Laughing with a broken heart

Released 14 April 1928, Laugh, Clown, Laugh is one of several circus-themed films of Lon Chaney, Sr. Unlike HE Who Gets Slapped or The Unknown, however, this isn’t one of the ones where he starts out as a sympathetic character and then goes totally psycho. The only thing this clown is driven mad by is an inappropriate passion he knows he can’t act on.

Tito Beppi (Lon) and his partner Simon (Bernard Siegel) are travelling Italian clowns whose lives change when Tito finds a little girl tied up by the river. He rescues her and begs Simon to adopt her, but Simon is adamant women bring bad luck.

Tito’s heart is stolen immediately, and he names her Simonetta to sweeten the deal. She becomes part of their family.

When Simonetta (Loretta Young) grows up, she joins the act. Tito suggests she needs a rose in her hair, and she goes in search of it. While she’s climbing a wire fence, she snags her stockings and cuts her legs.

A handsome young count, Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther), comes across her in his rose garden, and invites her into his home to tend to her wounded legs. He’s clearly smitten, though his fiancée Lucretia is very displeased at the peasant in her midst. While he’s dealing with Lucretia, Simonetta escapes through the window.

Simon announces he’s leaving the act if Simonetta is joining it, still insisting women bring bad luck. When Simonetta returns, made up in her new costume, with her new hairstyle, Tito realizes in shock she’s become a woman. His body language makes his other feelings obvious, and he demands Simonetta call Simon back. He needs that buffer.

Three years later, Luigi is in a shrink’s office, seeking help for his uncontrollable laughter. The doctor tells him the cause is his life of excess and always being unsatisfied. He suggests Luigi’s trouble might disappear if he sincerely falls in love with the right type of woman.

Tito then enters the office, and Luigi laughs hysterically. A nurse escorts him out to the balcony.

The doctor thinks Tito may be suffering from some kind of suppression, perhaps unrequited love. He says Tito will be cured when his hopelessness is gone, and urges him to waste no time in winning the lady.

Tito, knowing this is an inappropriate passion, dissolves into tears and tells the doctor he can never tell her. It’s not right. The doctor then suggests diversion, to make him laugh.

He takes Tito to the balcony and shows him a poster advertising Flik’s current show. The doctor says he’s making all Rome laugh, and will make Tito laugh too. Tito says that’s impossible, since he is Flik.

Luigi apologizes to Tito for laughing, and assures him it wasn’t intentional. He laughs uncontrollably, just as Tito cries uncontrollably. They soon realize they can help one another with their respective problems.

Luigi and Tito become great friends, little realizing how Simonetta helps them both.

Luigi has a string of pearls delivered to Simonetta’s dressing room, but she refuses them. She doesn’t want to be a rich man’s plaything or kept woman. Her life is with Tito.

Simon realizes Tito has feelings for Simonetta, and after he sees the pearls and Luigi’s calling card, realizes Luigi loves her too. He knows Luigi stopped laughing and Tito stopped crying because of the same woman.

Simon says men like Luigi don’t marry tightrope-walkers, and wouldn’t give Simonetta pearls for nothing. Tito is furious at this insult to her character.

When Luigi comes by, Tito lashes out at him too, saying his friendship was a farce, and that he’s trying to buy Simonetta with his filthy pearls. Simonetta’s not the type of woman he can buy.

Luigi diffuses the situation when he turns his calling card around and shows Tito his handwritten note. Those were his mother’s pearls, and he wants them to be his wife’s.

Tito tells Luigi he won’t stand in his way if he loves Simonetta. Luigi must ask her first, and if Simonetta agrees to be his, she’ll never know of Tito’s love.

Several tragic complications spring up after this.

LCL is based on a 1923–24 Broadway play by David Belasco and Tom Cushing, starring Lionel Barrymore and his second wife, Irene Fenwick. In turn, the play was based on Fausto Maria Martini’s 1919 story Ridi, Pagliaccio.

MGM held up film production for several years, because Lon had already played a clown in 1924, and the expectation that Lionel Barrymore would want to reprise his role.

This was Loretta Young’s first major film. She was only 13 when production started. Director Herbert Brenon was often quite harsh and mean to her, but changed his attitude every time Lon was there. Lon picked up on this, and made sure to always be there when Loretta was. She spoke very effusively about how much his kindness, guidance, and protection meant to her.

The trope of a man falling for his foster daughter or sister has so much potential to be creepy, but Tito knows how inappropriate these feelings are. Not only did he raise Simonetta, but he’s an old man. He doesn’t want to spoil her happiness and youth with his sadness and old age.

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Lon’s Legendary Lost London

Released 3 December 1927 and directed by Tod Browning, London After Midnight is among the Holy Grail of lost films. It was last known to have been screened sometime in the 1950s. Like hundreds of other silents (and some early sound films), its last known surviving print was destroyed in the horrific fire in MGM’s Vault #7 on 13 May 1967.

LAM was filmed in a record 24 days, with a budget of $151,666.14, making it the cheapest and quickest of Lon’s MGM films. While the U.S. gross was $721,000, its international earnings were below par. Overall, it turned a profit of $540,000, and ranked as MGM’s #4 film of the 1927–28 season. It was also the tenth-highest earner  of 1927 overall. This was one of Lon’s highest-earning films ever.

But was it really that good?

Contemporary audiences, critics and laypeople alike, weren’t particularly impressed. Even those who were among the very last to see it in the 1950s were underwhelmed. Lon’s incredible acting talents were highly praised, as usual, but the actual story was widely panned.

A frequent point of criticism was that the story was nonsensical and incoherent. Other reviewers called it boring, trying too hard, lacking characters the audience could connect with, lacking the weird atmosphere of The Cat and the Canary, and a wasted effort.

A rare, consistently positive review came from The Film Daily, which found the film marvellously creepy and unsettling.

Roger Balfour (Claude King) is found dead from a suspected shooting suicide. Though his friend and neighbor Sir James Hamlin (Henry B. Walthall) insists Roger couldn’t possibly have killed himself, Inspector Edward C. Burke of London Yard (Lon) officially rules the death a suicide.

Five years later, a creepy man with pointed teeth and black clothes (Lon in a dual role) arrives at the Balfour home, accompanied by a woman who looks like a corpse and also dresses all in black (Edna Tichenor). These two strangers’ arrival inspires Hamlin to call Scotland Yard.

Inspector Burke discovers three of the people in the house were the only three present when Roger died. These are Roger’s daughter Lucille (Marceline Day), his butler Williams (Percy Williams), and Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel). Hibbs is the nephew of the man who made the call to Scotland Yard.

At first, Burke doesn’t believe any of them were involved, but then Roger’s body disappears from his tomb. Even weirder, his dead ringer appears in the house. Other creepy happenings include gunshots heard in Roger’s old bedroom when Burke is there, bats flying around, and the creepy visitor terrifying everyone.

Burke finds the killer by recreating the crime scene and hypnotizing the guilty party into re-enacting the murder.

In 1928, Marie Coolidge-Rask published a novelization of the film. In 1935, Tod Browning remade LAM as The Mark of the Vampire, with Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi.

A man who murdered a woman in London’s Hyde Park in 1928 claimed LAM made him do it, by driving him temporarily insane. He supposedly didn’t remember taking out the razor or using it on his victim. His plea was rejected, and he was convicted.

LAM has been referenced in popular culture a number of times over the years. These references include the name of a card game with the theme of classic horror movies, the name of an industrial-goth-rock band, and the lyrics of the song “Bodom After Midnight.”

In 2002, film preservationist and scholar Rick Schmidlin produced a 45-minute stills recreation. I’ve counted this on my list of silents seen, making note of the fact that it’s a recreation and not the actual film. I always note if something is a home movie, stills recreation, trailer, advertisement, newsreel, or surviving reel of a lost film.

In spite of LAM’s lackluster reviews, I’d still love to see it as an actual moving picture. Given Lon’s incredible acting talents, I can’t imagine it’s worse than some of the awful doozies on my list. I keep hoping all these famous lost films are found someday.

A circus of horrors in Madrid

Released 4 June 1927, The Unknown is one of ten films Lon Chaney, Sr., made with director Tod Browning. It’s so deliciously macabre, and features Lon’s specialty, a character who’s outside the norm in some way. Lon usually played social outsiders, people with great emotional pain and/or traumatic pasts, people who were physically disfigured, anything that made them different from the others.

In The Unknown, he plays armless knife-thrower Alonzo. Or is he really armless?

Alonzo keeps his arms tightly-bound to his torso, something only his friend Cojo knows. Because Alonzo has a double thumb on his left hand, displaying his arms would mean giving away his true identity as a criminal.

There’s also another reason he keeps his arms hidden—he’s in love with his partner Nanon (Joan Crawford), who’s terrified of being touched by men. She only loves and trusts Alonzo because he doesn’t have any arms and hands to hold and paw her. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to read between the lines and guess the reason for this fear.

Also in the circus is Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), a rival for Nanon’s affections. He’s extremely determined to win her affections, but Nanon’s fear of men and Alonzo’s equal determination to win Nanon are working against him.

Alonzo turns Nanon against Malabar by telling him he has the strength and arms Nanon loves. Alonzo urges him to take Nanon in his arms and confess his love, which produces anything but the desired reaction.

Alonzo gets into a fight with Nanon’s father Zanzi, the head of the circus, and kills him. Nanon sees this from her window, but only sees the murderer from behind.

The authorities realize Zanzi’s strangler was the same man who committed other crimes, but since Alonzo has no demonstrable hands to take fingerprints from, he escapes suspicion.

The rest of the circus leaves town after Zanzi’s demise, but Alonzo stays in town with Nanon, Malabar, and Cojo. Alonzo says he wants to take her away from everything she hates.

Alonzo has new hope after Nanon hugs and kisses him, but Cojo warns him to not let that happen again. The next time, Nanon might feel the arms under his shirt.

Alonzo insists Nanon would forgive him, even if she saw his arms on their wedding night, but Cojo reminds him she’d still see that double thumb.

Cojo laughs at Alonzo for smoking with his feet when he has arms, and a macabre revelation hits him. His body language gives his thoughts away, and Cojo warns him not to do it, but Alonzo is determined to have Nanon.

The horror only increases from there.

Lon often put himself through grueling physical pain to convincingly play his characters, in an era before CGI. This film was no exception. However, while his arms really were bound to his torso, real-life armless sideshow performer Paul Desmuke was the one really doing things with his feet.

In some shots, Desmuke doubled for Lon; in others, he perfectly synchronized his legs with Lon’s body.

While The Unknown is widely praised today, and considered one of Lon and Tod’s best collaborations, contemporary reviewers were much less impressed. We often can’t predict which films will stand the test of time, quickly become dated, or be rediscovered and re-evaluated decades later.

For many years, the film was lost, until its miraculous 1968 rediscovery in the Cinémathèque Française archive in Paris. Its rediscovery may be an important clue in finding other lost films. Then as now, most films’ titles were translated for foreign markets, and this film’s French title is L’Inconnu. Hundreds of other films in the archive were labelled as such too, because their contents were unknown.

Might there be other films hiding in plain sight with unexpected titles?

A mad doctor’s bargain

Released 3 December 1922, A Blind Bargain is one of approximately 100 of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s lost films, out of the 157 he made. While the vast majority of his lost films are from his pre-stardom years (1912–19), many of his stardom-era films are lost as well.

Many of Lon’s films, and other silents and early sound films, were destroyed in a horrific fire on 13 May 1967. Nitrate is highly flammable, and stands no chance when it comes in contact with flames. An electrical fire in MGM’s Vault #7 destroyed hundreds of films that day.

This is why film preservation is so most vitally important, as is always backing up our work. There should always be at least two copies of something, and storage conditions should never be careless. It’s easier to put a nitrate film onto safety stock, or back up a file, than it is to restore a damaged product or rewrite entire sections.

A Blind Bargain was based on British writer Barry Pain’s 1897 novel The Octave of Claudius. From the synopses I’ve read of both, it seems like the film stayed fairly close to the book’s basic storyline. One change from the novel was that Dr. Lamb’s nurse and butler became two of his macabre human experiments. The film also seems to have done away with the soap opera-esque storylines of many secondary characters.

Unsuccessful writer Robert Sandell (Raymond McKee), hurting over his mother’s poor health and his lack of publishing success, attacks and tries to rob theatregoer Dr. Arthur Lamb (Lon). Instead of having him arrested, Dr. Lamb takes Robert to his New York home and asks him to tell his story.

Dr. Lamb, a mad scientist, agrees to give Robert’s mother an operation on one condition—Robert must submit himself for experiments at the end of eight days (hence the word “octave” in the source novel’s title). Robert agrees, since he’ll do anything to save his mother.

Robert and his mother move into Dr. Lamb’s home, where they’re closely watched by Dr. and Mrs. Lamb. Also watching Robert is a hunchback (Lon in a dual role) who’s the result of one of Dr. Lamb’s experiments. So anxious is Dr. Lamb to experiment on Robert, he butters him up by giving him large amounts of cash enabling him to live high off the hog and impress all the people who wrote him off.

Dr. Lamb also arranges for Robert’s book to be published through Wytcherly, who runs a publishing company. Predictably, Robert falls in instalove with Wytcherly’s daughter Angela.

Mrs. Lamb, who’s been driven crazy by her husband’s experiments, and the hunchback warn Robert about Dr. Lamb’s true intentions. They also show him a strange underground vault containing an operating room and a tunnel of cages. Held prisoner in the cages are victims of Dr. Lamb’s experiments.

In addition to creating the hunchback and the people in the cages, Dr. Lamb’s experiments also killed his infant child.

With one day left to go, Robert tries to buy his way out of the bargain with his newfound publishing royalties. Dr. Lamb, terrified Robert will escape, drags him into the underground vault and ties him to the operating table.

His evil plans are foiled when Mrs. Lamb rescues Robert and the hunchback releases a cage door which brings Dr. Lamb to a most horrible end at the hands of an ape-man (Wallace Beery). This ape-man is yet another of Dr. Lamb’s monstrous experiments.

Robert returns home as a successful author, with Angela waiting for him by their wedding ceremony.

The film met with a standing ovation after its première by NYC’s Capitol Theater. Critics praised the film highly, particularly Lon’s dual role.

The film was beautifully tinted and toned in colors including straw amber, night amber, blue tint, blue tone, flesh tint, light lavender, and green tint. There was also a sequence colored with the Handschiegl process, featuring multicolored bubbles at a party.

In 1925, Raymond McKee (Robert) played a hunchback in Free to Love (which co-stars Clara Bow). This character was directly influenced by A Blind Bargain.

The Phantom of the Opera, Part II (Behind the Scenes)

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The second film version of The Phantom of the Opera is rightly one of the most famous silent films, even among folks who haven’t seen nearly as many silents as I have to date (951). It’s also one of the classics of horror cinema, and one of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s most famous roles. Indeed, the image of Lon as the Phantom most closely matches the description given in Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel. The film made over two million dollars during its original 1925 theatrical run.

Lon was working for Universal Pictures at the time, and the studio’s president, Carl Laemmle, met Gaston Leroux during a Parisian holiday in 1922. When Laemmle mentioned how much he admired the Paris Opera House, Leroux gave him a copy of the novel. Laemmle read it in a single night, and bought the film rights for Lon. Production commenced in late 1924, with Rupert Julian directing.

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The cast and crew didn’t get along very well with Mr. Julian, and the previews of January 1925 didn’t go over very well. As a result, Mr. Julian quit, and Edward Sedgwick was called in to redirect and rework the majority of the film. New scenes were also written. In the film’s second incarnation, it became more of a romantic comedy with action sequences, no longer a dramatic thriller. Several subplots were also added.

The second preview, in April 1925, also didn’t go over very well. The audience reportedly booed it off the screen, and reviewers felt it were too long and boring.

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The third and final attempt at making the film came from Lois Weber and Maurice Pivar, who had their work cut out for them with editing. (FYI: I now realize the above hyperlinked post about Lois Weber has certain spots which are rather strongly, obnoxiously POV, and sound kind of unprofessional. I’m glad my writing style has since evolved past that, though to be fair, that post was edited down from an even more POV post on my old Angelfire page.)

Anyway, most of Sedgwick’s material was redacted, though the ending was retained. Much of Mr. Julian’s original material was then edited back in. However, some important characters and scenes were still missing. This final version débuted by Broadway’s Astor Theatre on 6 September 1925, the première was 17 October in Hollywood, and the general release was 25 November. After all that hard work, it was a huge success with audiences, though some critics still felt it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been.

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Lon did his own makeup as always, and kept it a secret all during filming. Audiences also didn’t know what was coming, as there were no pictures of him as the Phantom released. Many audiences reportedly screamed or fainted when they saw the unmasking, magnified on a huge screen. If you have the opportunity, there’s nothing quite like seeing a silent film as it was intended, on the big screen, with a great soundtrack.

Lon first appears as a shadow against a wall, and the next two times he appears, we only see his hand, until finally we meet the masked Phantom. It’s worth paying attention to how he uses his hands when he acts, since he knew how to talk with his hands before he could speak. His parents were both Deaf-mutes, so his first language was ASL. It was little wonder expressing such a wide variety of emotions through just body language came so naturally to him.

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The differences between the 1925 original, the 1929 silent reissue, and the 1930 sound reissue (of which only the soundtrack discs survive, and on which Lon’s voice doesn’t appear) are too long and detailed to get into here. Suffice it to say, until recently, many people have been more familiar with the 1929 version than the 1925 original, though the original is the one I prefer. However, only the later version retains any of the Technicolor sequences. The only surviving Technicolor sequence is the masked ball. The Phantom’s red cape in the roof scene was also hand-colored with the Handschiegl color process.