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Tag Archives: Lon Chaney

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)

When watching movies with clowns, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that making people laugh is depressing business. While the world relies on the clowns for their relief from daily life, tragedy and even neuroses, who is the clown to rely on? This is Lon Chaney’s problem in Laugh, Clown, Laugh.

Chaney plays Tito, a clown traveling through rural Italy, who stumbles upon an abandoned child. He keeps her, despite the protests of Simon (Bernard Siegel), his fellow clown, and names her Simonetta. He raises her and she becomes a tightrope walker, joining their act (played by 15-year-old Loretta Young).

Tito is devoted to her, but after an amorous run-in with the hedonistic Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther), she returns to Tito with a new awareness that she is a young woman. Tito also has a new awareness of this, which horrifies him, especially when he realizes that he is in love with her. Definitely creepy, though he seems to be as much aware of this as the audience, with a remarkably complex bit of acting from Chaney in the scene where he makes his discovery. Alternately confused, admiring, a bit turned on, appalled, affectionate, frightened

Years pass and Ravelli comes back into their lives. He is seeking treatment from a prominent neurologist for his constant bouts of uncontrollable laughter. The neurologist says he has lived a self-serving lifestyle and prescribes falling in love with a good woman. Tito, on the other hand, is experiencing bouts of crying and sees the same neurologist, who diagnoses repressed feelings of love and prescribes winning the lady he loves or at the least going to see the new sensation in town, the clown Flik. But Tito feels he cannot win Simonetta and knows  Flik cannot make him laugh, because he is, in fact, Flik. But he and Ravelli are introduced and begin to think that maybe they can cure each other.

Lon Chaney and Loretta Young

Of course, the inevitable happens. They become genuine friends, Ravelli reforms and falls in love with Simonetta, who is concerned about leaving Tito alone, but is unaware of Tito’s real feelings for her. In Lon Chaney’s films, he often played unrequited love, always on the outside, often not even understood to be in love by others. But in Laugh, Clown, Laugh, it becomes all too plain to nearly everyone, even Simonetta in the end.

Simonetta is constantly concerned for Tito, concerned even about leaving him to marry Ravelli. He is the only family she has even known and clearly feels him to be a part of herself. Spoilers: When she realizes that Tito loves her romantically, and not just as a father-figure, she tells him that she never realized how he felt and that it is truly him that she loves. She even swears before a figure of a Madonna that she loves Tito and not Ravelli. But Tito does not believe her. He feels that she is sorry for him and really loves Luigi Ravelli.

Setting aside the question of whether Simonetta was lying or not, it’s hard not to wonder if the real reason Tito does not believe her is because in his heart of hearts, he does not believe it to be right that she should love him. When he and Luigi discuss how they both love her, he insists that Luigi propose first, so that she need never learn of his love if she prefers Luigi. In essence, he has a breakdown at the end, play-acting a happy scene from an early time with Simonetta or even dressing up in costume for a mere rehearsal and imagining there is an audience and orchestra out front, doing a dangerous stunt that leads to his death. Even if there had been no Luigi, I doubt he would have believed that she loved him. End Spoilers 

One of the lovely things about silent movies is that it allows one to easily show the incongruity of the exterior and interior of feelings. After Tito has learned that Luigi and Simonetta are engaged, he must go back on stage to thunderous applause. We see the crowd cheering and clapping and shouting, we can see the orchestra playing, and finally we see Tito run on stage in his clown costume, laughing and bowing, but we hear none of these things. All we hear is the heartbreaking score that contrasts so effectively with what we are seeing. Highly emotive, as is Chaney, who shows us the heartbreak beneath the smile.

Simon and Tito

Lon Chaney is a remarkably physical actor. Not just in stunts, but in how he conveys feeling. His entire body seems to reflect emotions, not just his face. At first, it struck me as a trifle melodramatic, but then I concluded that it is also very powerful. It’s hard not to be drawn into his story. He is probably the saddest clown I’ve ever seen, and there are some pretty sad clowns out there.

What makes it all the more sad is that audiences today generally agree that it is rather creepy that he should fall in love with Simonetta or even the idea that she would marry him. He has stood too much as a father figure and she owes him too much gratitude for it to be a healthy relationship, but it really does seem like Tito knows this, at least as Chaney plays it. There is never a chance for him. It’s a familiar story, but given unique angles by Chaney. In other hands, there is the danger that we would have been too disgusted with Tito, but it does still feel like a a personal tragedy.

This has been my contribution to “The Lon Chaney Blogathon,” hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and Silver Screenings. For more articles about Lon Chaney, check out the wrap-up of articles from Days 1 and 2.

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2018 in Movies

 

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Comparing Two Oliver Twists: The Jackie Coogan Show and Film Noir Dickens

poster-oliver-twist-1922_03Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist seems to be one his most often adapted novels. I’ve seen five different film versions, but there are many, many more, from musical to British miniseries to feature film to silent to talkie. Last week, however, I saw the 1922 silent Oliver Twist and David Lean’s 1948 Oliver Twist.

Olive Twist (1922)

I think the best way to think of the silent Oliver Twist is as The Jackie Coogan show. Jackie Coogan is the most full of personality, vital and alive Oliver Twist I have seen yet. He manages the unique feat of being able to co-opt his own story, something that not even the fictional character of Dickens’ novel is able to do. The character of Oliver Twist is, in the words of Norrie Epstein in The Friendly Dickens, a “blank slate” on which all the character seek to put their own stamp. But not Jackie Coogan. He even manages to upstage Lon Chaney as Fagin, though Chaney is certainly good.

Olivr Twist was made one year after Coogan appeared with Charlie Chaplin in The Kid, which feels like an appropriate follow-up film. According to Epstein, Oliver Twist was Chaplin’s favorite novel, which isn’t surprising since Chaplin’s very childhood is essentially Dickensian.

Jackie Coogan has wide, innocent eyes that look up at the camera so mournfully, you wonder how anyone can be cruel to him. But he also brings perhaps just a touch of mischief, which is not something one usually sees in an Oliver. Coogan was eight years old, only one year younger than Oliver’s actual age in the book, But Oliver is usually played by a boy who looks closer to eleven or twelve, making Coogan look so young. It’s hard to imagine anyone imaging that adorable child could be a hardened criminal.

oliver-twistThe movie is actually quite faithful to the book, hitting all the key plot points and characters, but the only other actor who has a chance to make an impression is Lon Chaney as Fagin, though it is still a relatively small role. He shows his remarkable ability to not only transform his face, but his entire posture and manner. But what makes the film work is how Coogan makes us root for and relate directly to the character of Oliver Twist. I can see why he was such a beloved child actor.

Oliver Twist (1948)

David Lean opens his Oliver Twist with a Gothic flourish, as Oliver’s mother makes her way through the rain and storm to a workhouse, where she gives birth. With the storm, it’s like she’s being persecuted by nature itself. But once she arrives in the workhouse, the film switches from Gothic nature to grim London city, with shadows and grime and the seedy side of life, looking occasionally like a film noir, proving that noir is perfectly compatible with the grim, dirty reality of a Dickens novel.

As a result, this Oliver Twist belongs far more to the villains and grifters of the film. Alec Guinness plays Fagin with considerable zest and heavy makeup. It’s amazing to think he played Herbert Pocket in Lean’s Great Expectations just a few years ago. Initially, Guinness seems to be having some fun with his role, but gradually he reveals him to be the one who embodies real evil as he eggs on Bill Sikes (an effectively brutal Robert Newton) into murdering Nancy (Kay Walsh).

mv5bmjexndu3ota1of5bml5banbnxkftztcwnzy3mdyxmq-_v1-_cr7233264427_ux182_cr00182268_al_All Oliver Twist adaptations unashamedly build up to the murder of Nancy. It’s the unacknowledged high-point of any film and filmmakers know audiences are waiting for it with a mixture of anticipation and horror. It has to be one of the most famous murders in literature and Dickens himself was fond if reading that passage aloud to audiences.

And because the film modifies the story somewhat – eliminating the Maylie thread of the story entirely – it leaves more room for Nancy to emerge as the real heroine of the story (which she is in the book, but she must compete for attention with Rose Maylie). Kay Walsh, I thought was very effective as the prostitute who is touched by Oliver and manages to be the only one to stand between him and the combined forces of Fagin, Sikes and Oliver’s evil half-brother, Monk, even though it kills her. This also makes the horror of the murder all the greater and Lean uses this murder as the spur that brings down Fagin and Sikes.

In some ways, the center of the film actually feels like Fagin’s lair. We even get a last stand, with the angry mob outside and Fagin, Bill Sikes and a number of terrified young boys holed up inside. Poor Oliver Twist kind of disappears in his own story during the last bit of the film, but the film is no less effective for it.

Oliver is played by John Howard Davies, who looks a few years older than nine, but plays him with a kind of deadened acceptance of the privations and cruelties of life. He initially looks like a concentration camp survivor, as do all of the children at the workhouse, with their shaved heads and listlessness. It’s one of the most effective dramatizations of the horror of the workhouse and does full justice to Dickens sense of outrage and horror.

As a side note: Alec Guinness wanted his makeup to be modeled after the original illustrations of George Cruikshank and his resulting appearance and especially his nose caused a sensation because of how it evoked traditional, negative depictions of Jews. America in particular was uncomfortable with it and it took three years for Oliver Twist  to be shown in the US, with several minutes of footage of Fagin deleted. My understanding is that his is the last overtly Jewish depiction of Fagin in any film adaptation.

 

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Unknown (1927) – Joan Crawford Blogathon

PosterunknownusxI was going to call The Unknown a horror story, but that doesn’t exactly capture the essence of the film. It is more like a macabre and lurid melodrama.

Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless knife-thrower who is obsessed with Nanon (Joan Crawford), the daughter of the circus owner (Nick De Ruiz). Alonzo is not alone, however, in wanting Nanon. Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) is the strongman of the circus and is also interested in her.

But Nanon has an extreme phobia of men’s hands. She says they have never done anything but paw her and one wonders very much about her father (who seems like the abusive type). She is attracted to Malabar, but she shrinks from him every time he tries to touch her. The only man she feels safe around is Alonzo.

But Alonzo has a secret. He really has two arms, though he keeps them hidden and strapped down for his act. He is also wanted by the police for theft and murder and would easily be recognized by his two thumbs on one hand. But as Cojo (John George), his assistant, tells him, he could never marry Nanon anyway. On their wedding night she would discover he really has arms and she would hate him.

But as Cojo also knows, Nanon does not look on Alonzo has a potential lover. She views him as a surrogate father, though this seems to have escaped Alonzo. There is one scene in the middle of the film where she leans in to embrace Alonzo and for a moment Cojo (and we the audience) thinks she’s going to kiss him on the lips, but instead she leans against his cheek. Cojo is visibly disappointed because he realizes what it means, but Alonzo is in an ecstasy that she kissed him at all. He’s already left reality and it’s scenes like this that make me love silent film, how they can convey so much without a word.

Alonzo smoking with his feet while Nanon asks him about their future plans now that her father is dead

Alonzo using his foot to hold and smoke his cigarette

Another remarkable scene occurs when he is moodily smoking and thinking about Nanon while Cojo watches in fascination. Alonzo’s arms are not strapped down to his sides, but instead of using his hands to hold his cigarette, habit takes over and he unconsciously uses his feet to light and hold his cigarette, while his arms hang at his side like dead weights. It’s a remarkable physical performance by Chaney (though much of knife-throwing and other stunts involving the use of legs and feet were done by a double, Peter Desmuke, who really was without two arms).

But this lack of dependence on his arms leads Alonzo to a a rather grotesque conclusion. Why not simply remove his arms for real? What’s rather alarming is that given his goals (avoiding the police, winning Nanon), there is a certain logic to this conclusion. He just does not take into account that Nanon does not love him or that Malabar will finally figure out why Nanon shrinks from him (his hands) and work to overcome it.

When Alonzo returns after having his arms removed, and finds that Nanon is cured of her hand phobia, he goes mad in spectacular fashion and the ending is a real killer. The pitch of tension created is almost unbearable.

The film was directed by Tod Browning and it was nice to see some of his silent work and not just think of him as the guy who directed Dracula. This was evidently the sort of story that he excelled at. Unfortunately, the present print of The Unknown seems to be missing some footage and flies by at a breathless pace of 50 minutes! It makes the film feel unnaturally rushed at certain points, as if we’re dashing between plot points.

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Joan Crawford as Nanon

Lon Chaney is, of course, magnificent (he seems to combine subtlety and intensity with over-the-top charisma), but I was really watching the film for Joan Crawford. The most recent Joan Crawford film I saw before The Unknown (1927) was Johnny Guitar (1954) and in The Unknown she is so young that I hardly recognized her as the same woman. She is much looser, more relaxed, almost girlish, but still with the dynamism that would propel her to stardom. I’ve never thought of her as uptight, but after watching how loose she was in The Unknown, I’ve begun to rethink that. Tense? Tightly-coiled in later films? But in The Unknown she’s almost naturalistic.

And maybe it’s partly the absence of her voice. Somehow, while watching The Uknown the voice I was hearing in my head was not Joan Crawford’s voice (whenever I see someone like William Powell in a silent film, I can always hear his voice). It made her seem less tough, more vulnerable.

But she could definitely hold her own against Lon Chaney. She may be playing a somewhat naive, emotionally battered and vulnerable young woman, but she was not overwhelmed by Chaney. I could have actually wished for more at the end, more of a confrontation between them, more time for her character to register the revelation of Alonzo’s real character. I felt rather cheated of a show down between them, though perhaps I was expecting too much. After all, Lon Chaney was a well established star and it’s his movie all the way. But knowing what she’s capable of, I still felt the loss. Though perhaps it was more the fault of the film’s rapid pace and missing footage.

It’s clear that even if sound had not come to the movies, Joan Crawford would have been a star. Although she went through a variety of personas – flapper (Our Dancing Daughters) during the silent era, shop-girl making her way through a tough depression-ridden, male-dominated world – The Unknown felt like a pre-persona role, which might also account for the apparent naturalism. I had to keep reminding myself that I was indeed watching Joan Crawford. Which made the role all the more interesting.

This post is part of the Joan Crawford Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, to whom I am most grateful for hosting this event! For more great posts on Joan Crawford, click here.

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Posted by on July 29, 2016 in Movies

 

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