Rudolph Valentino and John Gilbert were the heartthrobs of Hollywood’s silent-film era. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were the kings of comedy. And Douglas Fairbanks was the dashing superhero before the term even existed. But the most unusual — and perhaps the most accomplished — of the silent superstars was Lon Chaney, who was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” for his uncanny ability to use makeup and often painful devices to create characters who were sometimes deformed, often tragic and always memorable.
Chaney was celebrated for his work as the misshapen Quasimodo in 1923’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and as the haunted man in the mask in 1925’s “The Phantom of the Opera.” After making those movies at Universal, he signed on with the newly formed MGM, where he became an even bigger star, until his death of cancer in 1930 at age 47. Six movies he made at MGM just arrived on DVD thanks to the Warner Archive Collection. Here’s a look at those titles:
“He Who Gets Slapped”: This acclaimed 1924 film was the first production to be shot by MGM and the first to use the MGM lion as a symbol, even though others reached theaters first — the high-profile Chaney film was held back for a holiday-season release. Directed by Swedish filmmaker Victor Seastrom (who 30 years later would step in front of the camera as the star of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece “Wild Strawberries”), “He Who Gets Slapped” stars Chaney as Paul Beaumont, a disgraced scientist who becomes a circus clown whose job is to be slapped by the rest of the troupe. John Gilbert plays the hunky male horseback rider, and Norma Shearer, who would soon marry the studio’s wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg, is the beautiful new arrival in the show. Chaney’s tragic clown falls for Shearer, but she only has eyes for Gilbert. His performance in the film was considered one of Chaney’s greatest and, by some accounts, was the actor’s favorite role. The New York Times included the dark drama in its top 10 of the year, proclaiming “for dramatic value and a faultless adaptation of a play, this is one of the finest productions we have seen.” As for Chaney, the reviewer gushed: “Never in his efforts before the camera has Mr. Chaney delivered such a marvelous performance he does as this character. He is restrained in his acting, never overdoing the sentimental situations, and is guarded in his make-up.”
“The Unholy Three”: The 1925 crime classic marked the first time the star collaborated with director Tod Browning (“Dracula”). They would go on to make seven more films together. In this one, Chaney plays two different parts, a ventriloquist named Echo and Grandmother O’Grady. Echo teams up with two other side-show players, the strongman Hercules (Victor McLaglen) and diminutive Tweedledee (Harry Earles) to become “The Unholy Three.” They move to a town where they reinvent themselves as quite the dysfunctional family. Chaney becomes the kindly Grandmother O’Grady, who operates a parrot store. Tweedledee becomes her baby grandson, and Hercules presents himself as the bird-shop owner’s son-in-law. A pickpocket named Rosie O’Grady (portrayed by Mae Busch) also doubled as the granddaughter. Selling birds to the wealthy, they would creep into the homes of their customers to steal jewels and other goodies under cover of night. Though the film was a low-budget project for the studio, it became one of MGM’s blockbusters of the year.
“The Unholy 3” remake: This 1930 film, directed by Jack Conway, came just five years after the first. Why? A new technology was all the rage in Hollywood — this version of the crime movie was Chaney’s first talkie. It was also his last, with his death coming just weeks after the theatrical release. Earles was the only other star from the original who joined Chaney for the remake, which for lengthy sequences is nearly a shot-by-shot remake. Chaney’s stage-trained voice was generally praised, but rumors persisted before the film’s release that someone else has done the voice work. In a revealing footnote to that uneasy transition time in Hollywood, the star signed a notarized declaration that he used his own voice as Echo, Echo’s dummy, Grandmother O’Grady, a parrot and even a little girl at the circus.
“The Monster”: Chaney doesn’t show up for nearly 30 minutes into 1925’s “The Monster,” which is the oldest surviving film directed by Roland West (“The Bat Whispers”). ” A horror comedy based on a play by Crane Wilbur, “Monster” puts Chaney in the mad-scientist role of Dr. Ziska, who has taken over an insane asylum and causes car wrecks so he can experiment with the survivors of the accidents. His main aim is to transfer the soul of a woman into a man’s body using a device that looks like an electric chair. The reviews for the film were mixed, but “Picturegoer” cited the fact that Chaney managed to create a “palpable, menacing reality out of every shadowy movement.”
“Mr. Wu”: In this 1927 film directed by William Nigh, Chaney plays the dual role of Chinese patriarch Mr. Wu as well as Mr. Wu’s grandfather. Renée Adorée from “The Big Parade” plays Wu’s daughter Nang Ping, who makes the mistake of giving her heart to a vapid Englishman (Ralph Forbes) instead of going along with her arranged marriage. Wu takes extraordinary and violent measures to exact revenge upon the Englishman for destroying his daughter’s honor. For his on-screen persona, Chaney worked his makeup magic again to play both Wu men. He used fish skin to alter his eye shape and grey crepe hair was used for his mustache and goatee. He used strips of painted film stock to create the characters’ long fingernails.
“Mockery”: This 1927 movie was a commercial disappointment financially upon release and was one of the few movies where Chaney kept the makeup effects to a minimum. Set during the Russian Revolution, “Mockery” finds Chaney playing a rather slow-witted peasant named Sergei who is scavenging among the dead bodies of soldiers for food when he sees a young woman (Barbara Bedford). She hires him to take her to safety at a nearby town, where he discovers her true identity — a wealthy countess who is staying with some wealthy war profiteers. Sergei ends up working in the kitchen, where he is schooled in the ways of communism by the cooking staff. Ricardo Cortez plays a soldier with whom the countess falls in love. After the failure of “Mockery,” Chaney went back to the horror genre that year with Browning, playing a vampire in “London After Midnight.” Unfortunately, no print is known to exist of “Midnight.”
— Susan King
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