Opening-day SHOCKtober screening this season is one I’ve been meaning to watch for years for being Shadowplay’s favorite film. Not my favorite, but I appreciated the enjoyably absurd premise, Chaney’s performance (which involves getting slapped), the brilliant optical transitions (a spinning ball -> globe -> circus ring), and of course, murder by lion.

Lon with his wife and benefactor, just before tragedy struck:

Lon Chaney (same year he did Phantom of the Opera and The Unholy Three) is a brilliant scientist married to sweet Ruth King (in possibly her only surviving film) and sponsored by a wealthy baron (Marc McDermott). Life is good, until McDermott steals Chaney’s ideas and his wife. Chaney is humiliated in front of his peers at a big presentation, slapped by the baron, slapped by his wife, and told to fuck off. Treated like a clown, he joins the circus, becomes an actual clown and creates a hugely successful routine wherein he reenacts his humiliation, getting slapped again and again as he tries to be taken seriously, the other clowns and the crowd roaring laughter at him.

A few years later, attractive young Norma Shearer (The Divorcee) joins the circus, drawing the attention of attractive young John Gilbert (The Merry Widow, The Big Parade) as well as Lon (now, hilariously, only known as “HE”). But slimy old Baron McDermott visits the circus and sees his chance to dump Lon’s wife for a younger girl. He makes a deal with her father to marry Norma, causing HE to take his belated revenge via lion.

Attractive young couple, somewhat overdoing it:

Cairns:

The biggest contortion of credibility is when Chaney confesses his love to Norma Shearer and she thinks he’s joking which, given his performance and the lines we get via intertitle, is impossible to accept as believable in any literal way. Nobody could be that dumb. A modern actor might say the scene is unplayable. But it works, because we get what it’s about (this film is deep but it ain’t exactly subtle, so Chaney even TELLS us what it’s about: “I say serious things and people laugh!”).

The first film MGM released, and the first American picture by Sjöström, lured to Hollywood after the international success of The Phantom Carriage. IMDB suggests a pile of related films – a 1917 Russian version, later Chinese and Argentinian versions, and three 1925 shorts with parody titles.

Transformation:

When I think of silent horror, one of the first names that comes to mind is Rupert Julian, director of Phantom of the Opera, The Cat Creeps and Midnight Madness. Hahaha, I’m kidding of course, nobody has ever heard of Rupert Julian. But he’s still made quite a cool movie here, with Feuilladian booby traps and secret passages, the great Lon Chaney in his most famous makeup/mask, and some ill color tricks (tinting, hand-coloring and 2-strip technicolor) restored by a tech crew associated with the Alloy Orchestra, who accompanied Phantom at the Rome Film Festival.

Apparently we saw a rare version of this – most existing copies are of the 1929 reedit with added sound scenes. Great atmosphere and sets, lots of cool shadows. Best part is a masked ball, the Phantom’s only public appearance – masked, of course, so nobody realizes it’s him until later. He’s draped in a bright red cape, which looks shocking in a 1920’s film, standing on a statue while the heroes stand below talking about him, thinking themselves alone.

After seeing the musical version, I was surprised that the phantom here gets no sympathy. He’s an outright monster, killing and kidnapping, with no back-story and just the tiniest bit of humanity. He obsesses on understudy Christine, forcing her to leave her boyfriend Raoul and come to his subterranean lair. Raoul finally comes storming down followed by a torch-waving mob, only to get stupidly caught in traps until the Phantom, stupidly fooled by the usually quite stupid Christine, frees Raoul then gets chased into the river by the mob. Yes it’s a movie without much depth of character, but it gets the job done. Katy liked it too, and I got to briefly talk with Roger Miller about silent movies, so I figure it was worth the trip for both of us.

This came out the same year as three other Lon Chaney movies (including The Unholy Three), and before almost any other horror movie I’ve heard of (Nosferatu, and I guess you could count Haxan). Male hero Raoul was played by Norman Kerry, who also co-starred with Lon Chaney in Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Unknown, although he shares almost no scenes with Chaney in this one. Extremely gullible love interest Christine was Mary Philbin, who had worked with Julian and Kerry in Merry-Go-Round and would later star in The Man Who Laughs. The vaguely Lon Chaney-looking Arthur Edmund Carewe (later of Doctor X, The Cat and the Canary) played Ledoux, a suspicious character who turns out to be a secret agent and helps Raoul at the end. Edward Sedgwick, director of a 1920 American version of Fantomas (sadly lost), and director of the early sound-era Buster Keaton pictures which ruined Buster’s reputation, took over for Julian towards the end of the production.

Pretty good movie with laughably ludicrous plot.

Ventriloquist Echo (Lon Chaney) teams up with midget Willie (Hans from Freaks) and strongman Hercules (Victor McLaglen, oscar-winning John Ford fave) to form the unholy three, an ill-conceived crime group. In tow are cute pickpocket Mae Busch (Foolish Wives, and some 35 movies between 1931 and ’35) and patsy Hector (Matt Moore).

Hans is maybe better appreciated as an actor in a silent film, since his voice is hard to understand in Freaks… he out-acts everyone but Chaney in this movie. Chaney is fun to watch as Granny O’Grady and Hans as Little Willie. Hercules never has much to do. The giant chimpanzee and out-of-focus cockatoo are cool, too, and the visual speech bubbles when Echo makes the birds talk (funny to have a ventriloquist in a silent film). The dialogue contains “echoes” (repeated lines), appreciated by the English students watching along with me. A few good shots of the shadows of shadowy conspirators conspiring.

The movie’s not scary, more wacky/funny than anything else. Their criminal plot is idiotic and doesn’t work. Hercules kills someone during a heist and gets them all in trouble, everyone’s plotting behind everyone else’s back, Chaney and Hector are in love with Mae, and eventually Herc and Willie kill each other via chimpanzee. Hector is about to be framed for the murder when “Grandma” Chaney comes and saves him. Chaney is then set free by awesome-looking judge Edward Connelly (The Saphead, The Merry Widow) for being such a good guy and goes back to the circus, ho hum. Movie’s got good atmosphere… def. a quality lightweight film with that freakish crime-drama Tod Browning touch.

Not to be confused with the non-Browning sound remake from 1930, the last film Lon Chaney made before his death from cancer.

Liked it better than Unholy Three because of the super fast pace and more exciting atmosphere, the wonderfully (if not accurately) rendered African setting.

Ron on IMDB helpfully summarizes: “Magician Phroso’s wife Anna leaves him for another man, named Crane, who fights with Phroso and leaves him paralyzed. Later Anna returns and he finds her dead, leaving behind a daughter. For 18 years Phroso, known as “Dead Legs” by his cronies, plots his revenge, becoming a pseudo-king in East Africa, nearby where Crane has set up an ivory business. When the daughter is grown, having lived in a brothel in Zanzibar thanks to “Dead Legs”, Phroso put his plan into action, resulting in revenge and retribution all around.”

Lon Chaney is great as Dead Legs, but the great Lionel Barrymore looked pretty generic to me, failed to stand out as the arch-rival. Young wife Anna quit acting the following year (right before sound films) and lived until 1986. Drunken Doc, who falls in love with the daughter, was Warner Baxter, who won the best-actor oscar that same year in the second annual academy awards, for In Old Arizona, the first full-talkie.

Not to be confused with the 50’s British Ealing Studios West of Zanzibar about a good-hearted man (Story of O actor Anthony Steel with wife Sheila Sim of A Canterbury Tale) fighting ivory pirates.