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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Lon Chaney --- Part Two

His public knew that Chaney would never exploit the afflicted. They sensed a compassionate heart beneath his make-up. Sordid narratives got a pass when Lon enacted them. Writers have complained that Metro’s formula for him was too rigid. Well, certainly it was, but aren’t formulas called that because they work? Here was Lon’s in a nutshell: Lucky at crime and/or mayhem, unlucky at love. If we had a Chaney today, I’m betting the gambit would still play, for here’s the thing … none of us fail so often as in relationships. And that goes for the pretty people as much as the Lon Chaney outcasts. His characters longed for and lost every woman they encountered, and just that made him blood brother with everyone watching. The thing that rescued Lon and his audience was triumphs his loners achieved otherwise. This was one formidable persona. Nobody stopped Chaney once his blood was up. Shrunken violets could project themselves upon vengeful missions he embarked, often on behalf of women who’d scorned him, but always followed through to the loss of his enemies. While The City Sleeps answered the call of those isolated, but ruthlessly good at a one thing they’ve mastered, pretty much my summation of all Chaney characters. Here he’s a police detective, underestimated and with nary a chance that Anita Page will want him, but a tower of ferocity when time comes to shoot things out with a criminal gang twice his force’s number. That kind of proficiency was the Chaney image’s compensation for being shut out of tender emotions. Most endings found him dead or going it alone, but the world was always scrubbed a little cleaner for his having settled accounts otherwise.

A real treasure turned up some months ago on You Tube. Someone posted a 1951 episode of You Asked For It in which host Art Baker interviewed Lon Chaney, Jr. about his father. The request was from a viewer too young to remember the senior Lon, but had heard he was the greatest of all character actors. Junior is on hand to confirm that and pass along some family background. This is a priceless eight minutes. Baker is as respectful as Creighton is eloquent. I nearly inserted unexpected there for being lulled into acceptance of LC Jr. as slurring three sheets against winds for most of his performing life. Maybe too I’d bought the notion of his resenting Dad for past hostilities referenced by writers since. Junior’s tribute happily dispelled much of that. There’s warmth and sincerity here I never saw before in Creighton. He’s introduced in ascot and robe at a dressing mirror as though caught between acts on Broadway. Gracious and forthcoming on the topic of Senior’s pantomimic command as taught by deaf mute parents, Junior demonstrates his own sign language vocabulary. Host Baker illustrates with highlights of 1923’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame "for the first time on television," which made me wonder … was it? Initial copyright protection of 28 years would by 1951 be at point of expiring, and we know Universal didn’t renew. Did You Asked For It license the use of these clips? If so, it was probably the last time anyone did. Creighton demonstrates how silent actor Lon expressed love, hate, and fear as Quasimodo, using visual shorthand deaf mutes knew well. This distinct minority of a mass audience likely appreciated Chaney even more for his playing so directly to them. For deaf mute patrons, LC acted through a long established medium of sign language in addition to further embellished pantomime. Was any other silent era performer reaching his public on so many levels?

A fan magazine called Chaney The Man Who Made Homeliness Pay … but hold on … aren’t we talking about subjective standards here? Whoever tabbed Lon homely wasn’t necessarily thinking in pejorative terms. What he did with that face attracted millions to theatres. Craggy is characterized by rugged, sharp, or coarse features, according to definition. But what Chaney did with craggy was beautiful. To be the biggest money star at MGM (he was) required massive feminine support. That we know he had, even if women spoke more freely to worship of John Gilbert or Ramon Novarro, paths to them being more conventional and ones of less resistance. Top sergeant Chaney in Tell It To The Marines compares his embattled features to those of a bulldog mascot. But wouldn’t a lot of us prefer looking at a bulldog over most actors? Except Lon, of course. He’s majestic masked or no, be it so-called "straight" as in Tell It To The Marines, or as Phantom, Hunchback, or London After Midnight’s shark-toothed vampire. I don’t know of three figures that have been artist-rendered more than these. He Runs The Gamut Of Every Human Emotion, says the above ad for Mockery. That was just exhibition’s way of saying Chaney put more on a customer’s plate than any other artist was serving. He may sometimes have been frightening, but no more so than what audiences often saw in neighbors, if not themselves. His characters were bearers of combined weight of all our insecurities. No matter how bad off you thought you were, his circumstances would surely be worse. Chaney was harder to step back from and observe because his performances were so immersive, even when the films were less so. The rage his legless criminal telegraphs in The Penalty erases buffers a modern viewer has from other silent actors whose gestures they ridicule from distances of eighty years. A well-chosen Chaney retrospective can still throw us back on our heels.

There’s more speculation and what ifs about Chaney than most any star I can think of. What if he’d played Dracula? Would a rediscovered London After Midnight disappoint us? (yes, say most). What of the nearly one hundred lost Chaney films? Some of those are (were) bound to be wonderful. A bare segment remains of The Miracle Man, one that established him as a major force. A Blind Bargain has horrific content that’s mouth-watering, but it’s gone too. Sometimes the losses seem so crushing as to make you want to give up. Just a few feet of something thought missing is reason enough to celebrate. A documentary by Kevin Brownlow had a snippet of Lon on a waltz floor and that resonated for being sole visual record of Chaney dancing. Fans devout enough want to observe him at all conceivable pursuits. That’s possibly because everything he does is totally unlike ways other people go about them. Old stills become collectible for someone recognizing a bearded background figure as Chaney. He must have stood before all the town’s still cameras at one time or another. When Blackhawk Films found Outside the Law back in the seventies, there was cause for jubilation over this early collaboration between Chaney and director Tod Browning. It had to be a gamble commissioning a new score, preparation of magnetic 8mm and optical 16mm prints, but being this was LC, a safe one for the Davenport distributor. Every scrap of him in the public domain seems to have been released on DVD. Film shows I’ve attended always have fullest houses when Chaney’s onscreen. TCM makes news when they premiere one of his MGM silents, such as was the case recently with The Black Bird. Any Chaney revival may be safely introduced with And Now For Something Completely Different …


Anonymous Griff said...

John, your use of that title for this fine set of essays on Lon would surely have made FJA smile.

My late father always hoped that someone would excavate a print of LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. He remembered it from his youth as the "real deal -- a genuine chiller."

12:21 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I loved "The Unknown" and wanted my wife to see it. Then she saw a clip of it on the TCM Chaney documentary and announced, "This is sick!" "That's the point," I answered, but she was already in the confines of the kitchen, refusing to watch the rest of the show. No taste, I tell you!

5:23 PM  

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