haddo, a magician/mad scientist played by German Paul Wegener, is seeking the means to create life. All Haddo needs is the blood of a virgin – and he sets his sights on the sculptress. The film rolls from there.
If the plot sounds a bit Frankenstein-ish, it is, and some of the imagery is reminiscent of that film, but remember, Universal’s Frankenstein is still six years away when The Magician was made. There are some quite horrific visuals here, right from the start, and especially one scene in Hell that rivals any in Haxan, complete with “Night on Bald Mountain” soundtrack. This proves that Hollywood was just as good at this kind of horror as Germany was, and they didn’t even need Lon Chaney for this one.
This rarely seen silent film is a classic and a must see. There are some gorgeous French locations (real or not, still stunning), great color tinting, an explosive ending and a wonderful score by Robert Israel. Recommended.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame ~ I love silent film, but apparently I am one of the few. I was kinda surprised at the turnout for this 1923 masterpiece compared to other films presented by Silver Screen Classics at Showcase at the Ritz. I even overheard one woman at the box office upset that this wasn’t the Charles Laughton. She asked for her money back when she heard it was silent. She objected to having to read, she said. Surprisingly she saw a subtitled movie instead – go figure.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the 1939 version of Hunchback with Laughton, it’s terrific, and Maureen O’Hara was amazing. But the 1923 Lon Chaney version is classic, the best in my opinion, and not the original, it should be noted either. Victor Hugo’s novel has been filmed multiple times throughout film history. Not seeing this version just because it’s silent, to me, is like refusing to see The Wizard of Oz because Judy Garland is not Fairuza Balk. Oh well, it’s your loss, folks.
Michelle McDonald, a manager at Showcase at the Ritz, has gotten much better at the introductions of the movies here, but film historian Lou DiCrescenzo is still much missed. I hope he returns soon. His knowledge and love and respect of the artform is unparalleled. After some fun and waiting on a new projectionist, the movie finally started.
Sadly, this was not a great print, but strictly speaking, there really aren’t that many great prints of this one. In fact, a complete version doesn’t exist, that we know of, we’re still missing ten to fifteen minutes from what I understand.
Amazing sets and the always amazing make-up and portrayal of Lon Chaney highlight this film. There is a ponderous cast of characters, and that and the long setting up of the story are not strictly the film’s fault, but Victor Hugo’s. Tastes from the time it was written to the time of this past century had changed. Disney actually did a fairly excellent job of Cliff-noting it (and also unfortunately politically correcting it as well) many decades later in 1996.
Esmeralda as played by Patsy Ruth Parker is wonderful, and Nigel DeBrulier as Don Claudio and Ernest Torrence as Clopin are terrific villains – who were notably combined into one for the aforementioned Disney adaptation. And Chaney, hell, Lon Chaney is always amazing. This is the role that cemented his legendary status as both a performer and a make-up master. He is the king. Quasimodo’s whipping scene, pivotal in the film, is particularly intense. Chaney is genius at portraying both monstrous and pitiful at once. Though brief, Esmeralda and Quasimodo’s scenes are far more entrancing than Parker with any of the other male leads.
While Parker and Chaney stand out in this film, silents were the realm of pantomime and over the top acting. Here the poet Gringoire as played by Raymond Hatton – famous later in life for The Three Mesquiteers – is the champion. Even though he has his share of dramatic moments as well, his humorous takes steal his scenes, especially one with Norman Kerry’s Phoebus.
The film exhibits quite a political side. The caption cards especially are quick to lay the blame for tortures like the whipping and other atrocities that were done to the lower classes solidly at King Louis XI’s feet. Sometimes the class war looms largely here than any individual’s story. But of course – that’s what Victor Hugo is all about.
When the climatic siege of Notre Dame begins we see some of Chaney’s best scenes as he throws stone blocks and pours molten lead on his attackers from above. Even as a kid I was enthralled by that scene. Great stuff, always worth seeing.
This film is a mix of many genres, several scenes go by without Chaney on screen where the film could have simply been a period piece with no horror overtones. Sometimes you forget what you’re watching, during the Esmeralda and Phoebus scenes specifically. To me this is the sign of a well-rounded story and presentation.
No matter how you see it, 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a film masterpiece, and must see. Highly recommended. See it, and see it on the big screen if at all possible.
A note on Silver Screen Classics, with the theatre recently being purchased by Rave, it’s now calling their Monday afternoon features the Rave Cinema Classics. Same films, same website, different name. Keep ‘em coming, folks!
The Little Girl who Lives Down the Lane ~ This is one of my favorite movie-of-the-week-style suspense thrillers from the 1970s. Very straightforward, only a few characters to worry about – heck it could be a stage play easily, and most importantly, it’s scary without being bloody or gory. Are you paying attention, Eli Roth? These things do not go hand in hand. Now I may have gone a bit hard on Jodie Foster earlier this month, but I really do like her. She is a talent powerhouse and here she shows just how good she was even at a young age. Also showing his superior acting chops is Martin Sheen, always a favorite of mine (pre-“West Wing” at least). He is the epitome of the creepy pedophile in this flick. Excellent fodder for a popcorn-filled Halloween Friday night.
The Batman Vs. Dracula ~ I was kinda put off by “The Batman” animated series when it began with its manga design, obsession with the telling of the early stories and its changes for the sake of change. This made-for-DVD movie pitting this new animated version of Batman against the real prince of darkness turned my head and got my attention. In my opinion, this movie was also the turning point for the TV series as well. Dracula is a real vital threat outside the safe constraints of ‘children’s programming’ and the creators take full advantage of it. This is a rare Halloween treat for genre and non-genre fans alike.
Invisible Enemies ~ This is what I get for stopping on one of the Christian broadcasting stations in the middle of the night. Actually this mini-movie with a lesson is pretty good. Like a “Twilight Zone” episode crossed with They Live with heavy evangelistic overtones poured on top, this is the tale of a young man who finds a pair of magical glasses that allow him to see demons in our world. As good as it could be to teach a lesson, and still hold your attention.
Kongo ~ This entry from 1932 is a talkie remake of the classic Tod Browning flick West of Zanzibar. It’s okay but it lacks the power of the original. Walter Huston is good, but he’s no Lon Chaney. But then again, no one is, and few approach him.
Here is just a sampling of some of the movies being featured this month for “Asian Images in Film” on TCM.
Mr. Wu ~ This is a silent 1927 vehicle for Lon Chaney in which he plays two roles, the title one, old Wu and young Wu. Surrounded by Asian extras, Chaney and Louise Dresser, as his daughter, are Americans playing Chinese aristocrats. Legend has it that Chaney was so convincing that he rode buses and wandered Chinatown while in this make-up unnoticed. As convincing as the make-up may have been however, in the presence of true Asians, the Americans are revealed as just that – whites in yellow face. Ah, simpler minds in simpler times perhaps?
When the daughter of a powerful Mandarin is seduced and abandoned by a wealthy Britisher, Mr. Wu, the Mandarin, takes his revenge. The sets are beautiful and elaborate, even having as much a German film influence, or at least as much as the American black and white silent film industry would allow at the time. The music relays the story as much as the actions and the words, a perfect blending.
The Oriental lettering of the title cards also lends to the film’s uniqueness. Also the passage of time via caption cards does contrive the story a bit, but in the time and the place there was no other way to do it, I suppose, Hollywood not being as slick as it is today. However the emotion and expression performed by Renee Adoree and Holmes Herbert confirm them as masters of the silent field right along with Chaney. Acting without words and conveying feeling perfectly is not an art I doubt that Ben Affleck or Jennifer Lopez or any star of our day could pull off easily, if at all.
The tension of the tea party is wonderfully Hitchcockian before his time and well portrayed. While there is precious little Chaney in this Chaney starrer, when he’s onscreen, he dominates. As is his strong suit, when he gets angry, he is positively frightening. Wu’s horrible revenge is right out of a Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novel, and fitting for the characters and the story. Despite my misgivings above this is one of my favorite Chaney flicks and a must see for Chaney fans. Brilliant.
Mr. Wong in Chinatown ~ This is the third of four films in which Boris Karloff plays the San Franciscan amateur detective. It’s a role that shows off Karloff’s charm and elegance, qualities not often revealed in his horror parts. The character of James Lee Wong was created for Collier’s Magazine in 1934 by Hugh Wiley.
Mr. Wong went on to star in twelve short stories, six feature films (two of which were remade as Charlie Chan flicks) and a handful of comic books. This one is one of the best, with Karloff playing against Grant Withers as the hard-nosed detective and Marjorie Reynolds as the plucky girl reporter. It’s fun and mystery in the 1930s pulp flavor for everyone.
Daughter of Shanghai ~ Starring the incomparable Anna May Wong in one of her heroic lead roles. Also look for a very young Anthony Quinn, as well as Buster Crabbe in a rare bad guy role. Anna May’s acting and dancing are hypnotic in this B-thriller about smugglers of human cargo. Recommended.
Daughter of the Dragon ~ Once again Anna May Wong is in the spotlight in this early cinematic outing for the insidious Fu Manchu. This film is notable as one of the first featuring an Asian actress playing Asian in a lead role, in this case the title role, the equally insidious daughter of Fu Manchu. Acting against his later known type as Charlie Chan, Warner Oland is Fu Manchu here (his third time in the role), and extra props go to legendary Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa in his role as one of Scotland Yard’s Chinese detectives. The story, based on Sax Rohmer’s “Daughter of Fu Manchu,” is weak but the performances more than make up for it in this often overlooked B-picture.
The Mask of Fu Manchu ~ Speaking of Fu Manchu, this is probably the flick most people think of when they think of this legendary Asian villain, this time played by horror king Boris Karloff. In my opinion, Karloff’s portrayal is the best in cinema of this sinister villain, who I might add was author Rohmer’s first choice. It’s perfect, the ultimate movie monster playing the premier super-villain, it just doesn’t get better than this.
The rest of the cast is flawless as well. Andy Hardy future dad Lewis Stone is perpetual Fu protagonist Nayland Smith, the future Durango Kid and cowboy superstar Charles Starrett plays leading man action hero, and in perhaps her most unforgettable (and frightening) role (and yes, I’m counting Nora Charles) Myrna Loy as the daughter of Fu Manchu.
The film, based on Sax Rohmer’s classic of the same name, has the heroes and villains racing to find the tomb of Genghis Khan, which contains a mask and other relics that shall bestow ultimate power on the mad villain. All of the trappings and dynamic qualities of the pulps and the early serials are here, but stepped up to the next level. This fantastic adventure is highly recommended.
West of Zanzibar (1928) ~ Forget Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame and even London After Midnight, Lon Chaney as Phroso/Dead Legs in West of Zanzibar is truly his most chilling role. Phroso is a magician who finds his wife is leaving him for rival Crane, played by a very young Lionel Barrymore. The two fight and Crane throws Phroso off a balcony paralysing him from the waist down. Crane and the love of Phroso’s life seemingly flee into the night afterward. A year later the wife returns and dies in a church with a newborn daughter in her arms.
Beware of spoilers from here forward…
Phroso moves to Zanzibar, where he knew his rival Crane to be, hunting ivory in the jungle. This is where Chaney sets up shop as ‘Dead Legs’ the white chieftain and witch doctor of the superstitious native cannibals there. He also sends the daughter he believes to be Crane’s off to be raised in a brothel in the city. Dead Legs uses magic tricks to make the natives believe he can control evil spirits and disrupts the ivory trade, seeking to bring Crane to him. He wants revenge, by showing Crane what he’s made of his daughter.
When the two meet again, Chaney introduces the daughter to Barrymore, and Lionel does an impressive bit of silent acting – appearing to cry, when he’s actually laughing. The daughter is Chaney’s! The mother had left Crane when she found out he’d crippled her husband, and then stayed away to have the child, knowing Phroso wanted nothing to do with her. Barrymore’s thespianism is then completely overshadowed by Chaney’s reaction to this news. In less than a minute we are witness to the full talent that is Chaney, as well as perhaps the greatest acting shot in silent film. It is both brilliant and heart-breaking.
The rest of film follows with Dead Legs accepting his fate and a dire danger from the natives. It’s all done in typical Tod Browning directorial fashion. Grim and foreboding. Browning is at his best in silence I think, if you’ve seen and liked his Dracula and Freaks, you should definitely look into his silent work.
The irony of seeing Barrymore act opposite a wheelchair is heartbreaking at times knowing his future but his acting is outstanding. And that’s also the word for Chaney as he drags his dead legs around throughout the film. He was truly a master actor who put his everything into his parts. And here, in West of Zanzibar, Chaney’s make-up-less face and expressions are more terrifying than any other monster of his career. This is a must-see.
“AN UNDERRATED CLASSIC”
A Film Review of The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Copyright 2005 Glenn Walker
The Man Who Laughs from 1928 should be remembered alongside other silent classics like The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame but somehow it slipped between the cracks over the years. Making this oversight more upsetting is the fact that this film was pretty much the blueprint for what would become the Universal horrors of the 1930s.
The film, a Carl Laemmle production, was directed by German émigré Paul Leni, who died much too young, but also brought other chillers like The Cat and the Canary (1927), the original haunted house movie, and Waxworks (1924) to the screen before his time was up. The Man Who Laughs was his second to last film. From his fatherland, Leni brought the expressionist themes of shadow over light – perfect for the genre.
Based on a French novel (by Victor Hugo) much like its predecessors Hunchback and Phantom, the film was a spectacle with a literal cast of thousands. Hugo’s story, adapted by J. Grubb Alexander also of Svengali and a master scenarist of the silent days, tells the tale of Gwynplaine, a man scarred by Gypsies to wear a permanent grin because of his father’s treachery.
Originally meant for Lon Chaney because of the monsterous make-up required for the part, the actor unfortunately could not get out of his contract or his hectic schedule to do it. Director Leni turned instead to his homeland, and actor Conrad Veidt. While probably best known as Major Strasser in Casablanca, the role that won him Gwynplaine was that of the frightening somnambulistic slave Caesare in the surreal German horror flick The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Easily Veidt slides into the role of Gwynplaine as a proper replacement for Chaney.
The make-up for Gwynplaine required hooks to turn the corners of Veidt’s mouth upward into the horrific grin. This apparatus forced the film to be silent rather than sound, which was just coming into its own at the time, for Veidt could not speak while wired up. This was designed by artist Jack Pierce who would later produce the familiar visage of the Frankenstein monster for Universal a few years later. The German-influenced expressionist sets of The Man Who Laughs also prove a precursor as they were devised by Charles D. Hall, later to work on both Frankenstein and Dracula.
It should be noted that the ghastly grimace of Gwynplaine was Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane’s inspiration for the Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker, years later in 1940. The Joker’s pasty-face reminicient of the make-up of the silents, and his horrid grin was also permanent, although caused by an acid chemical bath, like many of the caped crusader’s rogues gallery. Many are the scene where you can see the Joker in Gwynplaine’s image.
Gwynplaine himself is not anything like the Joker, or even evil. Like the Phantom or the Hunchback, he is a sympathetic creature, misinterpreted by his deformity as a monster. And like those characters, and the master Lon Chaney who portrayed them, Conrad Veidt does most of his acting through his eyes, an amazing feat.
In an unfortunate glitch, look for the telephone wires in 17th century England. But on the good side, don’t miss the pretty and innocent Mary Philbin, America’s next sweetheart at the time, and the always evil (even when she’s good) Olga Baclanova as the Duchess, in the highlights of their careers in my opinion, and of course the powerful performance of Conrad Veidt in the title role. The film, a true lost classic, should not be missed.