Lon Chaney: Before the Thousand Faces

Studio: Undercrank Productions

Apr 23, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Lon Chaney is arguably one of the most eclectic and multifaceted artists of silent cinema. His renown throughout the world (even to this day) for his harrowing performances of tortured and misshapen characters, buttressed by his stunning makeup design, has earned him the title of “The Man of a Thousand Faces”. However, Chaney wasn’t always the gem of horror aficionados and makeup artists, and his legendary career would have more mixed and humbler beginnings. Lon Chaney: Before the Thousand Faces seeks to expose three obscure silent films to the contemporary world, showcasing early stages of his silver screen career.

Born to deaf parents, Chaney became adept at pantomime at an early age. Starting at 18, he traveled the vaudeville and theater circuits for eight years, eventually settling in California in 1910 with his wife Cleva and son Creighton (who would grow up to be film star Lon Chaney Jr.). When Cleva attempted suicide in 1913, the subsequent scandal effectively ended Chaney’s theater career. He would turn to the budding film industry and much of the work he would do for the next few years are shrouded in mystery (mainly due to so much of our silent film history being lost).

However, what is known during this time, is that Chaney would befriend director Joe De Grasse and screenwriter Ida May Park. This husband-wife duo would award Chaney with copious roles of mounting significance in their movies, eventually providing a sizable portfolio from which Chaney would strike out on his own. Three of these features are what comprise Lon Chaney: Before the Thousand Faces, and honestly feel more of a representation of the duo’s work than that of Chaney, due to their omnipresent style and substance.

A Mother’s Atonement is a 1915 drama following the antics of a dysfunctional frontier family. Ben Morrison (Chaney) lives with his daughter, Jen (Cleo Madison), though scorns her for looking too like her mother Alice (also Madison), who had left them for John Newton (Millard K. Wilson). While he bargains with the local Jasper Crane (Ben Rothwell) for his daughter’s hand in marriage, Jen escapes and is given sanctuary by a wealthy camping party lead by the Hiltons. Her welcome is short-lived however and she is forced to leave. Alice is in parallel straits, tossed aside by John and living a stagnated city life amongst a handful of posh elites. Circumstances bring Jen, Alice, John and the Hiltons together on a yacht and relationships are rendered anew and asunder while the chaos of a lavish party swirls around them.

Chaney (of course) plays his curmudgeonous part well, and is consistently brooding and surly as Ben. However he is only in the first quarter of the film, and never makes another appearance when focus is shifted to the city. Madison was already a sizable silent starlet by this film’s release, and her emotionally-charged dual performance in this work showcases her range and commitment thoroughly well. However, though A Mother’s Atonement is strong in production design, and has a handful of playfully unique visual moments (supported by its animated and entertaining cast), the film suffers from poor continuity, awkward pacing, and simply an uninteresting story. As far as De Grasse/Park productions go, it’s a middling affair at best, though it works as a typical chamber drama emblematic of the time.

If My Country Should Call is a 1916 film that is by far the most entertainingly melodramatic piece included in this collection; and one that has an actual ethical debate fueling the family squabbles. Margaret Ardrath (Dorothy Phillips) and Robert Ogden (Frank Whitson) are set to marry, with the full support of each family. Though Robert is a patriotic military-supportive man, Margaret is a staunch pacifist. As talk of national duty billows about the family, Margaret’s uncle Dr. George Ardath (Chaney) informs them on a new drug used to depress the heart, on which a military dodger had overdosed. Margaret eventually gives birth to Donald (Jack Nelson), who grows up to join the National Guard. Margaret steals the cardiac depressant from George and affects Donald’s heart so that he is rejected from military service, and as a result he becomes an alcoholic and loses his fiancee Patricia (Helen Leslie). In quick succession, George discovers the rouse, and Margaret’s actions are brought to bear as she juggles love for her family over duty to one’s country.

Chaney is almost unrecognizable, in both appearance and in character, and is considerably toned-down as compared to the rest of the cast. Phillips, Whitson and Nelson’s performances have scattershot moments of true sublimity, however their posturing can be a bit too over-the-top at times. Though I did say this was “the most entertainingly melodramatic” of these three films, it is also has the sappiest, most convenient resolution via the most contrived plot twist. Where it has the clear building blocks for a fantastic debate on the merits of war hallmarked by aristocratic extravagance, it devolves quickly into a one-sided love letter to blind patriotism (though my sweeping impression could be attributed to how half of this film has been lost).

The Place Beyond the Winds is another 1916 feature that puts Chaney back into his element as a twisted and sinister individual, and is the best representation in this collection of his future career. Priscilla Glenn (Dorothy Phillips) has incurred the wrath of her overtly-religious father Nathan (C. Norman Hammond), when she creates a new god idol out of nature. She would cull her father’s anger and begin a formal education with the local schoolteacher Anton Farwell (De Grasse), and begin a secret wide-eyed romance with Dick Travers (Jack Mulhall). However, after she was lured by Jerry Jo (Chaney) to a house to take advantage of her (though he fails), Nathan casts her out. She sets out with Anton for the United States, though he leaves her not long into their journey, unable to continue due to a past crime. After Priscilla establishes herself as a hospital nurse in the city, her journey drives her back to these significant individuals of her youth, seeking closure and to make their lives happier, all the while struggling to determine what she wants out of life.

This has the most convoluted of the three plots, but this is the one where it doesn’t matter. The story is a shining star of the early coming-of-age genre in film, and its wandering tone is mirrored perfectly the editing, blocking, and overall narrative pacing. Though utilizing similar locations as A Mother’s Atonement, there is a greater sense of space and adventure, and the breadth of the character arcs feel satisfying as a result. Chaney delivers here the more layered performance of the three films, where he could have easily made the character Jerry a one-note baddy with little else. His tasteless mischievousness is propelled by a strong undercurrent of being frightened by his own moral ambiguity, and thusly he feels more human than most (though his arc gets spotty and cliched towards the end).

There are no supplemental features on Undercrank Productions’ DVD, and all movies carry original scores by the films’ restorationist Jon C. Mirsalis. These three films are a wealth of silent cinema history (scanned from the only surviving nitrate prints), and would make any Chaney collector quite happy. Lon Chaney: Before the Thousand Faces is a fun early snapshot of the actor who would emerge as one of film’s most pivotal talents.



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