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FLICK PICKS: Lon Chaney's gonna get you if you don't watch out
October 4, 2009  | By Diane Werts

He's been dead for 80 years, but he's still a singular star. Lon Chaney again takes the spotlight for Turner Classic Movies this October, being Hollywood's creepiest continuing presence.

Chaney headlines TCM's Silent Sunday Night showcase, Sunday nights at midnight ET, starting with 1926's atypical Tell It to The Marines (late Oct. 4 at midnight ET, TCM), in which he plays a tough drill sergeant (like there's any other kind). But the movies' immortal Man of a Thousand Faces -- title of the '50s biopic starring James Cagney -- gets spooky soon enough.

Next weekend's double feature of The Unknown and The Unholy Three illustrates why Chaney remains famous decades after his demise. In fact, 1927's The Unknown (late Oct. 11 at midnight ET, TCM) gets seriously sick, casting contortion/makeup master Chaney as a circus performer who pretends to be an "armless wonder" who does dextrous things with his feet. [See photo at top.] A very young Joan Crawford likes that, having been abused by men's arms, and the two become close enough that a lovesick Chaney takes drastic measures to assure her affections. You can see where this is going, and since the director is reliably perverse frequent-collaborator Tod Browning (Freaks), The Unknown absolutely arrives there.

chaney unholy three silent.jpg

It's followed by Browning's 1925 silent original of The Unholy Three (late-night Oct. 11 at 1 a.m. ET, TCM), which Chaney would remake five years later as his only sound film before his tragic 1930 cancer death at the age of 47. Again in the sideshow, he's a ventriloquist who masterminds a crime trio including a strongman (Victor McLaglen) and a midget (Harry Earles, the largely unintelligible motormouth who returns in the sound version and Freaks). The sound remake may be more effective -- you can hear the ventriloquist, and the story's denoument hinges on sound -- but anything pairing Chaney and Browning becomes must-see.

Then TCM turns to The Phantom of the Opera (late Oct. 18 at midnight ET, TCM), which spotlights Chaney's makeup mastery. (It's that chameleon effect to which this column's headline refers: When MGM showcased all its silent stars in the early sound feature Hollywood Revue of 1929, Chaney never actually appeared, instead inspiring vaudevillian Gus Edwards' eerie musical number Lon Chaney's Gonna Get You If You Don't Watch Out.) Chaney's visual definition of the character remains archetypal, even if everything else in this Phantom exemplifies the overwrought styles so often associated with silent film.

phantom opera chaney.jpgBut silent movie nuts like me know the best soundless films are actually more primal and expressive. And The Unknown certainly illustrates that.

So does the final week's non-Chaney silent spooker -- Nosferatu (late-night Oct. 25 at 12:30 a.m. ET, TCM), the influential 1922 vampire flick from Germany's F.W. Murnau (Sunrise). Its making would be dramatized in 2000's comedy creepfest Shadow of the Vampire, pitting Willem Dafoe as vampire star Max Schreck ("the original method actor," winks TCM's essay) against John Malkovich as his driven director.

TCM's actual Halloween festival at the end of the month devotes itself entirely to sound films. Including some effective ones -- Cat People, Psycho, Mad Love. But I'll always head first for the silents, those dreamlike creations that so effectively pull you deep inside the evocative worlds they conjure.




Sherman said:

Many thanks to Diane for the wonderful recommendations. Silents are an amazing art form, now dead and mostly ignorantly mocked and/or parodied. Two of my all-time favorite books are "The Silent Clowns" and "The Parade's Gone By". There are some silent gems that are truly among the best movies ever made. (And it was such an international art form.)

What I learned from this post is that I need to follow Diane's recommendations in a more timely manner (I'm usually a day or two behind), as well as TCM's schedule. And that Diane and Dave seem to own half my DVR capacity! Thanks again...

Diane Werts said:

Happy to help, Sherman! And even happier to hear from someone who shares my passion for silent films. They may have "died" 30 years before I was born, but they're more alive to me today than much of later sound cinema.

The Parade's Gone By is one of my favorite books, too. Still waiting for another run of author Kevin Brownlow's fine documentary series Hollywood, packed with first-person interviews recounting the film hub's beginnings through to the birth of talkies.

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