Eye to eye with the Man of a Thousand Faces
It's somehow fitting that I'm writing this hours after receiving the news that iconic American author Ray Bradbury has died. Bradbury famously attributed his love of all things weird, wild, and wondrous to having been exposed – at the age of 3, no less – to Lon Chaney's bravura performance as Quasimodo in the 1923 adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Coincidentally, and fortuitously, my first exposure to Chaney, and to the dark lyricism of silent filmmaking, involved both Wallace Worsley's version of Victor Hugo's novel and the then more obscure Tod Browning masterpiece The Unknown. I was 10 at the time, so Bradbury got the jump on me, frightwise, but my memories of discovering Chaney, the man of a thousand faces, remain crystal clear to this day.
I caught that feverishly manic double bill at a pizza joint outside of Rochester, New York, by the name of Shakey's. Decades before the Alamo Drafthouse came along, Shakey's hit on the brilliant idea of projecting 16mm films on an inside screen for patrons to view while noshing on a gloriously gooey slice or quaffing a frosty, locally brewed Genesee Cream Ale.
As a proto-Alamo, Shakey's standard exhibition fare mostly ran to Three Stooges and Laurel & Hardy shorts, so the Chaney double bill was something of a rarity. Still, discovering Chaney in motion, alive – as opposed to in print, via Forrest J Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, to which I was already wholly addicted – shook the budding pre-teen cineaste within me to its core. Who knew silent films of this sort even existed? Probably everyone over the age of 16 in Rochester – the home of Kodak, George Eastman House, and the late silent film scholar and preservationist James Card. (Only years later, after moving to Texas, did I discover that my family home was mere blocks away from the apartment of the once-upon-a-time screen siren Louise Brooks. C'est la vie.)
By 1976, I had already bought and assembled the Aurora Monster Models kit of "The Hunchback," but seeing Chaney's insanely operatic performance as Alonzo, the lovesick, craven, and apparently armless circus knife-thrower in The Unknown was a revelation. Browning's film is an epic tragedy with an emphasis on the freakish outsider (Chaney, natch) and the emotional and physical contortions of splintering humanity. A spidery vein of gallows humor runs throughout the circus-set picture (a very young Joan Crawford is also in the cast), but the only thing that comes close to trumping Chaney's typically volcanic performance is the expressionistic camerawork courtesy of Merritt B. Gerstad, who would go on to film Browning's most infamous and excoriated film, the horrific, antic Freaks, in 1932.
The tortured love, thwarted vengeance, and outsized emotions Chaney invoked from the dicey detritus of his personal life can seem hackneyed to the jaded ADHD eye of modern cineplex audiences. It's their loss: True lovers of pure filmmaking can't help but be mesmerized by Chaney's mad whirligig performance and Browning's habitually pessimistic worldview. It's a three-ring vicious circus of mad love and treasonous hearts, a chiaroscurotic cirque perdu of outsiders and artists, and Lon Chaney's finest hour.
The Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow, Austin Classical Guitar Society, and AMOA-Arthouse will screen The Unknown at Laguna Gloria on Friday, June 22. See www.drafthouse.com for ticket info.