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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Welcome To the Inner Sanctum

Inner Sanctums are not fish, fowl, or mammal. "Horror" won't describe them beyond dread of enduring any of the six. Presence on late shows implied they were scary, but that was never a case. They are not film noir, to classify them as such broadens the term beyond already fragile limits. You might call them mysteries were they mysterious. A single common thread was Lon Chaney (Jr.). We'd expect him as the police investigator or private eye that unmasks a killer, but detection is but incidental to Sanctums. Chaney is moreover the object of suspicion --- brooding, tormented, and often as not, voice-overing monologues best labeled Place Exposition Here. He is a most sedentary mystery series lead I have come across --- obtuse, long-suffering punch bag for duplicity practiced by revolving casts in support. Evelyn Ankers tries framing him for murder in Weird Woman, J.Carroll Naish exploits him in Strange Confession, Patricia Morrison has him bound for the hot seat in Calling Dr. Death. Introduce a best friend or sweetheart for Chaney in the first reel of a Sanctum, and they’ll be unmasked as a killer in the last. No one in movies was played for such a sap as Lon in a Sanctum. Watch the half dozen end to end and you realize Universal sized him up for one offscreen as well. The Sanctums seem a welcome change of pace for an actor eager to break the yoke of low-budget thrillers, but by a final Sanctum, Chaney was wrung dry, his limitations having been cruelly laid bare…

Chaney was a man to whom promises were made, but seldom kept. He wanted to be a great actor like his father. Universal led him down a garden path with build-ups gone unfulfilled. Westerns, serials, and inexpensive chillers made up most of Universal inventory, Chaney well suited to each, so far as they saw it. Roles along complex lines as played by Lon Sr. were denied his son, beefy Junior ideal to hoist stuntmen and empty saloons. A lot of this went on in his private life as well, once Lon realized Uni wasn’t coming through for him. First it was the Phantom Of The Opera remake. That went to Claude Rains (a real actor, as was no doubt explained to Lon). Sound stage mentor and adopted big brother Reginald LeBorg said they’d do big things together, but for meantime, there was always one more Mummy or Sanctum to get out of the way. Whatever coinage left in Junior's name was being spent in a hurry, Chaney’s alcohol dependence aging him as well. A Clark Gable mustache effected for the Sanctums was less evocative of CG than James Craig, Tom Conway, any of interchangeable leading men. The Chaney face contorted with anxiety lends conviction to his Sanctum performing, but does it reflect more issues arising from his troubled relationship with employers? Star Wears Own Clothes In Movie reads a blurb in the Pillow Of Death pressbook, and if that is true, we have at least insight into Chaney's offscreen fashion sense. He is trim and fit in the Sanctums --- all a more dispiriting then to see him a few years later (Manfish, My Favorite Brunette) so disheveled.

Unpleasant subject matter is the order of the day among Sanctum mysteries. A faithless wife is beaten with a poker in Calling Dr. Death, then given an acid facial. Naturally, Lon is suspected. Dead Man’s Eyes finds thuddingly bad actress Acquanetta switching bottles in Chaney’s cabinet, so this time he gives himself the acid facial. A distraught Lon cleaves off his tormentor’s head in Strange Confession and carries it about in a valise. All such unwholesome activity is more implied than shown, the heavy hand of the Production Code everywhere in evidence. Chaney wives occupy separate bedrooms. Relationships outside of marriage must be accepted on faith, as physical contact is seldom indicated, despite dialogue suggesting all sorts of libidinous activity on Lon’s part. Others have commented on his unlikely status as catnip for women in the Sanctums, and yes, Chaney does exert an oafish charm. Where he really breaks down fourth walls (sometimes literally) is temper loss where the safety is off brutish Jr. gets loose. Usually a momentary thing, often unexpected, Chaney losing an actor's cool in quest of rage (early Method?) within his character. Someone will annoy Lon, and he reacts out of all proportion. Players expecting to be merely pushed aside are slung across rooms. Guys who get in Lon’s face come away with crumpled lapels and mild whiplash. Actors must have dreaded onscreen confrontations with him.

Based on what I’ve read, Sanctums were a dumping ground for third-tier studio talent. Producers assigned to them were philistine in taste and boorish in manner. Gin rummy games took precedence over script conferences, Get It Done Quick their only mantra. Astonishing then that the pictures look as handsome as they do, particularly now that we have them as lovely Blu-Ray presentations. Universal pictures from the forties have an almost homespun quality. Why would I sit and look at six admittedly mediocre "B’s" if not to somehow recapture a sensation felt upon watching them in childhood? To argue these pictures are "bad" is to miss the point entirely. Certainly for a younger audience they are that and worse --- boring, stupid, banal --- whatever invective one could summon. But like so many thrillers, mysteries, and monster shows that once filled TV listings, Sanctums are more about isolated moments when school bells weren’t ringing, household chores got done or left undone, and life was a sight simpler than it is now.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

I don't know how you knock off one great piece after another, day after day; always well-written and perceptive.

I've seen a couple of Lon Chaney, Jr. movies from the early 30s -- when he was still Creighton Chaney -- and he was a fine character actor who wouldn't have appeared out of place today. Even then he had a haunted quality that made me think he knew what was coming professionally but couldn't do anything about it.

Re: the "Calling Dr. Death" ad -- didn't the Universal publicity boys know that those women were "too weird," not "to weird" to love?

7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poor Lon. If he'd been under contract at Warner Bros. instead of Universal, he might have had a memorable career as a character support, either light or heavy, and would now be cherished by film buffs for his work with, say, Bogart, Cagney or Flynn. But then, what did Warners need him for when they already had Alan Hale, Frank McHugh and Barton MacLane?

For me, Chaney's performance as Lennie in Of Mice and Men will always redeem a multitude of sins, and it gives a hint of what might have been if he'd made more movies with the Lewis Milestones (and fewer with the Erle C. Kentons and Reginald LeBorgs) of the world. The edginess of his performance may have been blunted by later spoofing from that Looney Tunes dog ("Which way did he go, George?") and even from Lon himself, but in any other year he'd easily have snagged the Oscar. As it was, Of Mice and Men came out in 1939 and Lon wasn't even nominated. That's Lon Chaney Jr.'s luck in a nutshell.

11:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lon is quite good in the first two Wolf Man pictures and even forgettable fluff like MAN MADE MONSTER. Man, were we disappointed back in the "Shock Theatre" days in Northeast Ohio to find out that THE FROZEN GHOST and DEAD MAN'S EYES weren't horror films, despite their lurid titles and the presence of Chaney, Evelyn Ankers, and other horror faves in the Inner Sanctum series. I've gotten over it, but barely. Chaney is also especially enjoyable in the serials UNDERSEA KINGDOM and OVERLAND MAIL. And find the Retromedia "Lon Chaney Collection" DVD set; sure it has a really nice INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, but don't miss Lon doing what he does best in a heart-wrenching performance as a Greek immigrant estranged from his sons in one of the other shows in that set. And where oh where is ONE MILLION B.C. on DVD, though?

6:40 PM  
Blogger Tim Lucas said...

Terrific, incisive piece, John. And the graphics are fabulous. I wonder if any theatre owners actually built that PILLOW OF DEATH shadowbox? I thought it was a very cool thing for Universal's promo department to make available for lobbies, till I read the fine print, which basically said, "Make it yourself!"

11:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your mention of TV Guide makes me recall when, in the summer of 1973, KTLA-5 in Los Angeles ran these films off during their noon weekday movie matinee show. As a 10-year-old, I consumed these without question merely due to the presence of Lon Jr., of course.

This was back when TV Guide called all horror films
"melodramas" (soon they dropped "melodrama" in favor of "thriller").

While in most cases this description was way off base, for these "Inner Sanctum" movies, it was spot on perfect.

7:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

..And don't forget SPIDER BABY... A what-if: What if Ed Wood, Jr. had gotten hold of Lon, Jr. whose career had pretty much stalled out ten years before? Would Lon have been relegated to play Lugosi's mutant thug instead of Tor Johnson or would he have been given a leading role in his own thriller? Probably neither. Lon would have kicked his ass the first day Ed sashayed onto the set in high heels.

9:23 PM  

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