He was famous for being unrecognizable. That paradox explains why Lon Chaney remains one of the most well-remembered stars of the silent screen. He created extravagant makeup jobs and adopted uncomfortable contortions to play a gallery of grotesque characters, as in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley, 1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1927), two of the biggest hits of the 1920s.
Chaney’s commitment to the macabre and painful remains impressive, as he was especially fond of playing literally twisted villains. Yet such personae account for only a fraction of his prodigious output, albeit the most celebrated fraction. He played many roles, often without any special makeup, and a good sampling can be found in a new Blu-ray from the Kickstarter-funded Undercrank Productions, Lon Chaney: Before the Thousand Faces, Vol. 2.
The five titles on this two-disc set are among the 24 surviving films out of 111 productions made by Chaney for Universal during the 1910s. Obtaining prints from the Library of Congress and other sources, Jon C. Mirsalis has produced these restorations and composed music for them. Don’t get too excited at the term “restoration”, as all films show greater or lesser signs of damage and may lack some footage. Here we see new scans of what exists and some reconstruction of missing scenes via summaries.
The first two films, By the Sun’s Rays and The Oubliette, date from 1914 and are directed by Charles Giblyn, who helmed nearly 100 silents. Both films star Murdock MacQuarrie, another of those astoundingly busy silent artists now utterly forgotten. MacQuarrie not only appeared in over 280 films but directed more than 50. If he’s recalled today, it’s for his role as an eccentric inventor in Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).
By the Sun’s Rays is a one-reel western in which Chaney plays a shady clerk participating in gold robberies. The story’s not much, and neither is the 16mm print; it’s a blow-up from a Super-8mm print, all that exists in the world. Chaney will play a much more honest accountant in The Scarlet Car, but we’re not there yet.
At 46 minutes, The Oubliette is more satisfying. An oubliette is a hole in the floor into which people could be dropped and forgotten, “oublier” being French for “to forget”. Metaphorically, the word evokes the state into which the vast majority of silent stars have been dropped today. The Oubliette was the first of four productions in a planned series called The Adventures of Francois Villon, based on tales about the 14th Century French poet and criminal. The second film has been lost, and it’s not certain if the last two films were even made.
Villon’s a morally ambiguous character, to say the least, keeps the story off-balance and intriguing. The script presents him robbing monks and killing people while also rescuing women and poor old couples like some kind of Robin Hood. MacQuarrie’s performance, in long hair and torn leggings, is barnstorming melodrama, forever gesturing to the rafters with both hands. Clearly, he was adapting his style to the material, for his laconic hero in By the Sun’s Rays doesn’t resemble this.
The Oubliette presents Chaney in a brief role as a scowling aristocrat who keeps his pretty ward as a prisoner for presumably nefarious designs. That situation is resolved by swordplay with Villon, an element making the film a precursor to the swashbucklers of Douglas Fairbanks. The story’s third episode brings in King Louis XI for a happy resolution to Villon’s troubles for now.
This big-budget production boasts elaborate sets and dozens of costumed extras. Giblyn’s staging is artful, whether in indoor shots like the prison cell, with a decorative square of sunlight shining in at a diagonal, or in outdoor shots composed in depth, like the shocking and vivid scene of Villon’s friend getting hanged. The pair of legs swinging in the upper corner of the screen during several shots isn’t easily forgotten and lends weight to what would seem an escapist film.
The last three films in the Blu-ray collection are directed by Joseph De Grasse, a transplanted Canadian who handled more than 80 films. He often worked with his wife, screenwriter Ida May Park, one of several women who directed silents at Universal.
Unfortunately, only six minutes of degraded nitrate remain of The Millionaire Paupers (1915) from Park’s scenario. We see that Chaney plays a cigar-smoking slicker who manages a tenement and leans upon its prettier residents, but no coherence can be extracted from these random fragments. They must remain as tantalizing as a barely recalled dream.
Triumph and The Scarlet Car both date from 1917. Only three of five reels have survived from Triumph, and those three have serious issues. Even so, we’re presented with an engaging, cynical show-biz tale of several well-drawn characters at cross-purposes. Chaney lends major support as a desperately ill critic turned aspiring playwright. He’s written a swashbuckler set in 16th Century France; maybe it owes something to Francois Villon. Chaney lounges in a dressing gown with a cigarette holder when not dressed in a fancy suit.
Triumph is a vehicle for Dorothy Phillips, one of the era’s most popular melodramatic heroines; she frequently worked with De Grasse. Here she plays a naive ingenue who runs to Broadway with dreams of stardom and finds herself an object of interest to various men. Events spiral to a surprise ending that we don’t get to see, but it’s summarized in title cards. If only those last two reels weren’t missing; they sound sensational. Phillips is yet another resident of today’s cultural oubliette, although she’s got a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
One of the engaging aspects of Triumph is that the mechanics of sexual manipulation and its effects on rivalry and employment are presented so frankly. They function as a warning to starry-eyed hopefuls to stay home with mother and the local hayseed boyfriend. The script is based on a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams, a famous muckraking journalist, and prolific fiction writer. Much of his material wasturned into films, including Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934).
The hour-long The Scarlet Car may be of greatest interest to Chaney’s fans as it signals his penchant for makeup effects and eye-catching character parts. This tinted print is also in the best shape and is the set’s most glittering attraction. Chaney plays the bearded and elderly Paul Revere Forbes, a clerk-accountant with a monomania about being descended from Paul Revere. Even though Forbes is a melodramatic character, Chaney doesn’t overplay him.
When Forbes realizes that bank owner Cyrus Peabody (Howard Crampton) and his son Ernest Peabody (Sam DeGrasse, the director’s brother) are embezzling, he confronts them in an incident with unfortunate results. Like many melodramas, the story of The Scarlet Car embeds the notion that bankers and other wealthy types are scoundrels who exploit and railroad the poor and innocent.
Jones’ daughter Beatrice (Edith Johnson) is the fair damsel of the proceedings, although she doesn’t do much besides become an object of contention. The day-saving hero is played by Franklyn Farnum, best known for westerns. Lule Warrenton, another of Universal’s female directors, is seen in a minor role.
The Scarlet Car has many fine, evocative shots courtesy of cinematographer King David Gray, who is, unfortunately, most famous for his unsolved 1938 murder. We see rainy nights, we see fireplace shadows, and we see lush open landscapes. William Parker’s script is based on a novel by yet another of the era’s famous journalists and fiction writers, Richard Harding Davis. Universal filmed a remake in 1923, now lost, but at least we have this 1917 production marked by Chaney’s performance and many good-looking scenes.
If you’re wondering why this Blu-ray set is Volume Two, it’s that Volume One emerged on DVD in 2017. It contained three films of the DeGrasse/Park period, two starring Phillips. In conjunction with Volume Two, Volume One is now being reissued as a Blu-ray upgrade. Maybe there’s still enough material floating around to comprise a Volume Three one day. Every little bit helps to pull the silent era out of the oubliette.