LON CHANEY, JR.

Why no one has ever produced a cinematic biopic treatment of the Chaney boys ( Lon Sr. and Lon Jr.) is baffling. Bela Lugosi was given quite a spotlight in Ed Wood (1994), and Boris Karloff was a supporting character in Gods and Monsters (1998). Off-screen, Karloff might have made for a nice neighbor, but being the workaholic he was, his biography is dull going. Of course, Lugosi had elements of drug addiction, pathos, and parody late in life working for him. While the Chaneys lacked the European mystery of Karloff and Lugosi, there’s an aptness in these American-bred father and son icons because, as the past year has revealed, Europe has doodly-squat on ‘Murica when it comes to the banality of authentic horror.

From the slivers of information that we have received over the years through peer recollections and various articles, the Chaneys would make for one helluva psycho drama, preferably directed by someone with the sensibilities of a David Cronenberg. No definitive biography has been written about either, and cinematically there’s only a ludicrously whitewashed biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) starring James Cagney as daddy Chaney. Part of the reason for lack of a substantial biography could be the almost obsessive protectiveness of the Chaney estate, who seem to have made things consistently difficult for potential biographers. However, it is also telling that the estate has, as far I know, never disputed the more colorful biographical tidbits that have been given about their silver screen patriarchs.

There must have been something of the masochist in the elder Chaney, who went though much self-inflicted suffering for his art, including looping wires around his eye sockets and wearing false teeth so tight that shots had to be completed quickly before he started bleeding. For Quasimodo, he wore a back prosthetic so heavy that (coupled with instructions to an extra to not spare the whip in the famous beating scene) it sent Lon Sr. to the hospital for an extended stay. Apparently, he was also quite a sadist, and would lock Creighton (Lon Jr.’s birth name) in a closet after razor strap beatings for punishment. (Senior was also psychologically abusive, as when he told Junior that mommy was dead, when in fact she was quite alive).

Such heredity and abuse certainly was instrumental in composing Lon Chaney Jr. as something of a real life lycanthrope with horrific daddy issues. In assessing Jr. as a pale copy of his father, the popular and critical consensus is spot on (for once). In addition to obsessively (and vainly) trying to outdo daddy, Jr. was also a raging alcoholic, had drug problems, and was prone to a violent temper; which, according to some (including writer Curt Siodmak) sprang from guilt over latent homosexuality. However, when actually being directed, instead of just being told to do Lennie from Of Mice and Men again, Chaney, Jr., if not a great actor per se, was memorable in numerous character parts (few of which are in the horror genre).

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TOD BROWNING: DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE

Tod Browning

As a child of the 60s and 70s, I grew up reading about Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), but having been banned in several countries, it was never shown on television and remained-for me-something akin to a “lost film,” achieving mythical status. Then, in the early 80s, with the advent of VCRS, video stores, and VHS, Freaks suddenly was rediscovered. Costing $100.00, I ordered my copy. It was the full feature movie I purchased (excluding the 8MM Chaplin shorts we used to order from Blackhawk Films). When a work of art achieves legendary status, it can fail to live up to its reputation. The Ghoul (1933) with Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger (both from Bride Of Frankenstein, 1935) was such an example when I finally viewed it after having read about it for twenty years. Freaks was different. It retained its power and became an anthem; a source of identification to a young art school student. I had previously read of Browning’s uncomfortability with sound and agreed that it would have been even more shocking as a silent, but the awkward line-reading of non-actor freaks (Harry Earles, etc) rendered it powerfully authentic. From there, I explored the films of Tod Browning, discovering his body of art that lead to Freaks, lifetime obsessions, and one of the most unsetlling actor/director collaborations in the history of cinema.

Outside The Law (Tod Browning)Outside The Law (Tod Browning)

Although Lon Chaney has two roles in Outside the Law (1920), he is
not the star; rather, the film features early Tod Browning favorite Priscilla
Dean who plays Silky Moll, daughter of mobster Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis). Both are attempting to reform under the guidance of Confucian Master Chang Lo
(E. Alyn Warren). Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) interrupts the reformation by framing Silent Madden for murder. Silky, like Lorraine Lavond in Browning’s later The Devil Doll (1939), now has a wrongly imprisoned father.

Outside The Law (Tod Browning)Outside The Law (Tod Browning)

Silky and Dapper Bill Ballard plan a jewel heist with Black Mike. Unknown to Mike, Silky is aware of his betrayal of her father and, with Bill, she double-crosses her father’s Judas. Escaping with the heisted jewels, Silky and Bill hole up in an apartment and the time spent in such a  claustrophobic setting is awash with religious symbolism, which points to transformation. Browning, a Mason, repeatedly used religious imagery and themes: In West of Zanzibar (1928) Phroso stands in for the self-martyred Christ and calls upon divine justice under the image of the Virgin. In The Show (1927), the sadomasochistic drama of Salome is reenacted and almost played out in the actors’ lives (Martinu’s
opera ‘The Greek Passion’ would explore that possibility to a more jarring, degree). East is East 1929) utilizes Buddhist and Catholic symbology. Priests and crucifixes play important parts in The Unholy Three (1925), Road to Mandalay (1926), Dracula (1931-
possibly the most religious of the Universal Horror films) and Mark of the
Vampire
 (1935).

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THE VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION: AN INTRODUCTORY PRIMER ON BLU-RAY

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER . Vincent Price

A Vincent Price six pack has made its way to Blu-Ray. The set features some of the actor’s most iconic roles, along with at least one surprise inclusion. It is by no means a complete collection, as it concentrates primarily on the late actor’s work with Roger Corman and AIP (since most of these movies were adapted from works by Edgar Allan Poe they are known as the “Poe cycle”). Even by that criteria, the collection is a mere introduction.

House of Wax 3D RR Quad

Price cemented his status as horror icon in Andre De Toth’s House of Wax (1953), despite the fact that that this 3D box office hit is a flat and unimaginative remake of Michael Curtiz’ vastly superior Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). In a way, this parallels Price himself. Although he has been beatified by genre aficionados, and despite doing occasionally fine acting work, Price’ carefully crafted screen persona seems more derivative than innovative. That persona lacks the authenticity of a Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, or Dwight Frye. The passage of time makes that even more apparent. Still, the veteran actor could often supply a luster to pedestrian productions, without necessarily redeeming them.

House of Wax. Vincent Price. Lobby card

Fortunately, this Blu Ray collection, although somewhat haphazard in concept and packaging, is a marketable compilation in a “Vincent Price’s Greatest Hits Volume One” style. Like most such compilations, the choices deemed “greatest” are not without debate. Continue reading

A BORIS KARLOFF RETROSPECTIVE

“When I first met Karloff, I felt this incredible wave of sadness. His eyes were like shattered mirrors. Whatever his pain was, it was very deep and very much a part of his soul. I never intruded and he was always a perfect gentleman.” Zita Johann on Boris Karloff.

THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931) BORIS KARLOFF

After the death of the silent star, Lon Chaney, The King of Horror crown was up for grabs.  It was Universal Studios contract actor Boris Karloff who inherited Chaney’s mantle, and reigned supreme as horror’s newly christened patriarch.

SCARFACE (1932) Karloff

Karloff was not the studio’s first pretender to Chaney’s throne. Bela Lugosi starred as the screen’s most iconic vampire in Tod Browning‘s Dracula, released at the beginning of 1931, nearly a year before Karloff’s star-making performance in James Whale‘s Frankenstein (also 1931).  With the premiere of Karloff’s monster, Lugosi and his vampire alter-ego were usurped.

Frankenstein (1931 dir. James Whale) Colin Clive, Boris Karloff. lobby card

Lugosi often told the tale of how he turned down the role of the monster, thus gifting Karloff his career-making role. Lugosi’s version of the casting switch has made the rounds, becoming part of Hollywood folklore, but, as is often the case, it is pure myth. Lugosi was wanted by neither the new director (James Whale, replacing Robert Florey) or producer (Carl Laemmle, Jr.). Lugosi’s career and life quickly deteriorated, catapulting the Hungarian actor into parody, abject poverty, drug addiction, and pathos. In 1956 Lugosi was buried in his vampire’s cloak, forever merging actor and role. On the face of it, Lugosi should have reigned supreme in the genre. He seemed to really believe in all that malevolent nonsense. However, he lacked Chaney’s sense of humanism, thus paving the path for a better actor.

Frankenstein (1931) lobby card

In sharp contrast to Lugosi, Karloff celebrated unabated success until his death in 1969. Since Karloff’s passing, Lugosi has exacted posthumous revenge on the thespian who stole his crown.  Lugosi’s cult status has risen considerably, far surpassing that of Karloff. This turnabout is, in part, due to the increasing faddish (and increasingly dull) obsession with vampires, and with Lugosi’s more colorful biography compared to the workaholic Karloff.  Justice, it would seem, has been served, except that the revisionist take is dead wrong.  Karloff’s genteel nature and cultured leaning rendered him a vastly superior artist. The studio heads were correct in preferring Karloff to Lugosi: Bela was not in Boris’ league.  Karloff triumphed because he approached his craft with an intelligence and insight that Lugosi simply did not possess. Karloff was also more pragmatic, calling the monster: “The best friend I ever had.” Lugosi, oddly, resented his genre typecasting. Karloff embraced it, knowing it won him hard earned security. Astutely, Karloff referred to his film work as “fairy tales,” as opposed to “horror.” Continue reading

SPIDER BABY (1964): THEME SONG BY LON CHANEY, JR!

SPIDER BABY LOBBY CARD, LON CHANEY

When a film opens up with a raspy-voiced Lon Chaney, Jr. ardently singing the title song, it almost comes with a guarantee of a weird trip ahead. Spider Baby (1964) does not disappoint.

Spider Baby screen shot

Some commentators have likened Spider Baby to Eraserhead (1977), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 ), or TV’s “the Addams Family,” while others have erroneously categorized it as “surreal.” If we have to give comparisons, we might find it to be the most idiosyncratic film in the “Old Dark House” genre (and yes, that includes Rocky Horror Picture Show). Still, even that is not adequate. Spider Baby is a maverick that defies labels.

SPIDER BABY LOBBY CARD Color SPIDER BABY LOBBY CARD

Writer/director Jack Hill‘s credits include Boris Karloff‘s unfortunate Z-grade Mexican horror films House of Evil (1968), Fear Chamber (1968), Isle of the Snake People (1971), Alien Terror (1971); the women-in-prison jigglefests The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972); the Pam Grier blaxploitation vehicle Foxy Brown (1974); and Switchblade Sisters (1975-the title says it all). All of these are lucid examples of trash cinema; Spider Baby is a one-of-a-kind inbred sibling to the lot. Continue reading

VICTOR SJOSTROM’S HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924) STARRING LON CHANEY

He Who Gets Slapped (1924) is part of the 2011 Warner Archive Lon Chaney collection, and in this film Chaney gives one of his most natural, assured performances—in no small part due to director Victor Sjostrom,  who also directed Chaney, with Norma Shearer, in the following year’s Tower Of  Lies (unfortunately, yet another lost film).  Victor Sjostrom is something of an icon.  He was a favorite director of stars Greta Garbo and Lillian Gish, and his masterpiece,The Phantom Carriage (1921), was a considerable influence on .  After the coming of sound Sjostrom retired from directing to return to his first love of acting, but he still served as mentor to the young Bergman; Bergman repaid the favor by casting Sjostrom in the extraordinarily beautiful role of Dr. Isak Borg  for Wild Strawberries (1957, possibly Bergman’s greatest film).

HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (JOHN GILBERT, NORMA SHEARER, LON CHANEY)

After seeing the films Sjostrom had made in Sweden, Producer Irving Thalberg  recruited Sjostrom to Hollywood.  He Who Gets Slapped was the first film the director made at MGM, and it proved to be a lucrative endeavor for all concerned.  Sjostrom was one of the few directors respected by both Louis B. Mayer and Thalberg.  He Who Gets Slapped is based off the 1914 play by Leonid Andreyev.  The resulting film looks, thinks and acts far more European than anything Hollywood studios had produced at that time.

It is a tale of degradation, humiliation, pathos, and sacrifice.  Thankfully, it is a film in which we do not find ourselves rooting for the Donald Trumps or Paris Hiltons of the world.  Chaney is the destitute but prolific scientist Paul Beaumont, so dedicated in his work that he, inevitably, is rendered the oblivious fool.  Beaumont’s filthy rich patron is the Baron de Regnard (Marc McDermott).  Regnard has been helping himself to Beaumont’s selfish wife Maria (Ruth King) and additionally plans to steal the fruit of Beaumont’s scientific labors.

Still from He Who Gets Slapped (1924)The world of Paul Beaumont comes crashing down when Regnard presents Beaumont’s work, as his own, to the Academy.  Beaumont tries, in vain, to convince the Academy of the theft, but they take the side of the affluent Regnard as opposed to the unknown, poverty stricken Beaumont.  Beaumont is belittled  by his patron’s betrayal, by the mocking laughter of the academy, by the discovery of his wife’s infidelity, and, finally, by Regnard’s humiliating slap to his face.  It is a slap which Beaumont now obsessively echoes in repetition every night.  On the road to the discovery of his Magnificat, Paul becomes ‘HE.’

The clown He Who Gets Slapped (HE) is soon the rage of the Paris circus.  Underneath HE’s face paint is the former Paul Beaumont, who repeats that cruel moment of humiliation again and again and again, every night, in performance.  Audiences make a star of the clown who gets slapped one hundred times a night.  HE is in love with Consuelo (Norma Shearer- who soon became Mrs. Irving Thalberg), the beautiful bareback rider, but she is in love with Bezano (John Gilbert, the original inspiration for the doomed star of  A Star is Born ) which, of course, means unrequited love for HE.

HE expresses his love for Consuelo, who, in believing HE is joking, laughs at him.  HE takes the laugh, but HE cannot take the return of the Regnard, who has conspired with Consuelo’s father, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall) to take Consuelo’s hand in marriage.  To lift the lowly and scatter the elite calls for nothing less than Biblical justice, in the form of the animal kingdom.

Chaney’s HE is one of his most masterful portrayals.  Chaney resembles a character straight out of a Flannery O’ Connor narrative.  His pathetic desperation, dementia, humility, and redemptive dignity are fully intact.  Oddly, Chaney is best known for his roles in two Universal features, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera(1925).  While Chaney’s acting was indisputably superb in both of those epic films, the movies themselves are flawed by unimaginative directing, leaving one to wonder how much better they might have been if Chaney had been under the helm of a director like Sjostrom or Tod Browning.

He Who Gets Slapped is not without its flaws.  The intrusive vignettes focusing on the romance between Gilbert and Shearer (no doubt the result of producer Thalberg, who wanted to highlight the sex appeal of his soon to be wife and matinee idol Gilbert) are of considerably less interest than the main story.  Despite being saddled with THE Hollywood studio, Sjostrom’s work here is innovative and often surreal, making him a superb collaborator for Chaney.  This makes the loss of their second collaboration, Tower of Lies (1925), all the more tragic.  Still, the official release of the long-buried He Who Gets Slapped is one of the most welcome of the year.

ROLAND WEST’S THE MONSTER (1925) STARRING LON CHANEY

The Monster (1925) is part of  the extensive Warner Archive Collection 2011 releases.  This film, directed by Roland V. West and starring Lon Chaney, goes a considerable length to prove the adage that “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Essentially, The Monster is the precursor for the tongue-in-cheek old-dark-house-with-malevolent-horror-star-as-host movie.  Considerably later,Vincent Price and William Castle visited The Monster‘s familiar territory in the House on Haunted Hill (1959), a film that has become the stereotypical example of the genre.

Director Roland V. West revisited The Monster territory again in the following year’s hit, The Batand, yet again with sound in The Bat Whispers (1930) (for which he is most remembered—well, he may actually be best remembered for giving  a deathbed confession that he murdered his girlfriend Thelma Todd). The Monster is the least known of West’s dark house trilogy and, although it is the weakest of the three, it retains interest for several reasons.

The Monster is an oddity in the way it uses star Chaney.  Chaney’s body of work goes a considerable distance in debunking his reputation as a “horror” actor.  The few horror films Chaney appeared in are more aptly described as bizarre, densely psychological melodramas. The Monster, however, could serve as a prototype for a genre celebrity in a B-movie parody.  Chaney’s Dr. Ziska is strictly cartoon horror.  He could romp with Baron Boris in Mad Monster Party (1967), or brew up a Gossamer with Bugs in Hare-Raising Hare (1946).

Hick amateur Johnny (Johnny Arthur) has just gotten his detective license in the mail, just in time to try and solve a local whodunit disappearance.  Johnny, the local nerd, has his eye on Betty (Gertrude Olmstead) but she’s on the arm of the local jock hero.  If only Johnny could solve the case and win the girl.  This setup leads the three teens to the local spooky house run by Dr. Ziska, a mad surgeon running a former sanitarium.  Ziska is aided by caped ghoul who rolls imagined smokes and, with the aid of a mirror, plays saboteur to cars on lonely back roads.  Ziska is also assisted by the hulking mute, Rigo.

Still from The Monster (1925)Trap doors, laundry shoots, secret basements and an electric chair are the props in West’s dream-world.  Chaney’s Ziska is surprisingly foppish with smoking jacket, a flapper-like quellazaire, and a wayward eyebrow.  Ziska wears a menacing grin at all times, making him a possible first member of a Grand Guignol Three Stooges which might include Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi in their lean salad days.  Foppish or not, Ziska is man enough to get aroused when he straps poor Betty to the table.  With Rigo’s Frankenstein monster-like presence, about the only thing missing is a Vampirella to play opposite Ziska’s Dr. Deadly.

The Monster is not great cinema, its not the best West, best Chaney, or best Old Dark House movie (would deliver that seven years later), but it is silent pulp and, in the right mindset, it can take you back to the days of milk duds and acne.

WALLACE WORSLEY’S THE PENALTY (1920) STARRING LON CHANEY

Wallace Worsley made five films with silent movie icon . Lamentably, two of those, Voices of the City(1921) and The Blind Bargain (1922), are lost. The Ace of Hearts (1921) survives, but their most famous collaborations remain The Penalty (1920) and the epic Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).  It is for these two films Worsley, an otherwise undistinguished commission director, will be remembered, if at all.  The Penalty was Chaney’s first starring role, and the film justifiably made him a major star.

The plot of The Penalty is beautifully absurd, operatic, and addictive.  An injured young boy has been unnecessarily mutilated by a young Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary).  A seasoned colleague arrives and tells Dr. Ferris that amputating the boy’s legs was not at all necessary, but the veteran promises to remain silent about the malpractice.  The bed-ridden boy hears the conversation and tells his parents what has transpired.  However, the boy’s revelation is dismissed as delirium cause by a contusion.

Penalty (Chaney)

 

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TOD BROWNINGS OUTSIDE THE LAW 1920

Tod Browning Outside The Law one sheet

Although Lon Chaney has two roles in Outside the Law (1920), he is
not the star; rather, the film features early Tod Browning favorite Priscilla
Dean plays Silky Moll, daughter of mobster Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis), and
both are attempting to reform under the guidance of Confucian Master Chang Lo
(E. Alyn Warren).

Tod Browning Outside The Law Dean

Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) interrupts the reformation by framing Silent Madden
for murder, so that Silky Moll, like Lorraine Lavond in The Devil Doll
(1939), now has a wrongly imprisoned father. Silky and Dapper Bill Ballard plan
a jewel heist with Black Mike. Unknown to Mike, Silky is aware of his betrayal
of her father and, with Bill, she double-crosses Mike.

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TOD BROWNING’S THE SHOW 1927

Tod Browning The Show John Gilbert

The screenplay for The Show (1927) was written by frequent  Tod
Browning collaborator Waldemer Young (with uncredited help from Browning). It
is (very loosely) based on Charles Tenney Jackson’s novel, “The Day of
Souls.” Originally titled “Cock O’ the Walk,” The Show is one of the
most bizarre productions to emerge from silent cinema, nearly on par with the
director’s The Unknown from the same year.

Tod Browning The Show poster

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