Lon Chaney, He Who Gets Slapped
Lon Chaney is one of the most fascinating movie stars in film history. Throughout the 1920s, Chaney was one the biggest box office draws the world over despite what could kindly be described as an unhandsome face — one that was often disguised by heavy layers of makeup to make him look ancient, deformed, Chinese, female, etc. His roles usually fell into two categories: total fiends, or fiends and semi-fiends in love/lust with or protective of some pretty young thing or other.
On Monday, August 15, Turner Classic Movies will be showing 15 Lon Chaney movies, in addition to the reconstructed — by way of stills — London After Midnight (1927), perhaps the most talked about lost film ever. TCM will also present the premiere of the 1922 version of Oliver Twist, directed by future Oscar winner Frank Lloyd (Cavalcade, Mutiny on the Bounty), and starring Chaney as Fagin, The Kid’s Jackie Coogan as Oliver, and beautiful Esther Ralston as Rose Maylie. [Lon Chaney Movie Schedule.]
Which Lon Chaney movies would I recommend? All of them, even though many of his vehicles aren’t exactly what I’d call "good movies." Roland West’s The Monster (1925), for instance, is quite silly — but since Lon Chaney is in it, how could it not be recommendable?
In The Unholy Three, Chaney plays the grandmotherly owner of a bird shop, which happens to be the business headquarters of a trio of crooks led by an unscrupulous criminal — who, huh, just happens to be the pet shop’s granny herself. Some prefer Jack Conway’s 1925 silent version to the 1930 talkie directed by Tod Browning; for my part, I prefer the latter.
Chaney’s only talking picture, the 1930 The Unholy Three moves faster, offers better characterizations thanks to the use of dialogue, features a more accomplished supporting cast (including leading lady Lila Lee instead of the original’s Mae Busch), and is proof that Lon Chaney would have remained a major star during the sound era. Chaney died of cancer the same year The Unholy Three was released; thus, the title role in Browning’s Dracula went to Bela Lugosi.
Now, He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and The Unknown (1927) are my two favorite Chaney vehicles. Both are set in a circus and both are MGM releases. The similarities end there.
Directed by Swedish import Victor Sjöström, He Who Gets Slapped stars Chaney in the title role — HE, a clown who gets slapped around and one with a dark past to boot. Norma Shearer is the young woman he cares for, but dashing John Gilbert is the man she cares for. I find He Who Gets Slapped is one of the greatest silent films I’ve seen: it’s poetic, beautifully acted (Chaney, Shearer, and Gilbert are at their most subtle), and gloriously shot in dreamy black and white (Milton Moore). It was also the first movie made under the banner of the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn studio, shortly thereafter renamed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Directed by Tod Browning, The Unknown is an exercise in perversity. Chaney plays an armless dagger thrower who falls madly in love with youthful Joan Crawford. Fickle Crawford initially tells Chaney she hates men’s arms, but then changes her mind after falling in love with strongman Norman Kerry. That leads to a series of tragedies and one of the most bizarre movie climaxes on record. Chaney overacts in The Unknown, but performance feels appropriate for both the over-the-top plot and the character himself. Crawford, for her part, looks refreshingly unselfconscious, while Kerry is perfect as the beefy object of her affection.