Archive for the ‘Silents’ Category

There are benefits to being an insomniac. One is that you don’t have to work hard to stay up into the dead of night to watch the kind of movies that only air in the dead of night. Turner Classic Movies has a series this month called Silent Sundays, and the other night they aired a movie I’ve been meaning to see for a while:

Laugh, Clown, Laugh.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), based on a play and directed by Herbert Brenon, is a vehicle for the great Lon Chaney: Here he plays a travelling circus clown named Tito, who finds a baby girl he names Simonetta, takes her in and raises her to be a fellow performer. As she grows up, into a beautiful adolescent, he realizes to his confusion that he’s fallen in love with her. And then he has competition in the form of a dashing gentleman named Luigi.

The story has obvious echoes of the opera Pagliacci, but a more fun way to look at it for modern movie fans is that it’s Léon (The Professional) but with Italian clowns instead of Gallic assassins. The ingenue is played by Loretta Young, who went on to a long career in Hollywood, who from her appearance here seems to have been the Natalie Portman of her day.

But this is Lon Chaney’s show, and as usual, even to modern eyes his performance is compelling and affecting. For me, as with many people of my generation, it can take some work to get into a silent movie, but it’s not that way with Chaney’s filmography. For one thing, he almost always played grotesques, eccentrics, and freaks — that stuff works in any era.

For another, and maybe it’s the nature of the roles, but Chaney feels more expressive and more demonstrative than pretty much any other well-known performer of the era, to me at least. His acting is always perfectly modulated, neither too much nor too little, and thereby ensures that you hardly need the title cards to follow the story.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh is a great showcase for Lon Chaney, and the nature of the circus setting makes it a baroque experience, and well worth watching, but to me, it didn’t feel quite as transcendently weird as the movies I’ve seen that Chaney made with director Tod Browning. One of those is The Unknown.

It was probably Hugo that did it, but I went on a silent movie kick for a while there. So this is a movie I only got around to at the end of last year. It holds up and then some. The Unknown (1927) is one of the strongest collaborations between director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney. In it, Lon Chaney plays an armless knife thrower named Alonzo The Armless.

For real now: Doesn’t that make you want to skip the rest of this article right now and go watch this movie?

All of the Tod Browning/ Lon Chaney collaborations I’ve seen are exactly this level of crazy. These two artists were, for a while there, as perfect a match as Leone and Eastwood. Besides his command of eerie and ominous atmosphere behind the camera, Browning had been a circus performer himself, a clown and a daredevil, so he knew these worlds. Chaney was a master of pathos and the macabre, fully able to meet any of the bizarre physical demands Browning needed from him.

Needless to say I’m a Tod Browning fan. Nobody else made movies like his. The closest you could come, for that mix of playful and menacing, is arguably early Tim Burton, or recent Alex De La Iglesia. I spent time studying Browning’s movies, most notably Freaks, for one of the comics I wrote. (Still available in stores and online!)

But Freaks came a few years after The Unknown — it’s better-known because it has sound and because the titular “freaks” were actually deformed, whereas Chaney was only playing at it (albeit doing so while in excruciating pain, if you read up on the history.) The Unknown also comes before Laugh, Clown, Laugh in the Lon Chaney chronology. This is a much more depraved character, in a much more depraved movie.

Chaney plays Alonzo The Armless, a sideshow freak whose act is flinging knives at his partner Nanon (Joan Crawford) using only his feet. He can do other things with his feet, such as play guitar…

…But the main thing to look out for is that knife-throwing. Alonzo’s not that nice a guy, and he’s also a fake. Turns out he has both his arms — he’s only hiding out in the circus because he’s a career criminal, who is easily identifiable because he has two thumbs on one hand.






This movie is wild. Okay, so Alonzo is a genetic aberration, but not the kind he purports to be. It’s the perfect cover story! Because not only does he need to hide his identity from the authorities, but he’s trying to not let on to Nanon, the woman he loves, that he is THE SAME TWO-THUMBED MAN WHO KILLED HER FATHER!

Alonzo’s only confidante is a little person named Cojo. It really just keeps getting better, doesn’t it? Alonzo fumes to Cojo as his beloved Nanon gets closer to the circus strongman — but not too close, as since her father was killed, she has developed a phobia of being held. This in turn leaves the door wide open for the romantic advances of Alonzo, as long as he doesn’t reveal to her that he actually does have arms. (It’s a little bit like Tootsie!) Alonzo gets so wrapped up in his babe that he makes the spectacularly bad decision to go get his arms amputated. Fellas, don’t make this mistake with your lady, and I’ll tell you why: While he’s recovering, Nanon gets over her arm phobia. Not only that, but she announces that she’s marrying the circus strongman. Well, Alonzo doesn’t take this news well at all, and that’s where everything gets really Tod Browning all over everybody.

What’s so compelling and so unusual about The Unknown, and about so many of Tod Browning’s films, is that it begins on a malevolent note and that only intensifies, until the typically violent climax, where the movie’s villain gets a karmic comeuppance so horrible that it’s barely even gratifying to watch. And of course what’s so uncommon, never more than today, is how the movie’s villain was the main character and the biggest star. It just shows how very much Lon Chaney brought to the movie, and to movies in general. How many stars are brave enough to allow themselves to be shown in so ugly a light? Alonzo is an evil, angry, murderous character, only occasionally sympathetic, but clearly that doesn’t keep him from being interesting. Tod Browning’s movies were provocative, profound, and truly valuable because his bad people were truly nasty brutes, and the so-called “freaks” were the most human out of anyone. Then again, being human doesn’t always mean being good either. The world is a complicated place.

For more on Tod Browning, here again are my pieces on The Unholy Three, and of course, on Dracula.

And here’s the renowned Dave Kehr on several other Lon Chaney films.

And here’s me on Twitter, sadly far less than silent: @jonnyabomb

Movie Review: HUGO (2011).

Posted: December 29, 2011 in Movies (H), Robots, Silents

I’m having a hard time collecting my thoughts about Hugo because I’m not sure how to write about it definitively yet.  My thoughts are still percolating.  I’d say that’s a good sign.  I’ve seen plenty of movies this year that I forgot about the moment I stepped out of the theater.  That’s far from my problem in describing Hugo.  My problem in describing Hugo is in deciding whether or not I should use the term “masterpiece.”

It’s certainly a masterwork, in that it’s the picture of professionalism, all immaculate composition and delirious craftsmanship.  But would I be too eager in calling it a masterpiece, as in “a film that will endure and come to be acknowledged as a classic”?  I mean, we’re talking about Martin Scorsese here.  It’s not like he hasn’t made a couple masterpieces already.  But I also know that I can get overly enthusiastic.  So maybe I’ll keep this short, and come back to it some day soon.

The story centers around a boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield, terrific), who is raised by a single father (Jude Law, in a brief role) to be a builder and fixer of clocks in the city of Paris.  When Hugo loses his father, he is taken in by his brute of an uncle (Ray Winstone, in an even more brief role) to help run the clocks in the central train station.  The uncle wanders off in a drunken stupor, leaving Hugo alone to keep the clocks running.  A nasty security guard (Sacha Baron Cohen, a precision instrument of comedy) patrols the station, scooping up unattended minors to ship off to the orphanage, and Hugo spends his days avoiding this creep, literally living in the walls.  Hugo has exactly one artifact to remind him of his beloved father — an “automaton”, basically a small robot that waits, poised, to write a message with pen and paper, which Hugo diligently labors to activate.  Events put Hugo in the path of a girl (Chloe Grace Moretz, the talented young actor from Let Me In) and her guardian, an embittered toy maker (Ben Kingsley), who literally hold the key to making the automaton work and getting it to reveal its secrets.

There are other wonderful characters populating the station and the film, such as a portly gentleman who is continually harassed by a small dog (Richard Griffiths, in a great tribute to Oliver Hardy), a lovely flower girl (Emily Mortimer) who the patrolman loves from a distance, a friendly academic (Michael Stuhlbarg, initially unrecognizable from his turn in A Serious Man) who comes into play later in the story, and best of all, Msr. Labisse (Christopher Lee), the saintly owner of the station’s bookstore, who generously lends books to the kids just because they love to read so much.  Christopher Lee, with that unearthly voice and unmistakable frame, haunts this movie in the best possible sense.  As one of the living legends and literal icons of film — the words “legend” and “icon” are overused but this man eminently qualifies — he is like a human testament to the love of filmmaking which gilds every frame of this movie.

And that’s at heart what Hugo is about.  Love, filmmaking, and the love of filmmaking.  Scorsese’s famed encyclopedic knowledge of world cinema history abounds in total glory, from the aforementioned tribute to the slapstick tradition of Laurel & Hardy and others (Charlie Chaplin, Charley Chase) to the more overt references to Harold Lloyd, both in the movie and on the poster —


— from the design of the automaton which hearkens back to Metropolis, to the skeletal dancers in another scene which recall a similarly fleeting ominous omen from Renoir’s The Rules Of The Game, to Sacha Baron Cohen’s melange of influences including Jacques Tati and Inspector Clouseau, right up to the smorgasbord of silent films both real and imagined which bring the viewer back to the joy and the innocence and the freshness of the very early days of cinema, birthed by the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès and their compatriots.  Scorsese’s joy is so palpable that he can’t help himself from hopping into the action and making his first director cameo in many years.  And the joy is infectious.  Between Robert Richardson’s cinematography, never more vibrant, and Dante Ferretti’s astonishingly meticulous production design, Hugo is a literal feast for the eyes.

More like dessert.  “Eye candy” is another cliché, but it’s never been more relevant.  Watching Hugo feels like someone coated your eyeballs in chocolate and gold.  Its color palette is warm and accomodating, just plain wonderful to behold.   Hugo has that excitement of those special occasions, maybe some long-ago Christmas dinner, where your parents let you have more candy than usual, more than even you think is enough.  It’s both impressive and inspiring that, at a time when most artists might consider resting on their laurels, Scorsese has shot a movie entirely in a newer technology, 3-D, and surpassed all pretenders.  This is without question the best-looking 3-D movie since Avatar, and this one has a much better story.  My initial one-line review of Hugo is that “Scorsese found a way to turn film school into cinema.”  Now I’m leaning towards referring to it as “Scorsese’s Watch The Throne.”

Would I quibble?  No, actually, I don’t think I can! Not with the movie itself, but I do have slight concern about its marketing.  I saw this movie without my four-year-old niece, who is normally my favorite companion for G-rated and PG-rated movies.  She wants to see it, and I feel that eventually she will love it.  But I don’t think she’s ready for a 3-D movie that lasts over two hours.  Hugo may be too long for all but the most patient of children.  I could be wrong.  I’m hoping I am.  It looks likely that I’ll be testing that prediction soon.  I can tell you that I personally will gladly sign up for another screening.  This time I’ll watch her smile as she watches the movie.

It’s great.  Heed none but the most favorable reviews.  Go, now, while it’s still playing in 3-D on the biggest screens possible.

Seriously.  Get going.  Or else I’m going to start back up writing more about it.


More of me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

Today I’m spotlighting a movie all the way from 1925.  Don’t let that scare you off.  Give me two paragraphs and trust me, you’ll want to stay.

The Unholy Three was a massive hit in its time, and critically well-received, which makes it one of the most successful movies to be barely remembered by history. Director Tod Browning later made the monumentally influential Dracula with Bela Lugosi in 1931, and the infamous and historically crucial Freaks a year later. Browning is a fascinating figure in his own right, beginning his career as a circus performer known as “The Hypnotic Living Corpse” and then moving into motion pictures. But that’s another story, and I’m too excited about The Unholy Three to talk about anything else.

I first read about The Unholy Three in an incredible book called The Monster Show by cultural historian and monster-movie expert David J. Skal.

Skal encapsulates the story like so: “a crime spree perpetrated by three circus performers – a ventriloquist (Lon Chaney), a midget (Harry Earles), and a strongman (Victor McLaglen). [Fed up with the circus life, the trio set up a false front for their criminal activities in a parrot shop.] The ventriloquist disguises himself as an old lady, and the midget assumes the guise of a baby.” IMDB will list their respective names as Professor Echo, Tweedledee a.k.a. Little Willie, and Hercules. Also, there is a giant chimpanzee prominently featured in the film.

If there’s someone out there who can get through the preceding paragraph and not want to see this movie right this minute, I sure don’t want to know ‘em.

The Unholy Three is a silent film, and was later remade by Browning and Chaney after the arrival of sound. It’s not an easy movie to track down, in either version.  When I finally did, I went with the original.  Due to that amazing summary, my expectations were sky-high – and they were still surpassed.

As you might expect of an 86-year-old silent movie, The Unholy Three is somewhat dated (though not as much as you’d think) and some of the storytelling techniques and plot devices are somewhat rudimentary, seeing as how the film medium was then in its infancy. But it’s astonishing how vivid and entertaining the movie still remains today. The running time flew by, as the humor in the dialogue and staging (almost entirely intended) was incredibly hilarious, and there were even a couple resonant emotional moments.

Lon Chaney, the legendary ‘Man Of A Thousand Faces’, plays the entire movie with his real face, even while under a gray wig as “Grandma O’Grady”, and he is funny, sinister, and moving. Victor McLaglen, as the strongman, is sympathetic as a loyal man who is too susceptible to negative influences – McLaglen went on to a long career as a memorable supporting player in Gunga Din and in John Ford/ John Wayne westerns.

But by far, the most unforgettable character is Harry Earles, who was the romantic lead in Freaks and who represented the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard Of Oz. Earles plays all the baby moments for high comedy, and is equally convincing as the most vicious and Unholy of the three. Browning, a circus performer himself, was unusually sympathetic in his films towards the more “unusual” characters – that Tweedledee is the meanest of the criminals is a bold characterization, and worth remembering in a film culture that has devolved in the past eight decades towards lampooning little people and other disabled persons, despite all the politically correct lip service to the contrary.

Since it’s not a very long movie, I don’t want to overly detail what happens once these three team up and eventually start getting on each other’s nerves, but if I restate the fact that a giant chimpanzee is involved, will you believe me when I tell you that it is AWESOME?

Really, if you ever get a chance to see this movie, definitely jump at it. It had me erupting with laughter, surprise, and joy. In general, seeing silent films is an underrated pleasure – and an educational recommendation for modern filmmakers who use wordy dialogue as a crutch and don’t tell story through image. The Unholy Three is brisk and concise entertainment.  Check it out, and please – keep your eyes open for babies with cigar smoke on their breath.

And keep your eyes open for me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb