Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Lonliness (for Loneliness)

I just saw another Lon Chaney film over at the public library and am now more enamored than ever. The Penalty (1920) was directed by Wallace Worsley and based on a pulp novel by Gouverneur Morris (who also wrote The Ace of Hearts, giving rise to another great Chaney vehicle in 1921). Blizzard was a man consumed by bitterness, bad intent, and loneliness. His story was about as chilling and bizarre as it gets, and yet you still sort of sympathized, even as he plotted to destroy the city and wreak revenge on the surgeon who had maimed him. As a review by Fritzi Kramer puts it: "Who wouldn’t want to see a movie about a double amputee criminal mastermind who plans to take over San Francisco with a gang of anarchists wearing stylish straw hats?" Chaney, who was dubbed "The Man of a Thousand Faces," gets to portray the Devil in this one when he answers a classified ad from a local sculptress hoping to gain fame with a bust of Satan. At least a few of his horrifying grimaces, it would seem, may have been genuine, since in order to play his character realistically, he insisted on strapping his legs into painful leather stumps, which could only be worn for ten minutes at a time and actually left him with permanent knee damage. In light of our last blog entry (citing a 1920 article about Alice Trask and the San Francisco League for the Hard of Hearing), I should note that Lon Chaney's parents were both deaf and had met at the Colorado School for the Education of Mutes, founded by Lon's grandfather in 1874. As a likely result of his upbringing, Chaney developed an early facility for pantomime; his equally amazing aptitude for voices at first startled those who had previously known him only as a silent screen star. Lon Chaney was certainly willing to suffer for his art. He died at the age of 47 after contracting a lung infection from fake studio snow made of cornflakes. His death, writes Wikipedia, was "deeply mourned by his family, the film industry, and his fans." Today's typo is hardly a lonely one, with 51 hits in OhioLINK, and 434 in WorldCat.

(1923 Lon Chaney portrait, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Carol Reid

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