TCM Archives - The Lon Chaney Collection (The Ace of Hearts / Laugh, Clown, Laugh / The Unknown)
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Lon Chaney Collection, The (DVD)
Long before teams of technicians used computers to bring monsters and superheroes to the screen, one man equipped with little more than a makeup kit and a remarkable acting talent dazzled moviegoers with his ability to transform himself into all manner of men, monsters and outcasts. That man was Lon Chaney. This 2-Disc Chaney celebration includes three of his major works. The Ace of Hearts, - a tale of murderous intrigue, Laugh, Clown, Laugh - Chaney as a love-smitten circus clown, and The Unknown - where Chaney is a armless knife thrower. These are in their most complete surviving versions. Narrated by Kenneth Branagh, Turner Classic Movies' compelling documentary Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces explores Chaney's diverse career and very private personal life. They are a few of this genius's thousand faces - faces that continue to amaze and entertain]]>
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The earliest film, from 1921, is "Ace of Hearts" a static and melodramatic story of a vigilante group who draw cards to select who will commit murder. The print is fairly poor and the film suffers from a snail pace and overacting. The second film is "The Unknown", released in 1927. The film, we are told, is possibly the best of the partnership of the director Tod Browning and Chaney. The story is bizarre, the powerful tale of a circus performer who cuts off his arms to win the girl. Joan Crawford, in a very early role, plays the object of Chaney's love. The film follows the common theme of unrequited love which appeared in many of Chaney's films. As well as observing Chaney's art, there is excellent photography and Crawford displays a rawness which is probably much closer to who she was before she became THE Joan Crawford. The print is good. The final film is "Laugh Clown Laugh", apparently Chaney's own favourite of all his films. Once again, the theme is unrequited love. Chaney plays a clown who makes the public laugh while he is heartbroken inside. This time, the object of his affection is the virginal and teenage Loretta Young who displays the purity of emotion which was in all of her best performances pre 1935. The print is very good.
The set also includes a reconstruction of an early version of the vampyr legend, "London after Midnight". This is a much coveted lost film but on the evidence of a few interviewees who saw the original film, the script and the stills, it looks like it might have been extremely melodramatic. While the reconstruction has been lovingly done, the result is static and rather boring, which is to be expected, I suppose.
Both "Laugh Clown Laugh" and "The Unknown" are missing scenes but what remains preserves Chaney at the height of his powers. They demonstrate that, in fact, his reputation as a horror star is misleading. He was a character actor who changed his appearance to suit the role in the same way Charles Laughton and Paul Muni did much later. His talent for pathos is outstanding. Of the generous extras included in the set, the best may be the marvellous documentary about the star and the short films about the competitions which TCM ran to locate new scores for the films.
The DVD set is excellent value.
The first movie to watch is LAUGH CLOWN LAUGH (reportedly Chaney's favorite among his films) which ably demonstrates his ability to convey deeply felt emotions by the use of his body language and without heavy make-up although he does wear clown make-up at the end. Also the 15 year old Loretta Young is remarkable in her feature film debut. Follow that with THE ACE OF HEARTS which is the weakest of the three but still a pretty good film that allows Chaney the opportunity to shine in a fascinating storyline that is still of interest today. Save Tod Browning's THE UNKNOWN for last as it is truly a one of a kind film that will stay with you long after it's over. Chaney plays an armless knife thrower who isn't really armless while a young Joan Crawford has a phobia about being touched. Even more bizarre than it sounds with vivid performances and an astonishing visual composition. Each movie is taken from the best available source material and comes with a newly recorded score composed specifically for each film. View the other supplements whenever you choose to get a fully rounded picture of this incredible talent.
All in all a remarkable set at a good price. Like the PHANTOM and METROPOLIS DVD's released earlier this year, this is how it should be done. Hopefully Turner Classic Movies can now turn their attention to the other classic M-G-M silents in their library (BEN HUR, GREED, THE BIG PARADE, THE WIND) and release them as well. For the next deluxe package how about "The Greta Garbo Collection". Thanks to efforts like this, the art of the silent film is alive and well and being passed on to a new generation of film lovers.