A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Lon Chaney Double Feature


He Who Gets Slapped, Victor Sjöström, 1924
The more I see of the young Norma Shearer, the more I like her. I recently watched The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927), in which she's paired with Ramon Novarro, and was struck by how fresh and natural she was as an actress, and the same holds true in He Who Gets Slapped, where her love interest is John Gilbert. Both movies are silents, of course. It was only after the advent of sound that her husband, MGM's creative director Irving G. Thalberg, decided to make her into a great lady, the cinematic equivalent of Katharine Cornell, putting her into remakes of Broadway hits like The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin, 1934), which had starred Cornell, or Strange Interlude (Robert Z. Leonard, 1932), which had featured another theatrical diva, Lynn Fontanne. She was also miscast as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (George Cukor, 1936), a role that, at 34, she was much too old to play. She is barely in her 20s in He Who Gets Slapped, however, and she's delightful. This is not a film for coulrophobes (people with a fear of clowns), however. It's crawling with them, performing antics that are supposed to be, to judge from the hilarity they induce in the audiences shown in the film, side-splittingly funny. The film is based on the highly dubious premise that watching someone get slapped repeatedly is one of the funniest things ever. There may be people who think so -- to judge from the perennial popularity of the Three Stooges -- but I'm not one of them. The whole movie is an artificial concoction, anyway, and only the brilliance of Lon Chaney gives it some grounding in real-life feeling. It was one of the films that launched the MGM studios on the road to Hollywood dominance, and the first one to feature Leo the Lion in the credits.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh, Herbert Brenon, 1928
This is a grand showcase for Chaney, whose reputation as the man of a thousand faces was somewhat misleading. Chaney had one well-worn face that, no matter how much he distorted or disguised it, shone through. Here he's given an opportunity to perform without disguise through much of the film, and the range of expressions available to him is astonishing. The leading lady is 14-year-old Loretta Young. That she often looks her age is one of the more disturbing things about the film, in which she's supposed to be in love with both Chaney, who was 45, and the improbably pretty Nils Asther, who was 31. The cinematography is by James Wong Howe. Laugh, Clown, Laugh was eligible for Oscar nominations in the first year of the Academy Awards, and Chaney should have received one. The closest the film came to an award was the one that Joseph Farnham received for title writing (the one and only time the award was presented). But Farnham's award was for the body of his work over the nomination period, and not for a particular film.