Friday, December 16, 2011

Silent Night, Gabby Night

Wise: Hi there, Werth.  Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet?  Or did more people make Santa's naughty list than his nice one?  

Werth: Forget holiday shopping; I'm more interested in all the Oscar-bait, must-see, end-of-year movies.  And at the top of my list is Michel Hazanavicius' salute to silent films, The Artist.  A huge hit at Cannes, it threatens to upset the entire race to the Academy Awards.  

Wise: The film world is certainly buzzing about it and the movie's star Jean Dujardin, but all the chatter reminds me of how great so many old Hollywood silents really were and what a perfect antidote they can be to the frenzied holiday season.  

Werth: Antidote for the holiday season? My favorite silent film is more disturbing than Macy's on December 24th. Tod Browning's The Unknown (1927) is one of those films that is so bizarre, it can only exist in the silent era. Browning, who would go on to direct Dracula (1931) and cult-favorite Freaks (1932) wrote and directed this sick, obsessive love story set in, of course, a circus.

Wise: Circuses sort of attract sick, obsessive love stories.

Werth: Lon Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, an armless man who throws knives in a carnival. But he isn't content tossing knives with his tootsies. He falls in love with his assistant, the circus owner's daughter, Nanon, played by a young Joan Crawford.

Wise: Joan Crawford? Does she throw the knives back at him?

Werth: No, Crawford here is young and fresh. She is one year from 1928's Our Dancing Daughters, so what we see is a woman on the verge of Hollywood stardom. For all those who think Crawford is just the celluloid harridan depicted in Mommie Dearest, this movie is a refreshing wake-up call that reminds us that Crawford was a striking presence, whose abilities for expression were quite accomplished before the advent of sound. Her eyes and gutsy physicality are perfect, making her Nanon a sexy creature of complication, rather than simple coquetry.

Wise: During the summer I like to play coquetry.

Werth: Nanon doesn't mind Alonzo throwing knives at her, but she gets real cheesed when strongman, Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), starts to grab at her. Having been pawed at by lusty lads all her life, she has a phobia of hands, so of course, armless Alonzo would seem the perfect match for her.

Wise: Of course.

Werth: But Alonzo the Armless isn't what he appears, and considering his carnival sidekick is a dwarf dressed like the devil, it doesn't take long to figure out that something is rotten with this act. Alonzo, it turns out, is actually a murderer on the run who not only has two good arms, but two thumbs on one hand. 

Wise: That's just weird.

Werth: Chaney's physical ability to twist his body into a shape that resembles limblessness is expert and as he falls madly in love with Nanon, the monstrosity of his performance requires no makeup, only the contortions of his face. Alonzo's idea for how to make sure that Nanon doesn't find out that he has arms on the wedding night is gruesome, and I won't spoil the clever plot by revealing very much here. Watching The Unknown feels like a priveleged event- You get to see Chaney's mastery of the silent film medium and Crawford taking her first silent steps to Hollywood imortality.

Wise: My favorite silent movie is also an indelible Chaney performance. Eager to reproduce the enormous success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Universal Studios prepared to adapt Gaston Leroux's 1909 novel The Phantom of the Opera for Lon Chaney.  Similarly set in Paris and focusing on a deformed and misunderstood central character who falls for and kidnaps the virginal heroine, Phantom allowed Chaney to once again create a character bother heartfelt and horrific.  

Werth: Like Katherine Heigl in most of her roles.  

Wise: Unfortunately, production did not go smoothly because director Rupert Julian and his cast did not get along resulting in a picture that failed to impress its audience during its first round of previews.  Julian was fired and the cast reassembled for a series of reshoots, plus filming additional comic scenes that were supposed to relieve some of the tension.  Re-edited and released, Phantom was a huge success, and although the film can seem a mishmash of styles and tone, Chaney's mesmerizing performance makes everything fall into place.  

Werth: He makes me want to run out and buy some moisturizer. 

Wise: Much like the original novel, the Phantom doesn't appear until well into the action.  Instead, he is revealed slowly in silhouettes and shadows, by mysterious hands emerging from secret compartments, even by his spidery handwriting in notes threatening the foundations of the Paris Opera House and promoting his love, Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), to become its star.  
When he is finally unmasked by Christine, the shock is enormous, and not just because of Chaney's terrifyingly effective make-up; the revelation transforms the gently romantic masked lover into the cadaverous monster lurking below.  

Werth: So, Wise, with all this gab about silents are you going to take some holiday vacation time to go to the silent film festival at Film Forum?

Wise: Only if you'll hold my popcorn.  

Werth: As a Christmas present to you, I will hold your popcorn and soda during next week's Film Gab.  

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