Monday, April 27, 2009

A short pause

So, the Chaney week has passed (I would have wanted more blog posts, but who says I can't review more Chaney films later on?), and I've been a little abscent.
First I had a disgusting pain-in-the-ass fever, and now I have to use my spare time packing boxes for moving to a new apartment. No up-grade though, the balcony and the bathroom takes up almost the entire apartment, and I will have a little cooking corner. But I plan to drape the walls with my whole DVD-collection, I'll have a bathtub and a big bed. (Yay!) Oh, and the rent will go down with 3000 crowns ($ 366), and I'll have more money to spend on wine, cigarettes and classic films.
So be patient, I'll be back soon!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Nomads of the North (1920)

Nomads of the North
Director: David Hartford
USA 1920
78 min

Nomads of the North is a heart tearing melodrama, with a lot of moments of comic relief, set in a little village called Port Forest O'God, "God's great wilderness fifteen hundred miles North and West of Montreal".
The plot is built around a classical triangle drama (or discussingly quadrat...) with a lot of hand waving actors. But I feel that the melodramatic, old-fashioned acting style cools off toward the second part of the film, and leaves you with an all-positive feeling about this film. And the photography work by Walter L. Griffin is really amazing.

This is another of my screenshot filled review posts, as I bet you've already scrolled down to see. I hope you enjoy it! I'll start describing the plot (I won't reveal the exciting ending) with the characters. The personality descriptions were so fantastic in the film that I simply quoted them:

"Duncan McDougall, Hudson's Bay Company Factor.
A tiger of the old regime, still ruling his primitive domain with a hand of iron and a heart of stone." - Melbourne MacDowell

"Bucky McDougall, his son.
A serpent polished with the veneer of years spent in Montreal, the deadliest and most treacherous of all the McDougall race." - Francis McDonald

Nanette Roland (Betty Blythe). The village beauty, who is adored by every single man.

"Corporal Michael O'Connor of the R.N.W.M. Police." - Lewis Stone

"Andre Roland, father of Nanette, fighting heroically his last great fight - against death." - Spottiswoode Aitken

The first dramatic situation appear soon.
Bucky follows Nanette to her mother's grave, where she was about to lay some flowers, only to violently try to kiss her (a scene that can't be read in any other way than a rape attempt). When she arrives back to her father's cabin to tell about the horrible event, the visiting town priest calmly tells her that "Love is impulsive, my dear. He did not mean wrong."
Remember that, dear female readers!

"Black Marat, a whiskey-runner, up from "civilization" with a cargo of smuggled fire-water."
We see Bucky McDougall entertain a friend over a bottle of forbidden liquid.
Nanette has promised to Bucky if she finds out that her great love Raoul (Lon Chaney) is dead. He and Black Marat decides to trick her, Marat telling her that he has seen Raoul die. Everything is allowed in love and war, right?

"Three hundred miles further north, Raoul Challoner, the "dead man", twelve months over-due from the edge of the Arctic Sea."
During the way he has picked up two friends - a puppy named Brimstone and a baby bear (who's mother he had had to kill in order to avoid starvation) names Neewa.

Lon Chaney is obviously the definition of "hardcore". He shaves against the hair direction with a knife!

"In the days that follow, Neewa and Brimstone face hunger and adventure in the big wilderness."
After a canoeing accident, Raoul is separated from Neewa and Brimstone. Before they find their way back to each other the animal duo have a funny little adventure of their own, facing the "monsters of the forest"together (they are hold together by a leash) and even have a couple of lines!

After an exhausting travel, Raoul arrives to his village, only to find out that a wedding ceremony starring his beloved Nanette and the McDougall brat is being performed that same moment. He arrives too late, but the newly wed wife doesn't care - throwing her arms around her dear Raoul when she realizes that she has been lied to.
Bucky McDougall and his companion Black Marat won't leave it at that. They soon start a fight with Raoul, ending with Raoul accidently killing Black Marat. He is thrown into a dirty cellar by the McDougalls until the police arrives. The description of his prison cell:

"The Fort O'God dungeon - a relic of the old days when Factors were kings."

Nanette toughens herself up a bit and goes out in the rain storm to rescue her lover from the McDougalls. After Raoul has been released, he and Nanette put the handcuffs on the McDougalls instead and run away together heading north.

Does anyone believe in the moustache to the left?

Three years pass and our beloved couple have built themselves a cosy little cottage in the northern woods. Neewa and Brimstone has grown and a baby has arrived. What a paradise!
However, Bucky McDougall eventually finds his way to their home to claim his bride by law. Raoul is out in the woods at the time and can't help out, but Neewa and Brimstone show to be of use. Bucky is chasen out, but returns with Corporal O'Connor who handcuffs Raoul to bring him back.
How is this going to end well?

As if the situation wasn't bad enough, a forest fire breaks loose and threaten the lives of everything living there, including our heroes.

And now I won't reveal any more.

I think you can agree with me on my photography opinions when you see the screenshots above. I can't imagine how much work it must have been filming all animals and the scenery.
The forest fire was really dramatic. I read that both Betty Blythe and Lon Chaney were burnt during the filming when a blaze unexpectedly popped up and blocked their escape. Fortunately, a tunnel had been built before, for situations like that, through which they could be saved. They had however have to stay in a hospital for ten days, postponing the continued shooting of the film.
The forest fire scene was prepared by building up a "phony forest" on the Universal lot, with fake trees trimmed with natural leaves, planted in the ground, barked and painted. They used six cameras for that scene!

I'll end this post with a nice film poster I found. Notice how much room the actor's names are taking up?

Blogpost # 100 - What a penalty!

Yes, I just saw that this is my 100th post on this classic film blog! And what could be more suiting than dedicating it to a Lon Chaney masterpiece like The Penalty (1920)?

The Penalty
Director: Wallace Worsley
USA 1920
90 min

See the film on YouTube: link

Lon Chaney appears in his first starring role as the double amputee Blizzard, who had his both legs unneccessarily amputated after a car accident as a boy. The incompetent Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary) has since then become a respectable doctor, while Blizzard has grown up to be the king of the underworld longing and planning for revenge.

This film is fantastic, and works as well today as it did almost 90 years ago. The plot has many interesting levels, the sexual and sadistic undertones are significant but yet only a little more than indicated. And the Hollywood kisses? Oh, they are there, but they are not for weak girls! Chaney's brutal kisses send shivers up and down my spine.

Towards the end there's a pretty interesting logical twist of the story. Some people have expressed disappointment of it, but I will not. It fixates the story to reality, and takes no glamour away from Chaney's peaks of evil. At least I am satisfied!

The version on YouTube has a new, modern soundtrack to it. It's freaky and disturbing in many ways, but I still think it works. This film itself is dark, freaky and disturbing - and a masterpiece. Chaney really set the level for upcoming characters of his. After The Penalty he made more films with Wallace Worsley - The Ace of Hearts (1921), A Blind Bargain (1922) and the legendary film adaption of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Chaney refused any special effects offered to make him look like and amputee. He strapped his legs back in a painful position and walked on his kness on self-constructed leather harnesses. The pain was so intense that he only could stand it for a little more than ten minutes of shooting at a time. But still - the result is more convincing than any modern special effects ever could achieve!

Originally, there were actually a footage of Lon Chaney walking down some stairs (to show the audience that he wasn't a real amputee) put onto the end of the film, but that sequence was removed for the 1926 release and was lost after that.

It is amazing that you can be able to see masterpieces like The Penalty on a popular site like YouTube. I love seeing that cultural growth is encouraged, and I hope desperately that no medieval film corporation sues them for copyright infringement or anything like it.

I'll share the first part (1/10) of the film with you here:


Blizzard: Don't grieve, dear - death interests me.

Barbara Ferris: Why do you live in the underworld?
Blizzard: When Satan fell from Heaven he looked for power in Hell.

Lichtenstein: It's always Blizzard - that cripple from Hell.

[To his working women]
Blizzard: By the way, Barbary Nell, who strayed from us, now sleeps upon a marble slab -- [laughing] -- in the morgue."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Many Faces of Lon Chaney

"Don't step on that spider - it might be Lon Chaney!"

popular expression in the 1920's

Lon Chaney was a real genious when it came to transforming himself for a screen role, only by the use of makeup. His innovative makeup skills, picked up from his time at the theatre, and his talant as an actor made him successful as a character actor.
Through his career he managed perfectly to nail a wide range of parts, from sad clowns, a legless professor, a Russian peasant, a marine officer, an old Chinese man and a crusty railroad engineer to legendary charcters like the phantom of the opera, Fagin in Oliver Twist and the hunchback of Notre Dame. His characters were often sad, misunderstood, outcast or mentally screwed. Let me introduce a few of his charcterizations for you.

Blizzard in The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney playes Blizzard, a double amputee underworld criminal who lost his legs as a child by the work of an incompetent doctor.
For the role Chaney devised a leather harness with stumps, binding the calves of his legs with his thighs, that allowed him to walk on his knees. This was however very painful for him, and he couldn't have his legs in that position for more than ten to fifteen minutes before h
e needed a break. A great example of how Chaney poured his soul into his characters.

Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

For the role of Quasimodo Chaney really used his makeup skills to the full. He studied Victor Hugo's novel and the descriptions he gave of the hunchback, and formed his character as faithfully as he could (later being accused ov overdoing the makeup). His ma
keup included a 7o lbs (!) hump attached to a large breastplate and pads similar to those worn by football players, making him unable to stand erect, which was his intention. Over this he wore a skin-tight flesh coloured rubber suit covered with animal hair.
The heat inside the costume was nearly unbearable, causing Chaney to perspire in floods.

Paul Beaumont in He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

Directed by Swedish film pioneer Victor Sjöström, Chaney plays the role of an inventor who, after suffering betrayal in life, makes a career of it by becoming a clown who's act consists of being slapped by the other clowns. He falls in love with fellow circus performer Norma Shearer, but fails to be taken seriously.

Professor Echo and Granny O'Grady in The Unholy Three (1925 and 1930)

In the first, silent version of the film Chaney plays a ventriloquist, who later masks up with two other sideshow performers (Chaney as an old lady) in an effort to steal some jewels.
In the talkie version, Chaney's only sound film, he signed a sworn statement that he would do five of the voices in the film (the ventriloquist's, the dummy's, the old lady's, a girl's and a parrot's voice), which named him "the man of a hundred voices". For the voice of Granny O'Grady he succeeded by only softening his voice a little.

Erik the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

As Chaney did with the character of Quasimodo two years earlier, he studied Gaston Leroux's novel to be able to match the original descriptions of the phantom as close as possible. Leroux describes the phantom as looking like a naked skull, and so Chaney managed to make his character look. Chaney inserted a device in his nostrils making them wider, and taped up the top of his nose to make it look like a cranium. On top of this he used false teeth to which were attached small prongs to draw back the corner of his lips.
Chaney convinced the advertising department to remove his face on the film posters, to make the unmasking of the phantom in the film more dramatic. And that it was 
- people were reported to have fainted in the theatres!

"The success of the makeup relied more on the placements of highlights and shadows, some not in the most obvious areas of the face."

Alonzo the Armless in The Unknown (1927)

Chaney plays the armless knifethrower Alonzo the Armless. He has a crush on his colleague Nanon Zanzi (Joan Crawford), a woman that has a fobia for men's hands.
It was during the filming of this movie that Chaney realized that he had taken damage of his passion for over-the-top makeup - this role aqcuired a strain jacket that strapped his armes so tight that his spine was damaged. 

"I can't play these crippled roles any more. That trouble with my spine is worse every time I do one, and it's beginning to worry me."

I thought I could end this post with another little tribute video (recommended by Christopher), with the wonderfully disturbing soundtrack by my favourite composer Mike Oldfield. Many of Chaney's characters are displayed in this video.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lon Chaney (1883-1930)

"There's nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight."

- Lon Chaney

Lon Chaney was one of the front figures of American actors during the silent era. He's capability of playing a wide range if characters, often misfit, grotesque and misunderstood, and the ability to portray them with his master makeup skills, he was nicknamed "The Man of a Thousand Faces".

Lon Chaney was born Leonidas Frank Chaney on April 1, 1883 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His parents were both deaf mute, so from an early age Chaney learned to express himself via pantomime, sign language and facial expressions. When he was ten, his mother became bed ridden from rheumatism, and he dropped out of school to take care of his family and younger siblings. Chaney used to take walks around the town, and then come home to his mother to perform scetches of what he had seen and make impersonations of the villagers.
When his mother became so ill that she couldn't communicate with sign language, Chaney had to be even more skilled to understand her from only her eyes. This would be an enormously great experience for him later in silent films.

A tribute to Lon Chaney with many great pictures.

As a young man Chaney took a job guiding tourists in Pikes Peak, where he developed a great love for the outdoor life. He also became a very handy man by learning wallpaper, drapery and carpet trades. This gave him an opportunity to work as a porperty boy, stagehand and scene painter at the Colorado Springs Opera House. He got to witness a great deal of actors on the stage, and discovered a fascination for acting.
Said and done. When he was 19, in 1902, he went on a tour with a play he had co-written with his older brother called "The Little Tycoon". He continues to travel with popular Vaudeville and theatre acts, until he in 1906 met the girl who would be his forst wife - Cleva Creighton (born Frances Cleveland Creighton).

Lon Chaney, ca. 1911.

Cleva Creighton-Chaney, ca. 1911.

The year was 1905, and Cleva was a 16 year old beauty auditioning for a part in the show. Against her mother's wishes, she was picked up by the touring company for her lovely singing voice.
Chaney and Cleva fell in love, and the next year she became unexpectingly pregnant. They returned to Oklahoma to prepare for the birth of their son - Creighton Chaney (better known as Lon Chaney Jr). While waiting for the baby to arrive, Chaney had to go back to the furniture and carpet business to support his family, but he kept longing for the theatre.

In the wonderful Lon Chaney documentary A Thousand Faces (2000), some archive footage is shown from a 1960's interview with Lon Chaney Jr. He tells the story of his birth. Apparantly he was dead at birth, it was i early February. His father Lon had, in his desperation, taken the baby out to the lake, cracked a hole in the ice and ducked him in, bringing him back to life. Now, that's a quite a story to tell your grandchildren!

When little Creighton had arrived, the family would join barnstorming shows in the mid west and other parts of the USA and Canada. This was quite a risky job, since the tours often went broke and left the crew without food or money to get home. The family would perform on street corners for money thrown to them, and in bars shere little Creighton would collect the coins and steal sandwiches while the audience was distracted.

By the time of 1910 the family found their way to California and managed to track down some more consistent employments. Chaney found work as a stage manager, actor and choreographer, working with different stage shows in San Fransisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. Cleva was becoming popular as a headliner singer in Cabaret shows.

The marriage, however, was not equally successful. Their relation became tense due to working conditions, jealousy and inability to communicate with each other. In April, 1913, Cleva went to see Chaney at the Majestic Theatre, where he worked as a manager. There she emptied a vial of poison (mercury bichloride) in a suicide attempt. The suicide attempt failed, but did end her singing career and caused a great scandal, ruining Chaney stage career.
Cleva and Chaney filed for divorce in April, 1914, and Chaney searched for luck in the booming industry of silent film. Little Creighton was temporarily placed in a home for children of Divorce and Disaster.

Lon Chaney's brief appearance as Bertrand de la Pogne in The Oubliette (1914).

Chaney's film career between 1912-1917 is not very clear, but he worked under contract for Universal Studios doing bit or character parts. His skill for doing dramatic screen makeup was highly appreciated and helped him move up to the greater parts.
During the time at Universal, Chaney got to know the husband-wife director team Joe De Grasse and Ida May Park, who gave him substantial roles in their pictures and encourage him to take on the more grotesque and macabre parts.

Lon Chaney with his makeup kit.

In 1915 Chaney remarried. This time the woman Hazel Hastings, a former colleague. Little is known about Hazel (chaney was through his career very eager to keep his private life private - "Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney."), but the marriage was substantial, lasting till the death of Chaney, and the couple gained custody of the now ten year old Creighton.

In 1917 Chaney had become one of the most prominent stars of the studio, but his salary didn't live up to his popularity. When Chaney asked for a raise, the studio executive William Sistrom replied:
"You'll never be worth more than one hundred dollars a week."

Chaney left the studio. He had to struggle as a character actor for a year, but in 1918 he appeared in the William S. Hart western Riddle Gawn, and was for the finally recognized by the film industry as the real talent he was.

From the western film Riddle Gawn (1918). Yeah, I know that's not Lon Chaney.

Chaney's real breakthrough came with the role as "The Frog" in The Miracle Man (1919). He did not only get to show his actor skills to the full, but also his talent for makeup. The film's plot circles around a gang of crooks that avoid the police by moving their frauds to a small town. The gang leader's encounter with a spritual healer gives him the idea to use him to scam the naïve villagers of fund for a supposed chapel. But when a real miracle happens, a change comes over the gang.
The film was a critical success and cashed in over $2 000 000, making Lon Chaney considered America's foremost character actor.

Surviving footage from The Miracle Man (1919).

Soon Chaney became the pioneer of classic horror silents, playing the title roles of films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His ability to transform himself through self-invented makeup techniques soon brought him the nickname The Man With A Thousand Faces.

Lon Chaney in the Tod Browning film The Blackbird (1926).

His collaboration with director Tod Browning, who had a fascination for macabre and morbid film making, went on for a total of ten films, and challanged Chaney in both the acting and makeup area. For instance, in The Unknown (1927) he played carnival knife thrower Alonzo the Armless. Yes, the armless knife thrower. In The Unholy Three (1925) he played both Professor Echo and "Granny" O'Grady. In possibly the most famous of the lost films, the horror film London After Midnight (1927), he playes a ghoulish vampire in perhaps the most grotesque vampire makeup in cinema history. In West of Zanzibar (1928) he plays a character named Phroso "Dead-Legs", opposite Lionel Barrymore.

Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford in The Unknown (1927).

Lon Chaney with 14 year old Loretta Young in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928).

Lon Chaney in West of Zanzibar (1928).

Chaney's last film was a talkie and a re-make of the successful The Unholy Three (1930), this time directed by Jack Conway. For that film Chaney had to sign a sworn statement that five of the key-voices in the film (the ventriloquist, old woman, parrot, dummy and girl) were in fact his own.

"I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since The Hunchback, such as The Phantom of the Opera, He Who Gets Slapped, The Unholy Three, etc., have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do."

During the last five years of Chaney's film career (1925-1930) he was under contract with MGM, and there made some his most memorable characterizations on screen. For instance in his own favourite film, Tell It to the Marines (1926) where he playes the hardened Sgt. O'Hara, whom the crew silently hates. That performance earned Chaney the affection of the US Marine Corps, who made him their first honorary member from the motion picture industry. They also provided a chaplain and Honor Guard for his funeral.

As Sgt. O'Hara in Tell It to the Marines (1926).

During the filming of Thunder (1929), another sadly lost film, Chaney became ill with pneumonia. In the late 1929 he was diagnosed with bronchial lung cancer. Even though his aggressive treatment, his condition only became worsened. Seven weeks after the premiere of the re-make of The Unholy Three in 1930, he died of a throat hemorrhage.
He was buried in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetary and, for some reason that no one knows, his crypt is unmarked.

A tribute to Lon Chaney, with footage from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). The song is called "Lon Chaney" and is sung by Garland Jeffreys.