Monday, 28 December 2015
THE GOLEM: HOW HE CAME INTO THE WORLD (1920). Later in the same year of THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI came this equally classic German horror film from fellow Expressionist Paul Wegener. THE GOLEM: WIE ER IN DIE WELT KAM was the third in a trilogy of Golem films made by and starring Wegener as the titular creature. The bad news is that this is the only one that survived; the good news is that it’s regarded as the best of the three as after the original THE GOLEM in 1915, the second, THE GOLEM AND THE DANCING GIRL (1917) was a comic parody of the mythology.
The same distorted sense of perspective in the environment is used as in DR CALIGARI, here applied to medieval Prague, its distinctive ghetto sets designed by architect Hans Poelzig. The houses almost teeter top-heavily over the streets to add to the uneasy oppressive air of the world in which the Golem is urgently summoned. The plot is told in five chapters to add to its dramatic weight. The atmospheric focus on evil spirits in the plot is also a perfect vehicle for Expressionist ideas. The name Golem in Hebrew literally means ‘shapeless thing’. In Jewish mythology it describes a clay figure brought to life by magic whenever the Jewish people are under threat. In the opening of the film, the people’s elder and sorcerer, Rabbi Loew, foretells from the stars “a terrible misfortune will befall the Jewish community”. Sure enough, the Holy Roman Emperor issues a decree the next day expelling all Jews from the Ghetto.
In Chapter Two, while the bringer of bad tidings, the Knight Florian, begins privately wooing Loew’s daughter Miriam, Loew desperately seeks salvation in the Occult. He first builds a huge clay human statue of their intended saviour as described in his tome Necromancie. Then, with the help of his assistant, he uses a spell to summon “the crucial life-giving word from the dread spirit Astaroth”, an eerily effective severed head that breathes smoke curls and an animated secret word. The invocation scene is strikingly achieved with a ring of fire surrounding Loew and balls of flame circling him as he chants. It is an image that will reoccur in other Expressionist movies such as the calling up of Mephistopheles in FAUST and the pulsing rings of electricity activating Rotwang’s robot Maria in METROPOLIS.
Loew’s password is then placed into an amulet called ‘a Shem’ to be fixed into the Golem’s chest. While ever he wears it, he will be activated to do his master’s bidding. Loew tests it, causing his servant to take his first lumbering steps. Wegener’s Golem is an imposing sight. His tunic is padded and encircled with an enormously wide belt to accentuate his build. He wears huge cumbersome boots to add height - one of many details that would influence James Whale and Boris Karloff in their 1931 FRANKENSTEIN - and under long hair that is cut to squarely frame his face he has the solemn, forbidding expression of a disapproving mother-in-law.
Chapter Three, ‘A strange servant’ sees the Golem fetching water from the well for a villager before being sent on his first official task, the somewhat ignominious job of going down to the shops. Without wishing to be sexist, this does add to the strangely masculo-feminine air he has; the hero of the Jewish people’s grave demeanour does look comically incongruous standing in the store with his basket and list.
It isn’t long though before the Golem is allowed a more befitting role, beginning with instilling fear in the court when he is presented to the Emperor at the Rose Festival. The ruler asks for even more impressive feats from Rabbi Loew, who obliges by projecting images of the Wandering Jew, Ahasuerus onto a wall. Unfortunately the sight of the mythical leader causes the court to laugh. Suddenly the palace begins to quake around them in retribution, and the Emperor is forced to swear freedom for the Jewish people in return for the Golem protecting him from the crumbling ceiling.
Chapter Four opens with an unnerving hint at what is to come when the Rabbi decides to de-activate his now unnecessary slave. The Golem’s angry self-preservation almost prevents him doing so. Loew is warned that a portentous planetary alignment may mean“…the lifeless clay will turn against its master intent on deceit and destruction”. His plan to smash the inert clay to pieces with a hammer is interrupted by a call to the synagogue to give thanks. Outside, the resulting relief from expulsion transforms the unwitting townsfolk into joyous celebration. This however is not shared by Loew’s assistant whose secret thwarted feelings for Miriam are enraged at overhearing her canoodling with Knight Florian. He in turn transforms the Golem into a battering ram of murderous intent at his behest to break down the door and cart Florian off to be tossed mercilessly from the roof of Loew’s study. Now that the statue has a taste for mayhem instead of supermarket bargains, he sets the room ablaze and runs amok in the town, dragging Miriam away by the hair.
The thanksgiving prayers of Rabbi Loew are interrupted at the top of Chapter Five by the cowardly assistant warning him that his house is burning down. Once Miriam is safe, the self-serving young sneak asks her forgiveness, contenting himself that “As no-one suspects anything I shall remain silent. Miriam’s PTSD seems to have her overlook his less eligible qualities.
So that the Golem is not merely rendered as a monolithic slab devoid of shade, we see Wegener react in simple delight in tender moments at the climax. Earlier, a girl of the court had triggered a child-like wonder in him by waving the scent of a rose under his nose. After tearing open the impressive wooden town gates, he is besieged by innocent flower-bedecked children who crawl over him unafraid. (Such beguiling poignancy certainly must have influenced the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN). In their curiosity, they pluck the amulet from his chest. Immediately he collapses neutralised to the ground, allowing the now-safe townsfolk to carry him back. The final potent image is an overlaid Star of David emblazoned upon the screen…
Sunday, 27 December 2015
German Expressionism was a re-energising and influential movement across the arts in Germany beginning around 1905 with the Brücke artists' group in Dresden comprising architectural students Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel and Fritz Blehl. They shunned the stuffy bourgeois conventions of society and the art world. Other artists and theatre creatives were inspired by the movement, creating a vibrant community of synergy between the arts labelled ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ where architects might write plays, or an artist may compose music. Expressionism was a backlash against the rigid conformity of a country ruled by the Kaisers, which then flowered during the following Weimar Republic. In films like THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI, obedience and respect to regulations was rejected by showing a society of artists, bohemian free-thinkers, those who gave free reign to their passions and anxieties instead of becoming obedient automatons (as also blatantly depicted in another masterpiece, METROPOLIS).
Expressionism was a contradictory philosophy – it was intellectual yet drenched with strong emotion, critical of society yet keen to create a holistic alternative and mistrustful of the emerging mechanisation of new technology. One of the great paradoxes was that for a group opposed to the political brainwashing of the populace as World War One broke out, many advocates of the movement saw it as a great opportunity to erase the old values of an old world and willingly volunteered to fight.
Across the arts, German writer Nietsche introduced the inspirational concept of the ‘superman’ and Richard Wagner’s music harked back to mythical ages of Germanic gods and heroes for stimulation. As the twentieth century began, Freud was influencing the arts with his theories of how our subconscious influences us, and in identifying society’s preoccupations with sex and death he pinpointed themes that would emerge in the films of the Expressionist era.
As the madness of war took its toll in Europe, the backlash amongst artists was the catalyst for the anarchic Dadaist movement in Zurich led by Cabaret Voltaire (1916), and Expressionist painter Conrad Felixmüller helped create the Expressionist Working Group Dresden to engage artists in politically active work reflecting pacifism and socialist ideas. Art that argued for anti-war ideals was not simply a soft expression of peaceful opposition. On canvas, stage and then film, German art creatives dealt in themes of anxiety and terror, reflecting the fears of a nation torn apart as their military suffered the ravages of defeat.
Remarkably for horror film fans, many of the future prime movers of Expressionist horror cinema were cultivated under one roof - Berlin’s Deutches Theater - under the legendary leadership of writer/producer Max Reinhardt. Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss (both later to star in THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI), Paul Wegener (director and lead in THE GOLEM films and with Krauss in THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE) as well as Emil Jannings (Mephistopheles in FAUST for famed director F.W. Murnau) all worked on plays under Reinhardt before moving into cinema.
Silent film was an ideal medium for Expressionists to expand into because its potential for visual impact could incorporate the emotive, distorted shapes and structures already developed by painters and theatre artists of the movement. This unsettling atmosphere could then be reinforced by the external performances of the actors, embodying the human fears and anxieties of the time in passionate, stylised declamatory acting that delivered staccato bursts of dialogue and a jerky personal or group-choreographed physicality (THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI’s Cesare or METROPOLIS’s robot Maria and drone-like crowd scenes for example).
By 1918, post-war Germany had become a society whose old reliable structures had crumbled. The poor were ravaged by diseases such as Spanish Flu. The Bourgeoisie were no longer insulated by their money - those who hadn’t invested in War Bonds found their wealth decimated by crippling inflation. What could offer them comfort or pleasure? The new entertainment mass medium of motion pictures, one of the few successful industries to emerge from the rubble of conflict. By 1918 Germany had 4,000 cinemas – a million people went to them every day. As in all modern societies, when hardship strikes, films offer transportation to realms of fantasy and escapism. This was a boom time for German cinema, building vast new studios with ambitions to compete with Hollywood. The movie-going public embraced Expressionism, clearly stated in hugely popular films such as THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI, THE GOLEM and NOSFERATU. They agreed with its depictions of released passions, bizarre themes and environments, all reflecting a time of upheaval and chaos in society.
This atmosphere of openness to new ideas potentially had darker consequences. In his book, ‘From Caligari to Hitler’, renowned Weimar era film critic Siegfried Kracauer argued that iconic characters of Expressionist film such as Caligari, Mabuse and Nosferatu foreshadowed the rise of Nazism in the new Germany. They were sinister predatory figures, preying on society’s subconscious needs to fulfil their own desires, much as Hitler would seduce the country.
THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (1920).
(2014 ‘Masters of Cinema’ Bluray HD Restored version)
This silent film is regarded by most as the classic representative film of the Expressionist era in German cinema. It’s an intense combination of themes, atmosphere, styles of performance and design that illustrate memorably what the movement was aiming to reflect in Germany at the time.
One of the alluring qualities of the film is that the narrative is open to different interpretations. DR CALIGARI deals strongly with reality and illusion, sanity and madness and it is up to the viewer to make their own determination as to which of the main characters has a believable grasp on either.
We open with Francis (Friedrich Feher), the narrator, who is sitting outside with an old man and upon seeing a young woman, Jane, in a trance-state (Lil Dagover) this triggers him to begin telling his story in flashback , focusing on her as his fiancé. By the end of his tale, we cannot be entirely sure that he is a credible guide, particularly as he recounts events he cannot possibly have been privy to. Nonetheless Francis describes going to a local fair with a close friend Alan. They josh about competing for her attention. Elsewhere, the mysterious Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) applies for a permit to perform his act involving a somnambulist assistant. The town clerk is rude and later is found murdered.
Francis and his friend attend the sideshow, wherein Cesare the sleepwalker (Conrad Veidt) awakens in his upstanding coffin and allows the audience to ask him questions. Alan naively asks him “How long will I live?” Cesare chillingly answers that he has until dawn, prompting the young man to react in a mad mixture of delight and shock. Later that night, sure enough Alan is murdered in his bed. The resulting police investigation collars a knife-wielding attempted murdered (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who denies any connection with Alan’s homicide.
Francis spies on Caligari’s home thinking he can see the sleeping Cesare, who in ‘reality’ is at Jane’s home. He creeps menacingly toward her bed, attacks her quasi-sexually and then abducts her through the peculiarly sloping streets. He leaves Jane and then fall down dead, seemingly from the excesses of such unusual exertion. Francis realises the caught criminal now has a water-tight alibi in his cell.
He and the police discover that the sleeping version of Cesare was a cunning dummy. Caligari flees them, with Francis pursuing him to an asylum where he discovers Caligari is the institute’s director and has become obsessed with a mediaeval Italian sorcerer named Caligari, who’d used a somnambulist to commit murder at his command. Francis believes that in the throes of identification with the mystic via a disembodied insistent voice, the modern Caligari (we never know his real name) had co-opted a patient into becoming the Cesare we have seen. Caligari screams “I must become Caligari!”, the hallucinatory order he had been following, and upon being shown Cesare’s corpse, he violently attacks his staff before being subdued and admitted as a patient in his own facility.
The ending is where the film plays its trump card of ambiguity. Back in the present day, we realise that Francis is actually a patient himself. Sharing his day-room is Jane under the illusion she is a queen and a very much alive, though still hypnotised, Cesare. Francis assaults the director and is taken away straitjacketed to the same cell that Caligari had, thus rendring the plot cyclical. The director assured himself that he can cure Francis, now he understands the patient’s mania. Which of them is truly the insane one now?
The script, attributed to Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer, was thought to be best served by a fantasy style of visuals rather than naturalistic. Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, celebrated painters and set designers, applied the talent they were noted for as contributors to the Expressionist magazine Der Sturm. All the backgrounds and sets we see in DR CALIGARI are unreal, as though built as backdrops in a theatre production. Houses totter, very few straight sides are used where a sloping angle may curve in a window frame or a street. This creates an eerie, otherworldly edge precisely designed to set us off-kilter and view the scenes as possibly unreal.
To create a spell-binding air of unsettling tension, director Robert Weine (a veteran of silent star Henny Porten’s films) ensured that the actors played in a passionate, stark, at times unsubtle level often marked as Expressionist. Krauss as Caligari has a crazed stare and a wonderful full intensity. Veidt as the sylph-like alien Cesare moves through the film in a truly hypnotic mode, most vividly when he approaches Jane’s sleeping form. He also has penetrating eyes that bore into the audience such as when he first opens them before the show crowd. The full effect of his piercing glare is enhanced by the stunning 2014 HD restoration transfer which highlights all details marvellously and must be credited for the brilliance of its painstaking repair work on the surviving print. Feher creates a sympathetic and naturalistic portrayal of Francis, which is vital in earning our sympathy for his ultimate position.
Cesare (and even Caligari himself) is a forerunner of other perceived monsters in horror film lore like Nosferatu, Frankenstein’s monster and the Golem who are equally worthy of sympathy. Whilst Kracauer felt they were cinematic warnings of future malevolent domination of the masses, they are also arguably in the grip of forces they themselves cannot control. The Golem’s need to create destruction and Cesare’s murderous actions are all on behalf of an outside master who brings a being to life solely to serve as their weapon. Nosferatu’s insatiable lust for blood is an addiction that may qualify as the same irrepressible force acting on its slave - exerting as much misery on the doer as any perception that they are relishing monstrous harm, thus reducing them to the status of a poignant victim.
In playing with our point of view and allegiances in its plot, THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI is a disturbing allegory that in the end proves nothing is what it seemed in post-war Germany. Society’s authority figures and morality could no longer be relied upon in this new world order. Tragically, as the saying goes, if you don’t have a plan for your life someone will make you fit into theirs – and in the rise of Hitler that vacuum was filled with unimaginably atrocious consequences. Happily, the movie’s positive legacy is that after it resonated tremendously with audiences of the time, in later decades it has since become one of the first cult horror movies to gain a huge fanbase.
Thursday, 24 December 2015
HAXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES (1922). This Swedish-Danish documentary is a famous, possibly infamous, examination of witchcraft throughout history, focusing in detail upon the rituals of its practitioners as well as the equally macabre techniques of the church persecutors who would expose and punish them. Benjamin Christensen was a Danish actor whose interest in the occult led him to make the film. It exists in both a 76-minute and 104-minute version. The only notable difference I could discern in comparing the longer version is a greater emphasis on torture instruments and the possessed frolicking of nuns (Ken Russell had seen this before making THE DEVILS?),
HAXAN is highly-entertaining and wryly amusing at time, not necessarily on purpose. It is largely made up of dramatized scenes to illustrate the Middle Ages setting of much of the evidence, but is given documentary credibility in the 1968 release by a relaxed narration from William Burroughs (himself no stranger to controversy) coupled with a slightly anachronistic free-form jazz score, heavy on the percussion.
The dramatic sequences are well-made with strong production values. Unsurprisingly it was the most expensive silent film in Swedish history. We see witches going about their foul brewing, concocting a love potion for a maid to encourage a clergyman: “Boiled at midnight with a pigeon’s heart and cat shit”. From such unpromising material, the fat friar is soon pursuing the servant girl in amorous frenzy around the woods.
There is heavy and diverting use of various types of special effects in the film – from a striking stop-motion devil-bird pecking through a wooden door, double-exposure photography to show witches riding their broomsticks through the sky, a splendid horned devil make-up for Christensen himself as Beelzebub and even a sequence showing one alleged witch giving birth to two unsavoury gargoyles.
The early scenes focus mostly on contemporary engravings and paintings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The lion’s share of the later structure is given over to acted sequences of the inquisitions of suspected witches and the behaviour of the monks and nuns. We get to witness the kind of self-serving logic during interrogation so lovingly spoofed in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL - the water-test- whereby a woman’s purity is tested by taking her out to the deepest part of the lake. If she floats, she is a witch. If she sinks, she is innocent, God be praised. It begs the question of whether the ‘sinking’ is just that or akin to drowning but nevertheless is not as specious as the even worse methods of proving witchcraft on display.
We are shown close-ups of some of the horrendous torture instruments used to encourage a suspect’s memory, such as a spiked locked collar (with spikes on the inside too) as well as a fearsome set of tongs, perfect for loosening a confession, amongst others. After enduring instruments such as these, confessions would no doubt flow like sacramental wine, and with about as much veracity as a session of drinking it would produce. Mary, the Seamstress, a character put to the inquisition spills a torrent of beans and who can blame her?
If you think that such travesties of justice aren’t quite conclusive enough to win the case for the ‘true faith’ against the Devil, there is the application of another perverted level of self-supporting argument. A menacing monk threatens a suspect with a second front of attack: “In the name of the Trinity, if you are not a witch, shed tears”. Because she cannot cry instantly on command, behold, she must be one of Satan’s servants! If however she can, fear not, there is a ready explanation that still books her a fatal punishment. Beelzebub’s witches can induce fake tears by rubbing their eyes “with a malignant herb”. Yes indeed, when it comes to an innocent damsel betting against the House of God, just like in the casino, the House always wins. As if to compound the rigged game, there is a shot from a book engraving of a mob of inquisitors called ‘After the Interrogation’. You can tell it’s afterwards - the suspect lies dead on the floor.
To be fair, if such a thing is possible, we see that the monks are not just sadists. They are also masochists. In-house fears of possession within the monastery cause monks to beg each other to lash demons from their bodies. “Oh brother, why have you stopped?” pleads one clergyman, afraid that his awful resulting back scarring still isn’t protection enough. Over in the nunnery, the ladies aren’t faring much better, the nuns transformed into feverish frenzied subjects, flagellating themselves with spiked straps.
As the travelling band of witch-finders ride off in search of some more dubious profit, HAXAN then enters its last, least satisfying section where Christensen attempts to find parallels between modern maladies and psychoanalysis, and ancient witchcraft. His argument is confusing, positing something to do with the vulnerable potential victim of today giving themselves over to the unhealthy influence of famous artists and doctors in the same way as witchcraft suspects were easily led by inquisitors. He also mentions in passing that there is some link between sleep-walkers and those who are possessed, which is surely of no real help to those unfortunates plagued by somnambulism. Where I could feel an argument possibly made is a near-end scene where an esteemed clinical expert may be inducing in a potential patient the suggestion of a condition that results in her coincidental staying at his expensive resort – that water-tight logic again? “It’s as if a mysterious force were driving me to steal things in shops”, she recalls in wonder.
Nevertheless, overall HAXAN is well-worth seeing. It’s informative and ghoulishly entertaining for those with an interest in the field, even if many probably know much of what is recounted…
Tuesday, 22 December 2015
DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (1920). This fourth version based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ was released through Paramount and starred the highly-regarded stage actor John Barrymore as Jekyll and his bestial counterpoint. Barrymore was known as ‘the Great Profile’ for his screen handsomeness but for his hugely-acclaimed theatre HAMLET was dubbed ‘the greatest living American tragedian’. He was part of the distinguished Drew and Barrymore acting dynasties whose bloodline has continued to the present day with busy screen actor Drew Barrymore. It was after his run as Shakespeare’s Dane that Barrymore quit the theatre for a long time, preferring to work in film.
DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE was one (well, two) of his earliest screen roles made back in the silent era. It was filmed in New York in the day-time while at night he was appearing on stage in THE JEST. The film opens with a quoted theme of self-determinism that “…what we most want to be - we are”. The film, as the novella, posits that if we have a baser nature, and the desire to express it, it must not be denied expression. Barrymore is an urbane Henry Jekyll, a scientist possessed of an insufferably good nature according to Sir George Carew (Brandon Hirst), the somewhat unfairly suspicious father to his fiancé Millicent played by Martha Mansfield. Carew argues that: “A man cannot destroy the savage in him by denying its impulses. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it”. This inadvertently reveals more about him than his future son-in-law if one thinks about it, but no matter. The provocative discussion and the sexy gyrations of Nita Naldi on stage stir up ponderings in Jekyll that soon have him into his silk dressing gown and out of his comfort zone making a flask of steaming serum in his laboratory. He is obsessed with the idea of dual identities being allowed separate freedom: "Wouldn't it be marvellous if the two natures in man could be separated - housed in different bodies?
One draught of Potion Number One and he’s transformed into his buried evil alter ago - Mr Hyde.
Barrymore excels in the Hyde scenes. Here manages his metamorphosis almost entirely by physically changing his expression and assuming a hunched, monstrous bearing. The only real augmentation is the use of double-exposure photography to show his fingers and nails elongating – aside from later where we see his exposed bare head raised to a grotesque point . His cross-eyed anguish is a little comical during his trial-run ‘birth pains’ but after this, his Hyde is a bravura sinister brute. He slopes off to the local music-hall, a Dickensian den of ne’er-do-wells, sneering lasciviously under a long mane of stringy hair. “Set forth upon a sea of license”, he embarks upon a campaign of vice, most of which is only suggested, protected as the delicate sensibilities of a 1920 audience were even before the Hays Code. Eventually, the acts on stage don’t prove to be as depraved as the ones festering in his mind, so in search of the harder stuff this Burlington Bertie of depravity soon shows up banging his gnarled cudgel on the door of a Chinese opium den. There we see a pitiable casualty of the pipe, ferociously scratching his skin, imagining he is being consumed by red ants.
Jekyll’s consumption of the catalyst serum gradually intensifies to the point where he turns into Hyde without even taking it. A hair-raisingly effective symbolic nightmare sequence illustrates this - a giant, hideously human-headed spider crawls across his bedroom floor, mounts his four-poster and makes for his face, fading as he metamorphosises into his demonic twin in his sleep.
Whilst temporarily under control as Jekyll, his prospective father-in-law demands to know about his unsavoury public association with Hyde, unwitting as to their true connection. Sir George threatens to stop the intended wedding unless his intentions are revealed. This invasion of privacy infuriates Jekyll: "What right have you to question me - you who first tempted me?" He no longer recognises any responsibility for the danger he is unleashing on London. This rage triggers another Hyde transformation, after which Hyde bludgeons Sir George to death with his cudgel.
Returned to Jekyll mode, the good doctor is horrified to discover there is no more of his drug available to buy in the whole city. (This is a perplexing moment in the plot as surely Jekyll was concocting it from ingredients? If not, what were people using it for in its ready-made state? Hopefully it contained the kind of normally fatuous ‘Do not drink’ warning label we find on modern printer cartridges!). Nevertheless, Jekyll is now forced to hide in his lab out of fear of uncontrolled Hyde rampages. Unfortunately the visiting Millicent will not leave him in his hour of need. The pressure on the doctor reaches transformation point, but he manages to down poison taken from the ring of Nita Naldi’s dancer character just as the effects take hold and dies sacrificing himself to save his betrothed. Millicent is heartbroken. Jekyll’s friends and his butler Poole conclude that Hyde had killed Jekyll, not knowing the truth of how right they are…
DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE is an excellent adaptation of the novella for thrill-seeking horror fans of the bygone era and now. The London sets have a cramped, atmospheric foggy look denoting a decent studio budget spent, the performances are good and Barrymore accounts himself well. The material also serves him well as the title cards have a much more literary quality inspired by Stevenson’s original text than a typical horror film, adding to the quality lustre of the production.
Barrymore was assured of an easy transition later to sound by virtue of his classically-trained voice. What he could not perhaps have predicted was the gradual decline of his career later in life as his alcohol addiction sabotaged his work, reducing him to playing parodies of his real life problems in such admittedly renowned films as TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) and struggling with multiple marriages and financial issues before his sad death at age 60…
Lon Chaney was voted the top male box office star by theatre exhibitors for the two consecutive years of 1928 to 1929 – an even more impressive achievement when you consider that by that time talking pictures had begun to render silent films virtually obsolete. (The same accolade was given to silent screen female star Clara Bow).
Chaney was very resistant to move over into ‘talkies’. Many silent era actors feared that sound would expose their vocal shortcomings. In his case it seemed to be as much about giving up some of his mystery, and let’s not forget his unique label of the ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’, a badge of pride that owes itself to expressing character solely through his physical talents. He needn’t have worried though. His voice test passed with flying colours – Lon’s background in theatre may have helped with diction and developing a rich voice that would have been missing in those whose pre-screen experience hadn’t given their natural voices the benefit of training . Vocally he has the deep, rough-hewn authoritative sound reminiscent of his contemporary Walter Long - as well as looking not unlike him. This match between his voice and the brooding masculinity of his screen personas was a blessing. There are those who couldn’t make the transition.
THE UNHOLY THREE (1930). Lon’s fears were overcome by Universal deciding to make his first talking role a remake of 1927’s THE UNHOLY THREE. The familiarity of the material helped, as well as the shortened development time by using much of the original silent version’s script. There was also the encouragement offered to him of a $50,000 bonus promised by MGM on completion. As it turned out, Chaney needed every enticement available to get through the shooting day. By now he was suffering in secret from the early stages of lung cancer that would shortly take his life after the filming was completed.
THE UNHOLY THREE is a mixture of improvements and failings on the original film. The only returning members of the team were Chaney and Harry Earles as the diminutive Tweedledee. Tod Browning was replaced as director by Jack Conway, owing to the former’s recent flop THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (1929) causing him to leave MGM and go over to Universal. Ironically, part of the problem with the remake is in the reliance on sound. The audio track is muddy, which makes Earles’ and especially Ivan Linow’s dialogue (as Hercules) hard to make out. In Linow’s case, this is exacerbated by his awkward delivery and Latvian accent giving unintentional amusement when he menaces Chaney with the memorable threat: "How would you like to have me suck you one...just for luck?".
There's also the remake version of the huge ape, which unlike the original one, (a trick-photographed real normal-sized ape) was now a blatantly obvious man-in-a-monkey-suit which harks back to the Laurel and Hardy comedies like THE CHIMP, thus providing unintentional amusement.
Lila Lee’s Rosie has some of the ballsy quality of Mae Busch but sorely lacks her vulnerability, coming across as phoney by comparison when she breaks down in melodramatically demonstrated tears at possibly losing Herman (a too-unbelievably sappy Elliot Nugent for her).
Where the sound aspect benefits is in allowing Chaney to show his vocal versatility to match his physical range. In this remake, audiences can now hear him impersonate the genteel old Mrs O’Grady’s falsetto as well as parrots and other voices. Such was his skill at this that he had to sign a legal document as part of publicity to attest that all voices attributed to his character were actually performed by him. The court climax and denouement are also more credible, not only because Chaney takes the witness stand as Mrs O’Grady and is revealed to be really Echo by the prosecution, but also in the aftermath he is on his way to jail when he says goodbye tenderly to Rosie – in the silent version he escapes any consequences by being unconvincingly acquitted.
Chaney’s first talking picture was a success, and as a studio who at first knew nothing about his tragically-advancing cancer. MGM planned a number of follow-on projects. The most intriguing of all was the negotiation between them and Universal to allow him to be loaned out to the latter for what would have been DRACULA (1931). This sadly never came to fruition and may not have been granted anyway due to MGM’s understandable investment in Chaney’s stardom themselves while under contract. If it had, Bela Lugosi’s Broadway success in the role might have been his sole opportunity for fame – and of course there will always be the alluring speculation as to how Chaney would have played the role.
After a short family stay at his beloved log cabin in the Sierra Nevadas, Lon Chaney died in hospital on August 26th 1930. His fame was great enough that all studios observed a moment of silence in his honour. His fans were shocked as most people had not even known of the great actor’s illness.
Over successive decades, Lon Chaney faded somewhat from public memory, apart from compilations which narrowed his reputation somewhat by focusing on his ‘horror’ performances in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. I’d like to close by paying tribute to three elements that have aided in restoring him to prominence and a more truthful view of the range and influence of this supremely talented actor.
MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957). By no means an unflawed film, this is nevertheless a valuable movie biopic that paints a sympathetic and respectful portrait of Chaney as an artist. Cagney is superb in the role, albeit noticeably too old, and yet deftly replicates Chaney’s younger days in variety clowning scenes using his own background as a stage performer. (One noteworthy issue with the film is the contrived ending on Lon’s death-bed where for movie audience sympathy Lon adds ‘Jnr’ to the name on his make-up case before passing it on to his son Creighton. Neither father nor son may have welcomed this in real life as Creighton very unwillingly and much later succumbed to taking Chaney’s professional name out of career desperation).
The stand-out scenes for me are his miraculously healed con-artist in THE MIRACLE MAN, unlocking his ‘crippled’ body in a careful and committed tribute to the spirit of Chaney’s work rather than attempting a slavish copy – and the enjoyable sequence where he sits down and sets to work making himself up to fit the day’s studio call-sheet announcement for a scarred Lascar pirate. I’m sure Chaney would have relished this no-nonsense honouring of his famous work ethic and huge talent.
Secondly, there is Michael F Blake’s colossal life-long research into Lon Chaney’s legacy, the second of whose marvellous books A THOUSAND FACES helped me immensely in background research on Chaney’s life as I watched each of his films. I believe the Cagney film was what may have initially sparked his interest in the actor.
Finally, Mr Blake is a welcome contributor to the terrific documentary LON CHANEY: A THOUSAND FACES (2000 – TCM Movies) narrated by Sir Kenneth Branagh. This is available on social media and also the lovely Masters of Cinema Bluray/DVD release and contains a wealth of knowledge and great use of Chaney’s film clips.
Monday, 21 December 2015
THE UNKNOWN (1927). Another of Lon Chaney’s great performances under Tod Browning’s direction is this short (at fifty minutes), tightly-plotted dark thriller with horror undertones, again dealing with circus folk, themes close to Browning’s heart. It’s essentially a love triangle between three actors in the same travelling troupe in Spain. Chaney is Alonzo the Armless, a knife-thrower without arms who uses the ravishing charms of a very young Joan Crawford as his target, Nanon, in more ways than one, though she is unaware of his longing for her. She is in love with their strong-man act Malabar the Mighty (a somewhat unlikely Norman Kerry) but cannot overcome her deep-seated aversion to being touched by men, traced back to witnessing her father being murdered by a man with two thumbs on the same hand. “I shrink with fear when any man even touches me!”
What the other two also don’t know about Alonzo is that his armlessness is a ruse. He is a fugitive concealing his limbs (and incriminating double thumb) with a tight corset, a secret kept by his crony Cojo (John George). Cojo warns Alonzo that he must not allow Nanon to embrace him again for fear of her feeling his concealed arms.
Chaney is very convincing as a latin-American gypsy, helped by his heavy features and rugged masculinity. His dexterity is also impressive in using his legs to manipulate objects such as a cigarette and a wine glass, albeit with occasional use of doubles. He keeps the character’s emotions bottled up, but we are allowed to see his yearning which grows more acute and uncontrollable as the plot unfolds. Knowing of Nanon’s phobia of being touched, it suddenly occurs to him to make a grisly sacrifice of his real limbs via blackmailing a surgeon into amputating them.
Upon returning, Nanon is pleased to see him but is concerned that he feels noticeably thinner:
“Have you been sick?”
“Have you been sick?”
“No…but I have lost some flesh”.
Before Alonzo can capitalise on his grim sacrifice, he is then dealt the cruellest of blows. He is forced to watch Nanon nestled comfortably in the arms of Malabar, clearly no longer repelled by a man’s caresses. Compounding the awful sight is that Alonzo had counselled Malabar to be bold and take her in his arms. Chaney’s crushed reaction is spellbindingly poignant. His facade of pretend happiness gradually dissolves into frightening, unbridled maniacal laughter. Malabar and Nanon naively believe he is sharing their joy, laughing at life’s unexpected events. They will soon experience one more…
Malabar boasts to Alonzo about his new test-of-strength stunt - holding the reins between two horses galloping in opposite directions on treadmills. If it should go wrong, Malabar cheerfully observes he would risk being torn limb from limb. At the prospect of this, Alonzo’s eyes flash with a macabre light worthy of the evil Hood in THUNDERBIRDS. During the act, in an effectively-staged show sequence by Browning, Nanon whips the horses into an increasing pace, oblivious to the inter-cuts of Alonzo sneakily sabotaging the treadmill speed. His plan to render Malabar as handicapped as he is scuppered by Nanon throwing herself in the path of one of the horses. Alonzo cannot bear to place her in jeopardy and sacrifices himself fatally under the animal’s hooved flailing. Thus the title card sums up that for Alonzo there is “…an end to Hate called Death and for Nanon an end to Hate called Love”.
THE UNKNOWN is a chilling tale well-told and with excellent performances by all three principles. Though he is not entirely suited to the strong-man bearing, Kerry’s chemistry with the beguiling new starlet Joan Crawford is tender and real enough to crucially pain Chaney all the more as a lovelorn loser. Many critics believe that THE UNKNOWN was Browning and Chaney’s best collaboration. It’s hard to know for sure when one considers that their next partnership on the silver screen has been famously lost for decades…
LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927). Otherwise known as THE HYPNOTIST this MGM release can legitimately be claimed as American cinema’s first vampire film, predating Universal’s DRACULA by four years, which makes it all the more tantalising that the film is one of the most sought-after silent movies in the world. To place it in context, it came soon after the ground-breaking first ‘talkie’ THE JAZZ SINGER was released - at a time when silent film had already matured into a medium outgrowing the crude theatrical make-up exaggerating the eyes and mouths of its performers as well as reining in the actors’ emotions more subtly on camera. Ironically, in its star actor’s creation LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT would not hold back on a level of startling make-up amplification to terrify audiences while still staying true to silent film technology.
The story is reminiscent of an Agatha Christie whodunnit but with a definite horror emphasis. All we have to go on as evidence are an extensive collection of photos coupled with title cards in a welcome reconstruction by Rick Schmidlin for TCM’s movie channel , but we can see the depths of Lon Chaney’s commitment to character design. He has a dual role as Edward Burke, an intimidatingly frosty Scotland Yard Inspector and as a terrifying ‘vampyr’ (aka ‘The Man in the Beaver Hat’) who terrorises the supporting characters. The catalyst event is the death of the wealthy head of a family, Roger Balfour. We are meant to presume suicide as the victim left a note, however its brevity is intriguingly unsentimental to say the least: “I have taken my own life. Forgive me, Lucille”. Burke is required to interrogate each suspect’s movements and motives in classic murder-mystery style yet seems to accept this evidence at face value.
Five years later, new tenants seem to have moved into the property. Ghostly apparitions are witnessed by Williams the butler and Smithson the maid (Percy Williams and Polly Moran): “’Oly ‘Enry! The bloomin’ ‘house is ‘aunted!” These are our first teasing shots of Chaney as the vampire figure, accompanied by a young pale female accomplice and a shocking sight he is. Top-hatted and caped as a gentleman, there the comparison with respectable normality ends. He crouches bestially in many shots, a lantern before him, all the better for us to see the demonic glare of his hard-gazing eyes almost penetrating the viewer’s mind. He achieved this effect with circular wire frames lodged into his eye sockets which were tightened before each take. In extreme close-ups the wires can just be made out; nevertheless it is a truly dreadful visage that in other photos looks out at us with heavy-lidded narcolepsy as if fresh-risen from the grave. This stunning look is augmented with an unnerving set of razor-sharp pointed teeth. Together, they are an unforgettable image, as though Mad Hatter comedian Jerry Sadowitz were spliced in a Fly-style scientist’s capsule with a killer shark. Photos of this character have haunted horror film fans like myself for decades for they are truly the stuff of vivid nightmares. “Vampires is what they are!” asserts Smithson.
Burke has been brought back to reopen this cold case, as the ghouls seem to be linked to Balfour’s death. Mention is made that Roger’s body is no longer in his tomb, adding more spine-tingling speculation to the vampiric goings-on. Smithson is terrorised by a spectral visit in the main house by the vampire. Burke is thus persuaded by the frightening effects to change his verdict. He urges Balfour’s young nephew Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel) to place his trust entirely in him and allow himself to be hypnotised. Burke tries to protect the house with “.a drawn sword of sharpest steel and a wreath of tube roses” around the entrance to daughter Lucy Balfour’s room.
Ultimately, it emerges that Burke and the vampire figure are the same person, part of the detective’s labyrinthian plot to force Sir James Hamlin, a friend and neighbour of Balfour’s to reveal himself as the murderer.
It’s perfectly possible that if ever unearthed, LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT might prove a disappointment, particularly after so many decades of mouth-watering elusiveness and speculation. Contemporary reviews and accounts suggest it was not a classic film, citing Browning’s later remake MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935) starring Bela Lugosi and Lionel Barrymore as the better version. However, it was a huge box-office hit for its time, made on a very low relative budget of only $152,000. Moreover, what horror fan could resist another double-shot of Lon Chaney’s awesome versatility – not to mention finally seeing his Man in the Beaver Hat in full unsettling motion at last…?
Saturday, 19 December 2015
Following THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, Lon Chaney’s next film was an inauspicious horror film called THE MONSTER, made for an independent studio outside Universal. It lacked the talent surrounding him to be notable even though its plot sounded inviting, that of a former surgeon of repute who takes over the asylum in which he is an insane patient.
THE UNHOLY THREE (1925). Happily, Universal honoured the promise they made before PHANTOM, and gave him a one-year contract with options that would return him to worthy projects under the wise mentorship of Irving Thalberg. The first title under this arrangement was to be another of Lon’s masterpieces – the circus folk crime thriller THE UNHOLY THREE – directed once again by the masterful Tod Browning whose affinity for the material went back to his childhood. Browning ran away to join a circus at age sixteen and submerged himself in the life of circuses and carnivals. He worked as a barker and a performer, at one time being buried alive under the stage name ‘the Living Corpse’. Like his later famous horror film FREAKS, in THE UNHOLY THREE Browning focused on the lives of circus people, but whereas the former would earn sympathy for those regarded as abnormal, in this film the performers use their unusual natural talents for criminal purposes.
Chaney plays Echo, a gifted ventriloquist who teams up with two of his fellow sideshow actors to rob people. His cohorts are future John Ford/John Wayne regular Victor McLaglen as strongman ‘Hercules’, and the midget Tweedledee played by adult Harry Earles (who went on to appear vividly in FREAKS and as one of the Munchkins in THE WIZARD OF OZ). The ‘fourth member’ of the gang is the formidable man’s woman Mae Busch, who later became such an intimidatingly great foil for Laurel and Hardy. She is Echo’s pickpocket girlfriend Rosie. Together they hatch elaborate con tricks to set up robberies. By selling pets to rich people from their store, (in this case a parrot which only talks when Echo is present to throw his voice), they set up a premise for visiting the buyer when a complaint is made that the bird no longer speaks once brought home. Echo poses as the convincingly genteel little old lady Mrs O’Grady (Rosie’s mother) and Tweedledee is disguised as her baby grandson. This adds a sense of deceptive fun to the caper - especially as Earles has an amusing touch of the W .C. Fields curmudgeon about him which he buries believably in his Babygro. Once at the buyer’s home, the three discover the owner has a valuable ruby necklace which they covet.
Unbeknownst to Echo, Hercules and Tweedledee go ahead and commit the robbery without him, murdering the owner and injuring his toddler daughter. This enrages Echo as, hard-bitten and ruthless though he appears, he would never have taken a gun to a robbery to avoid just such awful consequences. A memorably suspenseful scene tales place when a detective interviews the ‘adult’ twosome, during which Tweedledee secretes the necklace in a toy elephant. The policeman hears the rattling and almost opens the elephant but his attention is misdirected by Hercules.
The gang plant the jewellery in the room of Hector, Rosie’s bookish ‘boob’ fiancé (a nice turn by Matt Moore). Rosie is kidnapped by the boys for fear of her spilling the beans on them. More potential double-crosses rear up among the thieves, between Tweedledee and Hercules and then a suggestion by Hercules to Rosie. This results in the midget letting loose their large pet ape upon him, but Tweedledee is strangled by the strongman before the ape can get him.
Rosie pleads with Echo to free Hector, in return vowing to stay with him and never see her fiancé again. We then witness a terrific court-room climax with Chaney writhing in mental anguish as he attempts to find a way to get Hector off the hook without incriminating himself. Finally, his unlikely conscience strikes again and he uses his ventriloqual talent to confess while Hector silently mouths for him on the witness stand. Both men are equally acquitted on the grounds that the actual perpetrators are now dead. While Rosie makes to honour her agreement with Echo, he is shrewd and kind enough to recognise that her heart belongs to Hector and releases her to go after him with no ill-will and a touching farewell spoken via his doll.
THE UNHOLY THREE is a wonderfully satisfying film, not in the horror genre but with enough dark plotting and suspense to be worthy of Hitchcock. It contains a great central performance of villainy with a heart of gold from Chaney, another in his powerful gallery of men who sacrifice all for an unrequited love as well as a dual role portraying an elderly lady - but also there is revelatory playing from Mae Busch. If like me, you only know her work as the frosty dragon wife or mistress to Stan and Ollie, here she reveals a tender vulnerability especially in the moving scene where she breaks down at the thought of losing Hector and confesses her guilty lifestyle to him.
Tod Browning also found the film to be a great career move for him. His alcoholism had almost ruined him before Thalberg trusted his talent enough to give him a chance to redeem himself with this story. FREAKS would consolidate his return in 1932.
TELL IT TO THE MARINES (1926) Amongst Lon Chaney’s other highlights in his new home at Universal was this remarkable U.S. Marine tale, famous for proving to all that Chaney didn’t need elaborate make-up to create an unforgettable role. Here he plays Sgt O’Hara, the very model of the tough Drill Sergeant who bullies rookie wise-guy recruit ‘Skeet’ Burns (an excellent William Haines) into shape from a ne’er-do-well into a man, along the way revealing that under that granite exterior is a good hearted man who loves his platoon and would do anything for them. Chaney deftly switches between the motivating tyrant and a softer side with Burns' nurse sweetheart (Eleanor Boardman). Every Chaney fan should see this film to appreciate his awesome range as a straight dramatic actor not simply a genre star.
Directed confidently by George W Hill (who went on to have huge hits with THE BIG HOUSE and MIN AND BILL), this was the first film to gain co-operation from the U.S. Marine Corps. Many later films would be refused such assistance owing to portrayals of the military that were not ultimately favourable, however TELL IT TO THE MARINES was so glowing a tribute to the soldiers that Chaney was the first actor to be granted honorary membership of the Corps – an honour of which he was very proud.
Thursday, 17 December 2015
In 1924, while Lon Chaney waited for Universal to finish preparing THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, he wasted no time and meanwhile chose to appear HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, a project the studio baited him with by promising, according to Chaney’s wife Hazel, that if it did well he would be in line for a long-term contract with them. This was no potboiler though. The resulting film ended up being one of his finest and a hugely favourable hit for his career. Lon plays Paul Beaumont, a scientist cuckolded in love and robbed in his profession who joins a circus where the cruelty of the title abuse he has already literally suffered becomes his purpose in the ring as an ultimately self-sacrificing clown. One of the extras incidentally was Bela Lugosi – three years before he would take Broadway then movir horror fans by storm as Dracula…
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)
(‘Masters of Cinema’ restored 2013 Bluray version)
Once filming on HE WHO GETS SLAPPED was done, Chaney turned his laser focus to work on his customary self-created make-up for the title role in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. It was well worth the time he spent crafting it as the Phantom’s look became one of the most famous Hollywood ‘monster’ roles - and partly inspired Batman artist Bob Kane in creating the face of the Joker.
There had already been script delays and the exacting construction of intricate sets built for PHANTOM included the superb opera house interior haunted by its resident proprietorial tormentor and the maze of corridors and cellars described in Gaston Leroux’s original novel. Director Rupert Julian was brought on board as a reward for having finished MERRY-GO-ROUND after Von Stroheim was fired. Julian reportedly antagonised many of his team and crucially Chaney, which meant that their cameraman was forced to act as a go-between foe them on set. A huge casting search for the leading lady, ingénue Christine Daae, a’ la THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME was staged, quite possibly literally for publicity as the chosen actress was Mary Philbin who’d just appeared in Julian’s last film.
PHANTOM’s appeal and strength lies entirely in Lon Chaney’s performance as the disfigured Erik, essentially the world’s most pro-active opera critic. The other actors do their best but fail to really register: Norman Kerry as Raoul displays another of his trademark wax moustache collection and does have at least have a nice quality of stillness. Mary Philbin’s Christine is very beautiful, none more so than as an angel in an early opera scene, but lacks range. The actors playing the management who foolishly ignore Erik’s demands for Christine to be the new prima donna chuckle along amiably, Stadtler and Waldorf style from their audience box.
Chaney though is a revelation. We are intrigued by Erik before we see him as he is conveyed entirely through effective use of shadows by Julian, but on appearing to Christine, confessing his all-consuming love for her from afar and desire to catapult her Svengali-like to fame as his muse, he is a rich and memorable presence. He wears a plastic face mask (eerily reminiscent of the Autons from classic DOCTOR WHO) that obscures all but his mouth, shrouded by a thin band of silk, and crucially his dark, soulful eyes that bore through the viewer. In making his first play for Christine’s affection face-to-face, he plays notes of sensitivity and kindness. Chaney’s talent for character channelled through physicality is striking here as he conveys expression through his hands to compensate for his facial impassiveness, for example in the way he indicates his bedroom with unfurling fingers.
By showing us and Christine Erik’s tender side, it adds all the more horrific contrast to his cruelty and bitterness. When she cannot resist removing his mask, he is unprepared; so unfortunately is she, for the disfigured visage underneath is a classic shock moment. Erik grabs her by the hair and with a frightening gesture of triumph forces her to look on his ugliness. Chaney’s make-up is awfully effective - his face a piggishly-nosed skull, with sunken tragic eyes, high cheekbones and rotten teeth
In the specially-restored colour sequences for the 2013 Bluray, that nightmarish face sears itself into your memory. He burns with sorrow and demonic rage, perched like a crimson-swathed gargoyle on the statue to observe Christine and Raoul’s romance secretly conducted against his sworn promise. The vivid red of these found scenes is tremendous, allowing us to see the grandeur of Erik’s entrance to the Bal de Masque as the Red Death sporting a blood-red cape, a skull party mask and a red hat-plume on parade before the other attendees. Although Erik is a Machiavellian manipulator behind the scenes, he knows how to make an entrance.
Chaney also knew how to make an exit. At the climax, as the mob descends on Erik in the depths of the Paris sewers, he manages a bravura final flourish. Holding his right hand aloft, fist closed, he warns the frightened crowd away as if holding a grenade poised to detonate. Then, knowing that it is ultimately futile, he holds the hand out, exposing that it is empty but roaring with triumphant mockery as the hordes envelop him. This ranks as one of the most exhilarating and strangely upbeat horror film deaths in movie history.
PHANTOM had a troubling history on its release. After initial preview screenings fed back an over-use of suspense, the studio did not have the courage to fully release the film as it was. Instead they tinkered with the structure, adding new scenes to forcibly inject comedy which didn’t belong. Audiences noticed this so again the film was cut and then released once more. In watching the final version, there is evidence of scenes that seem truncated but this in no way diminishes that all-important central performance. With THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Lon Chaney had now cemented his reputation among the first rank of Hollywood’s greatest actors.
Monday, 14 December 2015
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) was the part of a lifetime for Lon Chaney, an ideal one for an actor justly acclaimed as the ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’. It could be argued that Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo is a character actor’s Hamlet; an immensely attractive challenge in conveying a wide scope of inner emotions and depth whilst embracing whole-heartedly the outward appearance of a reviled monster. In short, it was a perfect fit for him.
Such was Chaney’s desire to play Quasimodo that he investigated the possibility of producing it himself financed by private investors back in 1921. However, the shockwaves reverberating from Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s baseless rape trial sent Hollywood into a moral panic. Any association with scandal rendered films an unattractive prospect for outside investors. Although Arbuckle was found resoundingly innocent of the rape of Virginia Rappe, Tinseltown opted to enforce its own standards in-house by forming the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) in 1922. It was colloquially known as the Hays Code after its first President –ex-Postmaster General William Hays and then later became the modern MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). From here on, Hollywood film and its creators’ moral conduct was held accountable from within. Hays, nicknamed ‘the Tsar of all the Rushes’, had a morality clause inserted into all contracts that could nullify your employment if bad behaviour found its way into the press and brought the studio into disrepute. This was also the beginning of official film classification (and censorship) in the USA, which from the 1930s onwards would inevitably begin to butt heads with the content of horror movies.
Nevertheless, Chaney was able to get THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME funded by his (and his business manager Alfred Grasso’s) connections at Universal, most prominently via legendary production genius Irving Thalberg, who convinced Carl Laemmle to stump up an enormous budget for that time of $1,250,000. A large chunk of this would be spent on realising the superb sets on the studio back lot, which Laemmle later admired on a visit as the biggest he’d ever seen. Original plans to film in the actual Parisian locations were scuppered by the inability to disguise the modern buildings around the real cathedral. By now, Hollywood production design was becoming hugely impressive at copying European period constructions with such epics as BEN HUR. Hugo’s novel needed and received a tremendous reproduction of Notre Dame Cathedral.
Chaney’s involvement in the project was total, right down to the authenticity of the script and having director approval. He chose to put himself in the safe hands of Wallace Worsley once again who’d now directed him to great effect in four previous films. This seemed an especially wise move in view of the colossal scale of THE HUNCHBACK. The lavish sets had to be populated by thousands of extras with equally plush costumes along with the principals, needing literally the military precision of a Colonel McGee as costume supervisor. To save time on character/costume continuity, the same extras were employed for the shoot duration.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME may well hold the record for the night shoot involving the greatest amount of lighting rigs and crew in history when the gypsy crowd tries to take the cathedral by force. Covering the scope of this sequence with light was an epic task but is well worth it to see the final exciting battle on screen. It’s just unfortunate that the surviving print suffers from extensive thin scratches that, though still watchable, makes even the interior scenes look as though they were filmed in a rainstorm.
Arguably the greatest illumination in the film though is Lon Chaney’s performance. He applied himself to the hunchback with his trademark meticulous attention to detail and it shows. When choosing his ‘look’ he was helped by a rare author’s version of the novel he found where Hugo had provided sketches of how he envisioned Quasimodo. For the externals, Chaney used his long-term dental expert Dr James L. Howard to fashion a complicated lower-jaw unit that gave extra prominence to his bottom teeth, his right eye was blotted out and the skill of the hump body prosthesis can be seen when he is stripped to the waist at the pillory – his body is seamlessly bulked up and hirsute down the arms.
Chaney’s inner life radiates poignantly though the mask of his face and physique. His Quasimodo, like Charles Laughton’s in the later version, is a child in an adult’s body, simple and good of heart but quick to change mood from happiness to anger. He is tender and pathetic and yet his wounded sensitivity is tempered with brooding and edge. When we are introduced to him, he is leaning over a balcony high up in the cathedral, safe from the mocking of the townsfolk, his melancholy head weighing on his hands. In a flash, he spits down on the crowd in contempt, teasing them with dextrous ape-like swinging. When he later rings the cathedral bells, (both his beloved job and the curse that robbed him of his hearing), Quasimodo plunges down on the ropes, inverting himself upward with unfettered joy, campanology without camp.
The same truthfulness of performance sadly doesn’t extend to the other actors. Brandon Hurst’s Jehan is a mannered villain who telegraphs this gesturally at least twice by deliberately obscuring the bottom half of his face with his cape - as though channelling a dastardly moustache-twirler with railway tracks for Esmeralda on his mind. The casting search for her incidentally was highly-publicised, reminiscent of the later national one for Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND. Unfortunately the hunt stopped at Patsy Ruth Miller whose weak simpering is sometimes gratefully bolstered by more emotive title cards. To be fair, she is assisted in her crime of no passion by the equally limp Norman Kerry as Phoebus, who in this adaptation is boosted to being her main lover. In classical mythology, his namesake is ‘bright, shining and radiant’. Kerry shuns any such suitable qualities, combining one of his trademark wax moustaches with long curls that are less ‘masculine Captain of the Guard’ and more ‘1980s trailer park heavy-metal wimp’. Their romantic scenes together feel like tiresome padding, alternating between lukewarm noodling and declarative hammy posturing. It’s like the Marx Brothers films where you keep waiting for the awfully twee juvenile lovers to exit before the boys mercifully come back on. Regrettably, these deathless sequences remind you that plot-wise Quasimodo is relegated to a surprisingly brief number of scenes.
Fortunately, though our tragic bell-ringer sounds a long-overdue death knell for this Esmerelda, in the climax we are restored to a welcome full-blooded bracing action, thanks to Chaney - and Worsley’s direction. As aforementioned, the revolutionary storming of the cathedral where Quasimodo gave her sanctuary is thrilling, culminating in Quasimodo’s weapon of choice on the clamouring crowd below: “A fiery baptism – MOLTEN LEAD!” shouts the title card. Notice the brute strength with which Chaney throttles and drags Jehan to the balcony before he is stabbed by the villain. This is drive and commitment to character in action, unafraid to risk lessening our sympathy, even though Jehan clearly deserves his appointment with the pavement.
It’s worth mentioning that Worsley also adds a couple of symbolic insert shots that work nicely in the film. When Phoebus first dates Esmerelda, to suggest his typical behaviour we are treated to a few moments of a spider on his web crawling toward a caught butterfly. In the moving ending as Quasimodo dies, resigned to exclusion from the love of his heroine, we are left with the image of the giant bell slowing to stillness.
Interestingly, Victor Hugo’s novel does not end with our lovelorn hero perishing in loss as we are so used to seeing in the films. He has Esmerelda die from a hanging and then there is an epilogue in which a pair of intertwined skeletons are found together in a dungeon – one marked by a curved spine. When separated, the deformed one turns to dust…
Regardless of supporting cast weaknesses, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME was a huge international hit. Universal’s advance feedback tipped them off and they were keen to get their leading man on a nationwide publicity tour thumping the tub for the studio’s proud new release. Chaney hated doing interviews. He guarded his privacy closely and sagely understood the value for his multi-faceted career of being an elusive figure – but reluctantly agreed to attend the successful New York premiere. Afterwards, the film was cut by two reels (roughly twenty minutes) to program more cinema showings yet even with a resulting unevenness it was still a box-office megahit.
At last, Lon Chaney was a superstar…
THE PENALTY (1920)
“Some excellent judges think that I resemble Satan…”
Based on a novel by Gouverneur Morris, THE PENALTY is the first tour-de-force of Chaney’s commanding dedication that we can see in its entirety - and is satisfying for combining his new trademark of external physicalisation with deep reserves of boiling internal intensity on-screen.
Lon plays the victim of a childhood road accident whose legs are amputated rashly by his doctor. No-one believes that the boy overhears the doctor’s mentor Dr Ferris (Charles Clary) offering a lie to cover up his protégé’s mal-practise. From then on, we jump forward twenty-seven years to Chaney as the adult, seething with long-burning resentment and the desire for revenge. He has matured into an underworld crime kingpin assuming the super-villain mantle of ‘Blizzard’, a permanently suggestive sour grin of evil promise etched on his face. He devises a plan to wreak retributive havoc on the whole city by pouring in angry immigrant workers to cause criminal chaos while his mob commits widespread looting. Meanwhile, on a personal level he intends to walk again with the help of an old ‘friend’ - by any means necessary.
Chaney’s Blizzard is a gleefully macabre villain, his Noir-ish gangster charm and lasciviously raised eyebrows reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s Joker. (Strangely enough, his later make-up design for THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA would partly inspire Bob Kane in his conception of that very character). His relentless pursuit of grisly revenge is also sheer Grand Guignol in its single-mindedness. Though reduced in stature, Chaney’s powerhouse of suppressed rage towers over everyone in the film. He somehow manages to make a double crutch-supported stance look like a power position.
Director Wallace Worsley makes valuable use of close-ups in capturing the ferocious pitch of Chaney’s performance. Mostly he emotes with electrifying restraint (aside from a couple of over-cooked bursts of triumph) – admirable especially when you consider how recent a technical innovation the camera close-up was for actors to modulate.
Chaney doesn’t relentlessly hammer away at full throttle though. He is apt to soften in the face of the kindness shown to him by Rose, the government undercover agent who infiltrates his compound and discovers his fully-equipped operating theatre. She soothes his rage and cannot bring herself to betray him. He in turn values her goodness which allows him to play notes of sensitivity on his piano and life hitherto unknown to him.
There are weaknesses in THE PENALTY, most notably in the title cards. They veer occasionally from a slightly overwrought and ornate language such as Blizzard’s vow: “And for my mangled years the city shall pay me… with the pleasures of a Nero and the powers of a Caesar!” to an amusingly blunt clunkiness. The boyfriend of Dr Ferris’s sculptor daughter Barbara (Claire Adams) offers his version of support for her artistic career: “Haven’t I waited long enough? Why don’t you chuck it, Barbara?” For added amusement there is the insert shot of the classified ad she places in search of a life model she can sculpt to portray the Devil: ‘If you think you look like Satan, apply at studio of…’ (Eagle-eyed viewers may also enjoy the euphemistic intrigue of the adverts above and below this in the same shot, each wanting a man either ‘…to solicit with cigars and tobacco’ or ‘…to learn the drug business’)
These gaffes aside, they introduce a vital plot point whereby Blizzard answers the ad to covertly insinuate himself, to truly devilish purpose, into the Ferris family. If we haven’t already guessed what his surgical space is being prepared for, Blizzard eyes up the boyfriend remarking: “What an admirable pair of legs”. Fortunately – SPOILER ALERT! – Before he can literally sweep the boyfriend off his feet, he is prevented from blackmailing Ferris into operating. We’re then treated to an expository flashback reminding us that it’s a contusion on the base of Blizzard’s skull that is responsible for his unbalanced desire for revenge (cunningly letting the young hacksaw quack off the hook!), and so another procedure is performed to relieve the pressure and restore Blizzard to the man of moral virtue he should always have been.
In its ending THE PENALTY scores bonus points for, like 2007’s ATONEMENT, it provides a moving explanation for the title which resonates poignantly. The reconstructed Blizzard is shot by sceptical former associates as he plays the piano, but as he dies in Rose’s arms he accepts he has deserved his fate, assuring her with touching understatement: ‘Don’t grieve my dear…death interests me’.
Whilst the film has its flaws and some stilted support playing, (Adams has the irritating habit of delivering her lines wistfully out-front as if in a bad stage melodrama) Lon Chaney single-handedly compels the audience with a masterful and exciting central performance slamming down a calling-card for the future. He could, for example, have taken the easy route of camera trickery to suggest his disability but instead strapped his legs behind him to physically cut himself down for real. Imagine the agony at the end of every shooting day as he finally straightened his body out. Although he had no truck with starving for his art, a little suffering was part of his astounding work ethic and would be an admirable example to others.
1922 was to prove a busy year for Chaney and one in which he consolidated his reputation for stunning metamorphosis. Amongst his films released was THE TRAP, the first film to publicise him as ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’. There was also his second time of portraying a Chinese character (previously in 1921’s BITS OF LIFE) in SHADOWS for which he won great acclaim for his realism. He played Fagin in OLIVER TWIST for director Frank Lloyd, opting (as Jonathan Pryce would later do in the mid-1990s musical version) not to go for a traditional Jewish stereotype but “as a character with more universal appeal”, still incorporating his own transformative make-up and physicality.
A BLIND BARGAIN (1922) for Goldwyn Pictures was notable as one of the few clearly-defined horror films of Lon Chaney’s career and reunited him with director Wallace Worsley from THE PENALTY. It’s a lost film, but a few still photos remain to whet our appetite as to the extreme diversity between the dual roles he plays. Chaney doubles as Dr Lamb, a brilliant yet maniacal surgeon with a God complex who experiments upon animals to extend human life, and one of his ‘creations’, a bestial ape/human hybrid. In the photos, his Lamb is coldly professorial, reminiscent of a Brylcreemed Trostky with a precise goatee beard and pince-nez glasses. The ‘Ape-man’ throwback is formally-suited yet a buzzcut-haired hunchback (prefiguring Chaney’s star-making Quasimodo), with a high arching mono-brow, cowering and pitiable. Sadly, Chaney’s enticingly-detailed character work was eclipsed by the inevitable controversy of the film’s taboo subject matter. The studio was forced to re-write the content of the title cards four times and drastically edit the footage before it was acceptable for release.
Chaney essayed another in his realm of ‘crippled gangster’ parts in 1923’s THE SHOCK, earning good reviews and establishing himself as a leading man with the valuable artistic credibility of a character player - while he waited for pre-production to be completed on the role that would shoot him to stardom...