Save the Phantom Stage! Hollywood Landmark Reportedly Slated for Oblivion

phantomUniversal Studios’ Stage 28 holds a lot of memories. Some of the most iconic American films, including The Bride of FrankensteinPsycho, and The Sting were shot there, to name only a few.

Built in 1924 for the silent Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, the vast soundstage still houses the 90-year-old opera set. Designed by Ben Carré, this recreation of the Paris original practically deserves its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, having appeared in movies ranging from Dracula to The Muppets.

Throughout the years, the so-called “Phantom Stage,” nicknamed for the first film made there, has earned its title in another sense. Legend has it that the soundstage is haunted. However, those ghosts might be homeless soon.

The website Inside Universal recently broke the news that the studio would close Stage 28 and probably demolish it. According to their article, “Phantom’s set pieces are rumored to be removed and preserved… While unconfirmed, the site is likely to be used for future theme park development.”

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Okay, so up to this point, I’ve been pretty cool, calm, and collected, but now I’m going to express myself quite frankly. WHAT THE &*#$@!?!?! Are you kidding me, Universal? You want to demolish a peerless piece of Hollywood history to make more room for your theme park? Even as you prepare to cash in on your horror icons with a new shared-universe franchise reboot, you’ve decided to dismantle your strongest physical link to the genesis of those celluloid myths?

Dear reader, this is where you come in. Two petitions have sprung up to halt the closing and destruction of Stage 28. The first, a petition on whitehouse.gov, requests that the government accord a National Historic Landmark designation to Stage 28 and aims for 100,000 signatures by September 25. The second, a Care2 petition, establishes a less specific goal, “save the historic Phantom Stage from demolition”, and hopes to collect 10,000 signatures.

I urge you to sign both of these petitions. And I’ll make this really easy…

1. CLICK HERE AND SIGN THIS!

2. AND THEN SIGN THIS!

Please sign now. Don’t tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow. Don’t go get a cup of coffee. Don’t check your Twitter feed. It will take you all of 60 seconds to put your name down for both. You will feel much better once you have. And Lon Chaney might come and get you if you don’t.

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Plus, if you really care about Stage 28 and/or film history and/or horror movies and/or me not crying, please tweet about this, blog about it, tell everyone you know. Encourage your friends and family to sign the petitions. If you have pull, use it. Harass Universal Studios in any (legal and respectful) way you can think of.

Sadly, the film industry tends to realize the value of its history only when it’s too late. This is the business, after all, that destroyed God only knows how many silent movie prints to reclaim the silver from the emulsion.

Come on, people, let’s save Stage 28. Let’s preserve film history. Let’s show the studio once and for all not to mess with movie geeks and our hallowed ground. And let’s do it now.

Because, if we don’t, the Phantom Stage might disappear forever.

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Remembering Carla Laemmle (1909–2014)

phantom“If I should live to be a hundred, I should always hear the superhuman cry of grief and rage which he uttered when the terrible sight appeared before my eyes…”

The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux

On June 12, Carla Laemmle passed away at the age of 104. Beloved of cinephiles worldwide, this remarkable woman danced in the original version of The Phantom of the Opera, spoke the first lines of Dracula, and was the last surviving cast member of both films. There’s an African proverb that goes, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” Hearing of Laemmle’s death, I feel as though a whole nitrate archive had combusted.

Speaking for movie geeks everywhere, I like to think of Carla Laemmle as the high priestess of Universal horror. She was an unusual horror icon, for sure: a glamorous, sunny centenarian made more famous by documentaries about old Hollywood chillers than by her appearances in the original classics. A witness to film history, Carla Laemmle possessed the power to transport fans to the silent or early talkie eras with a vivid anecdote or observation.

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Carla, dancing on the Universal backlot, c. 1920s

As anyone who’s ever watched her in an interview or a behind-the-scenes featurette can tell you, Laemmle could summon some of the greatest gods and monsters of the past century at will—and she didn’t need the Scroll of Thoth.

One of her earliest memories, of the indelible flashbulb kind, stretched back to 1912: she could picture a newspaper headline about the sinking of the Titanic and recalled her parents’ shocked faces. In 1922, she’d seen Universal’s extravagant Monte Carlo set illuminated by every arc light on the lot for the fiery finale of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives. A year later, she watched Lon Chaney as Quasimodo swinging from a gargoyle on the studio’s colossal Notre Dame duplicate.

Born on October 20, 1909 in Chicago as Rebekah Isabelle Laemmle, she changed her name to Carla in 1931 as a tribute to her uncle, Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle.

Ogden Nash’s doggerel about Carl Laemmle lavishing jobs on his “very large faemmle” has unduly tarnished the mogul’s accomplishments. Uncle Carl—as even employees knew carlhim—was a visionary who invested his savings in a Nickelodeon parlor and grew it into an entertainment empire. He gave opportunities to female filmmakers as early as the 1910s, took chances on first-time directors, and brought Irving Thalberg into the picture business. During his retirement, he leveraged his time, money, and prestige to rescue European Jews from the Holocaust.

In the fascinating documentary Universal Horror, Carla praised her uncle’s kindness and approachability: “He was a wonderful human being. He was very democratic. He would talk to everybody and listen to everybody… If they [employees] needed any financial help, he would give them help.”

It was Uncle Carl who urged Carla’s father, Joseph, to move his branch of the family from Chicago to Hollywood in the early 1920s to improve his weak health. Carla and her parents lived on carladancethe expansive studio grounds, known as Universal City. Almost a century later, she remembered exploring the backlot’s spectacular sets, playing in “New York,” “Monte Carlo,” or “Paris” on any given day, depending on her mood. As she recounted to Gregory William Mank, author of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration:

“There was a zoo, and almost every morning I’d wake to the roar of the lions—they were hungry for their breakfast! They had tigers, monkeys, an orangutan, and even two elephants. They had a camel, which was funny—this camel would get away and make the trek all the way up to our bungalow and graze on our vast green lawn. I named him ‘Houdini’ because he always got away. I’d go out with oats and lure him into the garage and then call down to the zoo and tell them, ‘Houdini is here!’” 

To this little girl, Universal’s fiefdom “was a fairyland.”

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Our clearest view of Carla (center left) in The Phantom of the Opera

In 1925, choreographer Ernest Belcher, also Carla’s dance teacher, cast her as the prima ballerina in The Phantom of the Opera, Universal’s new deluxe “Super Jewel” production—a huge undertaking for a studio that mostly focused its resources on low-budget Westerns and comedies.

Sixteen-year-old Carla was undaunted; she had been taking dance lessons since early childhood. Instead of being scared, she remembered that dancing for the camera was “a big thrill” to her. “It was a very elaborate, very expensive production. The stage was an exact replica of the Paris opera house.” Rigorous rehearsals often took place on that enormous stage with the real orchestra featured in the movie playing for the dancers. During filming, a full audience of nattily dressed extras would watch and applaud at each take. “It was like performing in a real opera,” she said.

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When not working, Laemmle would watch her longtime friend Mary Philbin and Lon Chaney from the sidelines. She told Michael Blake, author of A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney’s Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures:

“I remember seeing Lon in his makeup and it was pretty scary. I’d say it was ghastly. I don’t know how Mary was able to work next to that face every day. It probably helped her when she was to look frightened! As I recall, the color of his makeup was a chalky white.”

Just to put this into perspective, Chaney’s makeup design was so secret that his face was blanked out from all publicity photos sent to the press. Carla Laemmle was thus one of very few people given a preview of his bloodcurdling phantom.

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As for Laemmle’s second famous tie to horror history, her brief part in Dracula remained something of a mystery to her. She was simply told to report to the casting office and given the role.

By 1931, Carla’s cousin Carl Laemmle Jr. was running Universal, having been given the studio by his father on his 21st birthday in 1929. However, as Carla explained, the change in leadership brought about an aesthetic shift that the studio founder hadn’t foreseen:

“Carl Laemmle Jr. loved horror. When he was a little boy he was crazy about anything that had to do with the macabre… so, he thought it would be a great idea to make movies like that. But his father was dead against it.

Perhaps Junior wanted to please his father and win his blessing by putting a little more of the Laemmle clan into the picture.

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Interviewed by Leonard Maltin at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2012, Laemmle revealed that she was allowed more or less to create her costume and she went for a note of self-effacing humor, selecting a dowdy suit, an out-of-style cloche, and Harold Lloyd-ish glasses. Ostensibly the secretary of a wealthy woman on tour, Carla’s character reads from a guidebook in the opening coach scene, before being jolted out of her seat by those inhospitable Transylvania roads.

Her klutzy pratfall and schoolgirl reading of the local lure adds enough humor to pull audiences into a film heading towards uncharted waters. After all, in 1931, a film where the bad guy really did turn out to be a vampire—not a criminal pretending to be one—was downright revolutionary.

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Little did Carla know at the time that she was speaking the very first lines of the first important sound horror movie, kicking off Hollywood’s first major foray into the supernatural, and launching a classic that, like Dracula himself, will probably never die.

Outside of the horror genre, perhaps Laemmle’s most notable appearance was in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, an MGM production. She emerges like Venus from a seashell, hollywood revuesinuously dances in a proto-bikini, and beckons suggestively to the camera, every inch the pre-Code cutie. She continued to dance onscreen and to play small film roles through the 1930s, before ultimately opting to perform in live venues.

As the heady heyday of classic Hollywood drifted into the past, film historians began to draw on Carla’s increasingly valuable first-hand accounts of the golden age. Reintroduced to viewers through making-of featurettes, she continued to received fan mail from around the world, which she considered a testament to the enduring spell of Dracula. Into her 104th year, she could recite the lines of dialogue that made her such a cherished cult figure:

“Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age…” 

Laemmle brought two layers of awe to her interviews and documentary appearances: she was a wonder herself, but she also communicated her own wonder at that bygone age (to borrow a phrase from her famous line) that she had witnessed. What she saw was impressive then—and it’s even more impressive over a century later.

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Longevity was nature’s gift to Carla Laemmle, but she chose to make it a gift to film lovers everywhere by cheerfully recounting the early days of Hollywood filmmaking. Not only could she clearly recall moments so far away that even celluloid might buckle under the impact of the years, but she also shared them with contagious enthusiasm and joy.

Her personal affection for the creepy classics resonated with new generations of fans like me. She echoed our love of the horror flicks produced by Universal when she confessed, “I never got enough of them. You got scared, but you enjoyed it.”

Recommended Online Viewing:

On YouTube: Laemmle remembers The Phantom of the Opera in clips from an interview with David J. Skal

On YouTube: Laemmle discusses Dracula and Universal with Leonard Maltin at TCMFF 2012

On YouTube: in conversation with her niece Antonia, Laemmle talks about her family history and old Universal City

And, of course, at the Internet Archive: The Phantom of the Opera, with restored 1929 tinting, toning, and two-strip Technicolor sequence. Keep an eye out for Carla. She is on the stage, held aloft by a male dancer just as the curtain closes. However, you can spot her more easily in a backstage scene immediately after this intertitle: “The Phantom! The Phantom is up from the cellars again!”

The Unknown (1927): Body Conscious

unknownThe Unknown is one of those miraculous movies snatched back from the edge of oblivion, presumed lost for decades until a print turned up in France. Amusingly enough, the reels had been marked “Inconnu,” meaning “unknown.” And nobody since the 1920s had interpreted this rather algebraic designation as anything other than the label for an unidentified film, not considering that it might be a title—the title of one of the most bizarre films ever produced by Hollywood.

Watching this potent entry in the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m beholding some deep, primordial allegory masquerading as a gritty horror film. Chaney’s character, “Alonzo the Armless,” earns his living by sharpshooting and throwing knives with his feet at a carnival. (A real armless leg double, Paul Desmuke, did these amazing stunts for Chaney.)

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When Alonzo falls in love with the carnival ringmaster’s daughter, Nanon, the good news is that she likes his lack of arms. Coping with a pathological fear of men’s groping hands, Nanon cherishes Alonzo as a safe companion.

The bad news is that Alonzo isn’t what he seems. A violent, wanted criminal with a recognizable genetic defect—double thumbs on one hand—Alonzo hides his arms, strapped to his body by a harness. How can he get close to Nanon without betraying his secret? The answer is every bit as gruesome as you’d might hope.

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The Unknown bristles with an unholy energy, a tingling magnetic field mastered by hungry poles of repulsion and passion, pulling the characters back and forth. While my metaphor might seem a little overwrought, bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this. Because The Unknown is a tragedy spiced with movement, a horror story about the way bodies carry themselves and interact.

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Tod Browning specialized in letting a sordid, macabre ambiance—almost a stench—ferment and rise from stagings that seem primitive on the surface, but actually reveal a multitude of complexities on a second look. As you watch the film, notice how frequently somebody walks towards the camera, eventually exiting on one side of the frame. We’re meant to feel these things, the motion of the characters, blurring, rushing past us. The world in general, we understand ,isn’t so very different from Alonzo’s dizzy carnival act, where he tosses blades at the lovely Nanon as they both stand on a rotating platform. The intoxicating, alarming movement of bodies governs the lives of the characters, agitated by crude, unconscious drives.

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In addition to the pluparfait body actor Lon Chaney, the cast offers up a pleasant surprise in the form of a super young Joan Crawford (another actor of powerful physicality) as Nanon. Crawford cited this film as a milestone in her career, the experience that ignited her desire to be a dedicated actress. Starting off as a chorus line hoofer, she initially wanted nothing to do with movies. Only when told that she would get the opportunity to dance in her pictures did she agree to sign a contract. However, working with Chaney changed everything. She later recalled: “I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera and acting. Until then, I had been conscious only of myself. Lon Chaney was my introduction to acting.”

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Although Crawford found Chaney’s dedication to his character somewhat daunting, she strived to keep up. The young contract player pushed herself and transformed a potentially implausible character into a nuanced, vulnerable young woman.

In keeping with the motif of contorted, unnatural bodies, Crawford lends credibility to Nanon’s phobia of men with her ability to suggest physical disgust and horror through body language. Crawford, usually so graceful, frequently swaps her poised posture for the stance of a frightened, cowering child, whenever in the presence of a threatening male.

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She fairly withers in the presence of the amorous strongman Malabar, shrinking into the corners of the frame. Or, unable to avoid a confrontation, she braces herself against a chair or a wall. When her phobia is first introduced to the audience, we get a medium close-up of her mortified face followed by an eloquent long shot, as she pulls herself into her caravan car. That motion, that backwards crawl offscreen, conveys more than words ever could.

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I might be reading too much into this, but I do think the audience is meant to infer that Nanon’s father has prostituted her out in the past or, at the very least, put her in a situation that resulted in some form of trauma. (Otherwise, why should he be so outraged at Alonzo’s advice that she stay away from men? My father and most others, I think, would hug him for such pearls of wisdom.)

Crawford suggests this history of abuse by the way her friendly, upbeat Nanon seems to switch off around the well-muscled Malabar and tries to disappear, to curl up into nothing. She might not totally understand why she acts like this, but, as my psychology professor would say, “The body remembers.”

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This tendency of our bodies to control us, to harbor our darkest secrets and ultimately betray them, returns in one of the most poignant and disturbing moments of the film. When Alonzo realizes that he can never fully possess Nanon’s love as long as he has arms, his foot, agile as his hands, rises to cover his face in despair. Alonzo’s hands are freed from their harness, but he automatically uses the limbs that, in his elaborate guise, substitute for his arms to express his pain.

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The gesture not only affects the audience on a traditional level—as an outward sign of sorrow—but also adds an uncanny overtone to the scene. Chaney covering his face with a foot etches itself on the mind as a surreal image, subliminally depicting the pain of unrequited love as a kind of emotional amputation.

As Alonzo’s accomplice, Cojo, watches from a staircase, the criminal continues to use his foot to light and smoke a cigarette. Suddenly, Cojo laughs, exclaiming, “Alonzo, you are forgetting you have arms!”

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A look of horror crosses Alonzo’s face. His eyes widen as he realizes what he had been unconsciously doing. Alonzo has so altered and fragmented his body that it believes it really is fragmented, incomplete. His charade has taken over. He has partially become what he pretends to be.

He has effectively trained his body to be an other, something unnatural and foreign to himself. Of all Browning outsiders, Alonzo may be the most freakish—because he is a self-created freak, a product of radical self-mutilation.

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But then again, aren’t we all? The Unknown probes the ugly side of human desire and self-perception. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan asserted that the deep fear of a fragmented body festers in all of us from childhood onward. As babies, we experience our bodies as parts. That is, we move each limb, but we never see ourselves in entirety, until we recognize our whole bodies in the mirror.

However, that reflection makes us feel insecure: the image is a powerful, unified being, in contrast to the divided sensations that otherwise combine to form our sense of self. Throughout our lives, we come to identify with the “I,” the ostensibly whole self or the mirror self that represents us… but that other, fragmented body haunts us.

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The Unknown resonates on such a raw level because it activates this underlying dread—not as a mere gore effect, as is too often the case with dismemberment in horror films, but rather as central conflict of the story. Alonzo is hostile to his whole body (just as we resent our mirror images because they seem more unified than we are) but his amputated body frustrates him even more.

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The frenzied cutting of the final sequence amplifies this fragmentation or division. Alonzo disintegrates into raging madness—because he succumbed to his obsession with a mutilated body—as Nanon triumphs, because she managed to stitch her mind and body back together.

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Interestingly enough, Nanon’s fear, her brokenness, her neuroses serve as major attractions for Alonzo. Browning provides some borderline obscene voyeuristic close-ups as the imposter watches Nanon recoil from Malabar. This disturbed individual, a thief and a killer who fragments himself and cuts himself apart in the most horrific of manners, compulsively seeks a similar dysfunction in another person.

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I have always wondered why Browning and company ended up entitling this film The Unknown. Sure, it could refer to Alonzo’s hidden identity, but I believe that it also alludes to something more subtle and psychological. According to Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories, what we desire in other people isn’t really a trait that belongs to them, but rather the missing parts of ourselves that we attribute to them.

Lacan described this thing, this source of desire, in algebraic terms as object a, an unknown that draws humans into their webs of attraction and frustration. Rather like Alonzo mutilates himself in pursuit of the illusory quality that he sees in Nanon.

Perhaps that’s the inconnu, the unknown that’s really at work in this sublimely twisted melodrama.

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Crime Spree: The Wicked Darling (1919)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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This post is part of the Lon Chaney Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In. Be sure to check out the other posts and explore the thousands of faces of Chaneys Sr. and Jr.!

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Sympathy for the Devil: The Penalty (1920)

Wallace Worsley’s The Penalty packs a real punch. And not just for a silent movie.

This sicko gem features, among other things, a stark naked woman, a junkie killer, prostitutes, a chase through San Francisco’s seedy “Barbary Coast,” and a Lon Chaney performance so wicked and ferocious that it borders on possession.

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This is one bad dude. Even by today’s standards.

Even I, who proselytize the glory of the silent era, am recurrently shocked by the intensity and dead-on brutality of this film—an astonishingly raw point of reference for all horror and crime films that followed it.

The Penalty

See that lady on your left? She’s nude. Really. And this was for general admission!

When I give it a thought, and I often do, I realize that horror films and gangster films have a lot in common. They both emerged, in the forms we recognize today, from genre cycles in the 1930s after some strong foundations were put down in the silent era. They both tend to feature linear, predictable plot trajectories—rise-and-fall for the gangster film, unleashed-amok-destroyed for the horror film.

The Penalty

Do we love to hate him? Or do we hate to love him?

The horror and crime genres also inspire a mixture of revulsion, pity, sympathy, and, dare I say, admiration for their grotesque protagonists. Monsters and criminals entice us to join (vicariously) in their savagery—there’s something liberating about their intoxicating, anarchic hubris. And, most of the time, they let us indulge whatever aggression many of us harbor towards authority figures—doctors, policemen, community leaders, and the better angels of our nature, our own morally-upright doubles.

And, so, at the crux, the crossroads of all of these emotions we experience in contact with the gangster and the monster, we arrive at The Penalty.

The story starts with a little injured boy, “a victim of the city traffic,” as the intertitles tell us, lying unconscious in a doctor’s office.  Dr. Ferris had to amputate the kid’s legs.

Well, he thought he had to.

The Penalty

The Penalty

The Penalty

It turns out that the inexperienced surgeon made a mistake, an older doctor informs him, as the now legless little boy wakes up and listens with horror.

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However, even though the boy knows the truth, the doctors decide to cover for each other. Yup, that’s right, the doctor gets off free as his colleague backs up his malpractice—while the “mangled” child screams the truth to his parents in vain.

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Okay, so raise your hand if you wouldn’t try to exact demonic retribution on someone who not only took away your legs and all hope of a normal life (this was the 1920s), but also made it so that you could never, ever talk about what happened?

I really hope no one raised his hand.

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This opening scene, unusually poignant for a gangster film, immediately establishes our sympathy with the future bad guy. The anguish of the child sucks us right in—and we get several flashbacks to this scene throughout the film to remind us of that irredeemable loss and sickening injustice. What’s been done can never be made right—so who can blame that little boy for not having any particular concept of wrong? He lives the wrong every day of his life.

The Penalty squirms around this uncomfortable question of the world’s wronged and the rage that germinates within them. I think a lot of people just quote Alexander Pope’s famous line, “To err is human; to forgive divine,” without giving it too much thought. In the end, forgiveness isn’t human. It’s not natural. It does not come easy—and perhaps it shouldn’t, since I could rattle off a few things that I consider unforgivable, and I’m not talking about dissing black-and-white movies. Forgiveness isn’t half as human as vengeance. If you’ll pardon me for ripping an idea from the Rolling Stones, I think most people would find it far easier to relate to proud, self-centered, dissatisfied Satan than to God, in his infinite, incomprehensible wisdom and goodness.

And Blizzard, “lord and master of the underworld,” the warped man that grows out of that amputated boy, could probably teach the devil a thing or two. And he happens to look a lot like him! Blizzard sets out to destroy Dr. Ferris by ingratiating himself with Ferris’ daughter, Barbara—a sculptor who hopes to achieve artistic immortality through a depiction of the devil. She even puts an ad in the newspaper.

The Penalty

As he reads this ad, Blizzard does look positively diabolical.

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Then, remembering the cause of all of his suffering (we get a brief flashback to the opening scene), Chaney’s face shifts through so many transformations—from anticipation to self-congratulatory glee to pensiveness to frightening resolve.

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Then he turns to his henchmen and asks them probably the most darkly funny question ever put on an intertitle. One thinks of the “I amuse you?” scene from Goodfellas!

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The Penalty

“Uh… do we tell da boss he looks like Satan?”

Once Blizzard infiltrates Barbara’s studio, he sets about winning this young woman’s confidence while she works on the aforementioned bust of Satan. Their discussions take on a strangely allegorical ambiance as they talk in the midst of half-made statues and grotesques.

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The act of creation in tandem with an ongoing process of manipulation and destruction gives the film a surreal headiness that counterbalances the realistic grittiness of the street scenes. In this way, The Penalty reminds me of Kurosawa’s almost unbearably good High and Low (sometimes entitled Heaven and Hell) since both films combine squalor and art—to recast squalor as art.

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The Penalty, too, relies on a Heaven-and-Hell motif that zeroes in on the origin of all horror and gangster films. Because, what are horror and gangster films if not variations on the story of The Fall… but from a perspective uncomfortably close to the devil’s? Both genres tend to look up from the filthy underworld and inculcate more that a little sympathy for the devil.

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Blizzard is an especially interesting gangster (and monster) because his physical limitations emphasize his mental prowess. He recalls Milton’s Satan of Paradise Lost who is, to borrow his own words, “A mind not to be chang’d by place or time./ The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” (Book I, Line 253) Like the scariest kinds of monsters, our disabled movie villain corrupts others with his charisma and manipulates his victims to do his bidding. In so doing, he foreshadows the mind-control techniques of Lugosi’s surprisingly hands-off Dracula—and also, I would argue, of Don Corleone who rules his empire by loyalty and psychological terror as much as by real physical force.

Even apart from its rather deep thematic undercurrents, The Penalty stands out as a finely constructed film. Immediately after the opening scene in the doctor’s office, the film plunges us right into an action sequence and a killing in the sordid “Barbary Coast” district of San Francisco. Interestingly, the intertitles describe the Barbary Coast as “a hideous blemish” on the face of the city, making the use of disfigurement as a metaphor for crime and vice even more obvious.

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Prostitutes ply their trade in the Barbary Coast… and get into trouble.

The Penalty

In this den of iniquity, Frisco Pete, played by perennial silent brute James Mason (not to be confused with James ‘Soulful British Eyes’ Mason), stabs a hooker “Barbary Nell” in a dance hall and flees the police through the maze-like, shabby streets of the town.

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The crazy doorways and alleys of San Francisco’s “Barbary Coast”

Finally, Pete runs into Blizzard who agrees to hide him. A movie that throws you right into a chase sequence—hmm, where have I heard of that before? Oh, yeah, almost every single modern gangster or cop film!

The Penalty also interweaves between several “time bomb” plot devices, juggling Blizzard’s twisted personal revenge scheme, which I won’t spoil, with his larger ambition of looting San Francisco. We actually see the realization of this ambition in the eye of Blizzard’s mind, as flames and smoke engulf the city and Blizzard (with legs, since this is his fantasy!) directs his hoodlums to sack and pillage the city.

The Penalty

So, in its own quiet way, The Penalty paved the way for large-scale heist sequences. More important, with its “hypothetical heist,” a big robbery that takes place only in the mind of a character, the film experiments with the psychological and narrative complexity of crime strategizing.

In another interesting (if not entirely satisfying) subplot, a female police operative, Rose, goes undercover as one of Blizzard’s dance hall girls/sweatshop workers. As Rose races against time to discover Blizzard’s plan, she lingers in the shadow of The Fate Worse Than Death and the danger of being discovered.

The Penalty

“I like your spunk. I think I’ll wait to kill you tomorrow.”

The undercover cop angle works generally well and infuses the film with suspense—especially as the hardened young policewoman begins to fall for the magnetically evil Blizzard.

Like Richard III, Shakespeare’s great archvillain and another Satan variant, Blizzard handles women with supreme skill.

The Penalty

Blizzard is not exactly a one-woman man…

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He doesn’t just compensate for his lack of legs. Instead, he uses his “deformity” to his advantage, cultivating pity and catering to a weirdly fetishistic attraction. When Barbara Ferris first sees him and recoils slightly, Blizzard responds to her shock by suavely looking down at his stumps as though noticing them for the first time.

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He then returns her gaze with a flirty smile, as though to imply that there’s enough of him for anything really critical.

(Incidentally, the leg harnesses that Chaney had to wear to portray Blizzard’s disability were so painful that he could only act for about 20 minutes at a time.)

Blizzard also loves to play the piano, but, since he can’t reach the pedals, his current favorite among the dance hall girls has to push them for him. Woe to the dame who doesn’t press those pedals in time with the tune!

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You don’t need to watch to film to recognize this as an oddly sexualized act of subjugation—especially given how much enjoyment and excitement Blizzard derives from playing.

Classic horror films derive much of their bite (pun intended) from the sexual menace of the monsters. (Duh. They did it so well that ghastly, slushy versions of these Gothic tales are mega-hits even these days.) The sex and/or love lives of the gangster also provide inexhaustible subject matter for crime films. Is there a more iconic 1930s scene than Cagney smashing girlfriend Mae Clark in the face with a grapefruit at breakfast, the sleaziest meal of the day in Pre-Code cinematic lingo?

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Well, Blizzard, a freak, a seducer, and a criminal mastermind, connects the two strands of creepy, sadistic fascination—he is the missing link between the gangster and horror genres. Through a clever cinematic presentation and Chaney’s incandescently ugly performance, The Penalty provokes every kind of emotion that a monster or crime film might hope to tease from a spellbound audience.

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(A word of warning: I have no intention of spoiling the ending of The Penalty. The ending spoils itself. A lame, apologetic, neat-as-a-librarian’s-sock-drawer denouement amputates this masterpiece manqué and leaves it as incomplete as its fierce antihero. Don’t say I didn’t tell you. But, come on, it was 1920. Try and show me a film this gritty and disturbing made in Hollywood in the last ten years. Please, make my day.)

The Penalty

Frisco Pete, what was once quaintly termed a “hophead,” begs Blizzard for a fix.

Also, for great, thought-provoking writing about crime films, you should totally check out the Scenes of the Crime Blogathon! It’s so cool, it’s criminal!

Scenes of the Crime Blogathon

The Comedy Is Ended: Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

My whole career has been devoted to keeping people from knowing me.

—Lon Chaney

Lon Chaney could play just about anything—hunchbacks, legless gangsters, and all manner of “freaks.” However, Laugh, Clown, Laugh offers perhaps his most moving performance because, for much of it, we can’t shake the feeling that we’re watching Lon Chaney… as Lon Chaney. In fact, Chaney would remember the sad funnyman Tito as his favorite role.

As a traveling commedia dell’arte clown torn apart by his love for the foundling girl he adopts, Chaney gets the rare opportunity to inhabit a character devoid of menace and to act wearing little makeup for most of the film.

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Indeed, apart from a brief show scene towards the beginning, the grotesque clown makeup doesn’t factor in until rather far into the film. Already, we have a chameleonic performer playing a performer and this kind of double fiction ironically flakes away at the illusion of the film and gives us glimpses of the Chaney buried under all those ferocious facial expressions and disguises.

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For me, the most powerful scene in the film, even more powerful than the emotional breakdown of the third act, takes place when Tito is visiting a psychoanalyst to discuss his depression—he is always prone to fits of weeping. While there, he meets a rich playboy struck with the opposite affliction: bouts of uncontrollable laughter. The doctor, unaware of Tito’s profession, takes him onto the balcony of his office and points to a poster of Tito as Flik the Clown that just happens to be plastered on a building below.

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Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

The doctor suggests that a funny show might do the melancholy man a world of good, but Tito reveals the flaw in this argument.

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No sooner does the celebrated jester announce his identity than the doctor and Count Luigi pay their respects to the great comedian who wearily thanks them. I may be projecting this, but the gracious but tired expression that comes across Chaney’s face reminds me of what you might’ve seen if you’d asked him for an autograph. His Tito conveys such exhaustion—exhaustion from living a life in which he cannot reveal his true self to anyone, much less his “daughter” with whom he’s fallen in love and who loves another man.

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Obviously the plot is something of a contrivance to wring tears out of us, but you get the feeling that the burnt-out sadness, the gloom which Tito lugs around with him, when not in make-up, derives not from Chaney’s craft as an actor, but rather from personal reserves of angst. He even supposedly said in real life, “Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney,” as if even all that pretending and creating of screen illusions had worn away his essence as a coherent individual.

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Tito is expected to put on a show for everyone and has to lie about his feelings to Simonetta—and so he lives in a state of perpetual exile from himself.

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Contributing to the poignant realness of the situation, the radiant adolescent Loretta Young plays a radiant adolescent ingénue, Simonetta. We seem to watch both Loretta and Simonetta come of age and blossom onscreen.

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Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Apparently, during the making of the film, the nasty director, Herbert Brenon, liked to bully the 14-year-old Young, once even nastily telling her, in front of the crew, “I don’t know whatever gave you the idea you could be an actress.” As Young recalled, “[Brenon] would rip me up one side and down the other… but never when Lon Chaney was on the set.”

Well, Chaney caught wind of this and decided to protect the vulnerable girl by always being on-set—even when he wasn’t filming any scenes. Young gave him credit for coaching her sensitive performance: “He really directed me.” A lot of that genuine paternal warmth and mentorship comes across in their onscreen chemistry.

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Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Tito’s fatherly love for Simonetta and her caring devotion to him light up the screen. Indeed, Young always remembered Chaney’s protectiveness and said years later, “I shall be beholden to that sensitive, sweet man until I die.”

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

I strongly recommend that you watch this movie for a master class in the glowy, gauzy textures of the silent era. I love how much un-stylized information seems to fit into each frame of silent films, as though the lack of sound facilitated a fuller picture of reality, one untrimmed of its fringes, wrinkles, and unvarnished natural details. The brilliant cinematography shows that, even relatively early in his career, James Wong Howe could coax the heartbreaking shades and nuances out of every petal on a flower, every ruffle on a costume, every plane of a character’s face.

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Almost all the silent tropes are there: the nobleman and the common girl, unrequited love, and lots and lots of scenes of characters longingly watching other characters.

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The contrast between the buoyant, lily-like grace of an angelic Loretta Young and the pathetic, knockabout ugliness of Flik make this film remarkably striking.

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The juxtaposition of beauty and grotesqueness produces enough visual tension to sustain a story that really doesn’t have much to it in terms of intrigue. The difference between Chaney’s facial expressions and the constant painter smile of the clown makeup also interjects a creepiness into the scenes where he becomes enraged or breaks down into tears.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

And then there’s the brilliantly expressionistic final sequence. Don’t read on if you don’t want major spoilers.

Realizing that he could never make Simonetta happy, even though she agrees to marry him out of gratitude, Tito goes to the theater gets into costume and psyches himself up into a frenzy in front of a mirror—if he can’t be himself and be happy, he’ll at least die in the role that everyone expects him to play.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

The visuals in this scene turn incredibly flamboyant and disorienting, providing a glimpse into his unhinged mind.

As he stands on the stage, the yawning theater dwarfs him.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Flik hallucinates an audience and we see a superimposed kaleidoscopic ring of spectators hovering around him

Laugh, Clown, Laugh Laugh, Clown, Laugh Finally as he ascends his signature head-stand “death-defying slide” he looks down on his partner from an angle so high and canted that it borders on total abstraction.

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Then he lets himself go into the slide—and slides right into the camera, as though crashing into the audience! Then he tumbles off the wire.

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Simon and the stage manager pick up the mortally wounded clown and, as they do, his big floppy fake feet swing towards the camera making him bitterly ludicrous even in his dying moments.

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As Simon cradles Tito in his arms, Tito turns to the camera, touches his nose as though taking us in his confidence, and breathes his last words—still in character.

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This announcement not only breaks down the forth wall, it widens the context of the movie’s theme of the actor as a kind of sacrifice, an object of consumption for an audience who fails to understand the pain behind the mask. By declaring that the comedy is over just as the film itself is coming to a close, Lon Chaney as Tito invites us to think of the story as a parable for the travail of anyone who hides his identity behind an act put forward for our amusement.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

As much as “the tears of a clown” are kind of a cliché, I can’t help but watch this without thinking of all the silent stars who succumbed to their own press mythology and died early deaths. I particularly think of my favorite silent clown, Max Linder, who slit his wrists (and those of his wife) just a few years before this movie was made.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

I imagine that’s one hell of a burden when thousands of people applaud you, but have no clue about the person you really are. In fact, when a person attains that kind of celebrity, and Chaney conveys this beautifully, I suspect that the performer begins not to know who he is himself! The essence of a person breaks down into frayed personae that will not be reconciled. An actor is something like a philosopher in the sense that he is always both himself and looking in at himself. This schism can be funny. But really it’s quite, quite sad.

And, on that happy note, la commedia è finita.

Oh, and I took all these screenshots of the glory that is Nils Asther. I’m certainly not letting them go to waste. You’re welcome.

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