Archive for October 29th, 2013

Lon Chaney- Phantom of the Opera 1925We went to see the classic silent film , The Phantom of the Opera, on Sunday at the Clemens Center, a beautifully renovated  theater in my hometown of Elmira.  The film featured accompaniment from organist David Peckham playing the theater’s newly restored Marr and Colton pipe organ.  It was pretty special when the Peckham and the organ rose from the orchestra pit before the film began , Peckham playing  the familiar theme from the theatrical play of the same name.

The organ’s grand sound really added  a wonderful dimension to the film, bringing life to the sometimes exaggerated  pantomime of the actors.  If you’ve seen many silent films, you’re familiar with this style of acting though I believe this film is a little over the top  with its frantic gestures and grasping of the neck in fear.  As you can probably detect, this is not one of my favorite films from the great Lon Chaney who starred as the Phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House, although he delivers a strong and compelling performance here.  I found myself identifying more with his character than the wooden stiffs who played the so-called good guys in the film.  So much so that at the end when the mob captures the Phantom,  beating  and throwing him into the Seine as the audience cheered their approval, I felt a real twinge of sympathy for his character.

Lon Chaney made some of the most interesting and powerful films of the silent era before dying at the relatively young age of 47, after a throat hemorrhage  from an infection caused by inhaling painted corn flakes that served as snow on one of his last films.  His ability to transform himself is legendary and made him one of the first mega-stars of film.  I have a hard time watching some of what I consider his best films as they are often grim and filled with base emotion, a quality that is pretty common for the best silent films of the era.

A few years back I wrote here about a couple of his dark movies that featured Chaney as tragic clowns.  Here is what I wrote at the time:

Lon ChaneyI don’t know what made me think of this movie so early this morning.  Something made me think of clowns and how even though their aim is to be comedic and entertaining, they often come across as scary or tragic.

I saw a couple of Lon Chaney silent films a few years back that really reinforce this image.  He Who Gets Slapped and Laugh, Clown, Laugh are anything but laughfests.  Both are grim in nature and filled with tragic circumstances, like many of the films in the post-WW I early 1920’s.

Lon Chaney was a huge star of early films and is pretty much unfamiliar to modern movie fans.  He was known for his ability to transform himself into a wide variety of characters, often contorting his body and altering his face for grotesque effect.  This transformative ability won him the nickname The Man of a Thousand Faces which was also the title of a great film biography of him starring Jimmy Cagney as Chaney.  I recommend this film for those who wishing to learn a little more about an incredible talent.

lon-chaney-laugh-clown-laughChaney is probably best remembered for his classic roles as The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but for me it’s these roles as clowns that define Chaney for me.  They are dark films filled with grim  melodrama and tragedy.  They’re sometimes hard to watch.  But they are filled with real human emotion and complexity, so dark that it’s hard to believe that these were popular successes of the time.  Hollywood had yet to perfect the happy ending.

Again, I’m not sure why these came to mind today.

Maybe I’ll be painting clowns today.  Brightly painted sad faces.  Like Red Skelton.  That’s probably another too obscure reference.

Anyway, if you get a chance, and don’t really want to have your spirits lifted, check out these classics from the great Lon Chaney or his film biography, The Man of a Thousand Faces.

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