The streetwalker sits on the edge of the gutter, rubs her tired feet, then slips them back into her worn shoes. She scans the street with the relaxed resignation of someone accustomed to sizing up meager and often dangerous prospects. A trace of anxiety lines her mouth only as she pauses to size up a dope fiend shambling out of a nearby store. This is a tough part of town for selling anything, much less yourself.
Then two legs come up behind her, stepping almost daintily into the frame, legs which she seems to sense as much as hear. She turns her head slowly to look at them. We haven’t seen the man’s face yet, but the intertitles inform us that he’s a thief who’s served time—a crook called “Stoop” Conners.
Stoop’s face fills the screen. It’s a face you might call kind. If you’re used to Easter Island statues, maybe. With a contemptuous glance around, Stoop orders the woman to get up. As he towers over her in a wider shot, the hooker pokes up at the bottom of the frame and steps up on the sidewalk to face this creepy thug. To put it mildly, they know each other.
And so Lon Chaney made his first appearance in a Tod Browning film, The Wicked Darling, sparking a partnership that would come to define the grotesque in cinema.
Even in this brief character introduction, Browning aptly sculpts Chaney’s potential for menace through cinematic space. The legs ominously enter from the side, the upper half of Conner’s body is only disclosed after the intertitle, and Conner’s presence suddenly places the prostitute in a lower relation to another character. Chaney, in turn, maximizes the value of each shot through his stiletto-sharp focused movements. As Conners proceeds to tell Mary Stevens where she should be plying her trade, his ugly facial contortions, pointing gestures, and invasion of her space all complete the portrait of a swaggering lowlife, the kind of man who really does think he can own a woman.
The Wicked Darling, recently rediscovered in the Netherlands Filmmuseum after many years among the lost, probably won’t ever receive recognition on a par with Chaney’s later, more horror-inclined films. I myself only dug this one up out of interest about the beginning of the Chaney-Browning collaboration. On the surface, the plot sounds like a sentimental cliché: a prostitute steals some jewels, but falls in love with a decent man and tries to go straight—but her criminal associates won’t let her escape that easily.
Boy, was I in for a shock! Compared with even an excellent gangster thriller of the time like The Penalty, The Wicked Darling strikes me as a much more modern, uncompromising depiction of crime. The seediness of Browning’s ultra-realist underworld, the ferocity of the acting, and the subtlety of the crescendoing suspense bowled me over.
In addition to Browning’s brilliantly askew direction, the fierce energy of Priscilla Dean also brought out the best in emerging movie actor Chaney. Though sadly little-remembered nowadays, Dean was a top female star at Universal when The Wicked Darling was made. Neither a flapper nor a glamourpuss, Dean was a fearless actress, willing to look downright sullied and unattractive to boost her credibility in a role. Chaney’s female co-stars tended to play second fiddle to him, but Dean was that rare actress whose spitfire energy and rubber-face range of expression could counterbalance his own. Their antagonistic onscreen chemistry threatens to burn a hole right through your screen.
Browning’s penchant for all things freakish, Dean’s tough honesty, and Chaney’s vicious intensity synergized to produce an extraordinary crime melodrama. Their pooling of gutsy talent layered on the despair and grime of a celluloid skid-row more sordid and gritty than most of what moviegoers would see for another half-century.
In this story of love and redemption, Chaney incarnates—surprise, surprise—all the obstacles to Mary’s rise from gutter. Reading between the lines, we understand that Stoop Conners not only helps Mary work her pickpocket routine, but is also one of her regular johns who also works with Uncle Pet, her stringy pawnbroker pimp. In this supporting role, Chaney bravely confronts us with a morally defunct man, lacking in anything we might latch onto as likeable. Devoid of the qualities that make most of Chaney’s characters so charismatic, like Blizzard’s satanic gumption or the Phantom’s creative madness, Stoop would come last even in a scrawny punk competition.
There’s nothing romantic about his two-bit gangster; he comically turns a 180 whenever he sees a cop coming and gets trounced no less than three times by big burly dudes with whom he tangles. And just because he’s attached to Mary in some way doesn’t mean he’s above slapping her around; actually, his strange brand of affection practically guarantees it.
Dean and Chaney give us a cringe-worthy duet of scorn when Mary returns from stealing some pearls. Unbeknownst to her, Stoop has been negotiating with her pimp—if he turns over the pearls, he gets her and a nice chunk of cash in exchange. Leaning back, his thumb tucked in the armhole of his vest, he coyly questions her about the whereabouts of the loot that he implies they stole together. “We! Where yuh get that ‘we’ stuff?” She retorts, claiming she lost the pearls. He shrugs, assuming that she doesn’t want to talk about the stash in a public place.
Then Stoop leans forward with a gesture that could only come from a hustler trying to imitate something he saw in a movie, flopping his hand on Mary’s and leaning in with a goofy grin. Chaney makes this awkward come-on both risible and lewd, like Al Capone trying to ape John Gilbert. When Mary pulls away in disgust, he informs her that he’s “picked out a nice pretty flat” where he plans to install her without delay. Her face modulates from mocking disdain to horror as she realizes how she’s been betrayed by her pimp.
She jumps up to leave, but Stoop yanks her arm and screams right into her face. Though there are no intertitles, we can read his lips and his aggressive pointing. “You’re gonna move in with me. TONIGHT!!!”
She slaps him, not with the fury of offended honor, but with the anger of a woman who’d rather take her chances as a freelancer than have to put up with one very nasty client full-time. He hauls back, prepared to belt his lady love square in the face when the bartender, built like a tank, grabs his arm in mid swing. Real smooth proposition, Stoop. Real smooth.
Throughout The Wicked Darling, Browning goes out of his way to depict Stoop as a real-life monster. Chaney, gnashing his teeth and grimacing, basks in almost as many close-ups and medium close-ups as Priscilla Dean! The shots of Chaney are enclosed moments of contemplation. They sometimes run the risk of diverging from the plot, like a mini freak show, as if the director and actor really want the audience to think, “Holy sh*t, do people this awful really exist?”
For instance, in the midst of the climactic interrogation scene, as Conners pushes Mary around and twists her wrist to extract information, he breaks away after a particularly nasty blow and we get a cut to this medium close-up. Stoop, his teeth bared, draws the back of his balled fist across his mouth, wiping away the spittle he salivated while beating his ex-gal. If there’s a more potent, unpleasant face of male sadism out there, I haven’t seen it.
In these close shots, Chaney’s mug is also carefully framed for maximum dissonance—he’s usually far off to one side. He also sticks his face quite close to the camera. We recognize a total incomprehension of boundaries and personal space as one of Stoop’s strongest mannerisms. He sidles right up to whomever he’s addressing, even if that means sitting on their desk or edging his chair right up to theirs.
Most frightening, when he turns up at now-reformed Mary’s workplace, he sneaks up right behind her and doesn’t budge except to smile, immediately crowding her with an air of entitled possession. Through a number of tight close shots, Stoop makes the audience feel like he’s invading their personal space, too.
Now, Browning as a director tended to focus on outsiders, lost souls living on the margins of ordinary, tax-paying society. While the director often portrayed these living jetsam with tenderness and warmth, Stoop elicits no such warm and fuzzy feelings. Rather than facing up to his own slum exile from normalcy, he drags Mary downward to have someone he can place below him…. on the food chain, that is.
Interestingly, though, Stoop manipulates the audience and Mary, knowing that we all want to believe that there’s a glimmer of goodness in everyone. In a key scene toward the conclusion, he lures Mary away from the edge of a pier where she’s about to commit suicide… so that he can get her back to Uncle Pete’s lair and wring information out of her. Stoop’s subtly downcast eyes, his gravely fidgeting hands, and slightly bent stance all convince even wary Mary that he’s solemnly summoning her to her pimp’s deathbed. He tricks her into seeing the decency that she aspires to reflected in him. But whenever Mary isn’t looking, Stoop’s eyes flick over to study her reaction with merciless glee.
In a lot of prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold sagas, the heroine acts like she wants to flee her immoral existence for rarified philosophical reasons. It’s a life choice for Garbo, Crawford, and co. when they turn the red light off. By contrast, Mary Stevens wants not only to better herself, but also to get the hell away from violent slimeballs like Stoop. Thus Chaney provides the muscle to back up The Wicked Darling’s brutal commentary on the hardship of a woman’s life, once she’s cut off by society and written off as “soiled.”
Chaney’s true-to-life boogeyman, a sleazy, self-pitying, abject son-of-a-bitch, makes the viewer’s blood boil. In real life, Chaney empathized with criminals but despised bullies and often took it upon himself to protect vulnerable young women when he saw them being mistreated in Hollywood. I think he channeled a lot of his hatred for men like Stoop—and their high-ranking relatives—into one of the few utterly unsympathetic performances of his career.
With all of his limbs at his command and a face barely touched with makeup, Chaney crafted what might be the most real and horrifying character in his gallery of nightmares.