DVD Review: The Lon Chaney Collection

Of the 150+ films Lon Chaney appeared in, only about 50 survive. Of those, a number of the early, public domain titles have been available on VHS for a number of years and recently a few titles have been released on DVD. But with the exception of a short-lived Lon Chaney box set on the now defunct laserdisc format, none of Chaney's 18 MGM features have been available in any video format and none have been released on DVD. Until now.

On October 28, 2003 we will see the release of the Lon Chaney Collection from Warner Home Video's Turner Classic Movies Archive series. As if to make up for lost time, the set includes two of Chaney's best MGM appearances, an early Goldwyn title, a restoration of a lost film, and a superb documentary on Chaney's film career. All of the silent films have newly recorded scores, two of which are from winners of the TCM Young Film Composers Competition, a program whereby young musicians submit musical clips on-line, leading to the eventual selection of composers who were outfitted with full orchestras for the performance of their newly composed scores. Two interesting featurettes are included on the DVD about the selection of the winners and their process for composing the scores. The set also has the advantage of fascinating commentary tracks by Chaney historian and biographer Michael F. Blake. Blake knows more about Chaney than just about anyone and he packs the commentary tracks with interesting tidbits about Chaney's life, the making of the films, and even points out missing footage where appropriate. Specific reviews of each feature follows:

Let's get the bad news out of the way first. Ace of Hearts (1921, Goldwyn Pictures Corp.) is the weakest picture on the disc. Why this early Goldwyn melodrama was chosen for release, let alone the expense of creation of a full orchestral score, instead of gems like He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Unholy Three (1925), Tell It to the Marines (1926), While the City Sleeps (1928), West of Zanzibar (1928), or Where East is East (1929), is beyond me. This tale of anti-capitalists plotting death and destruction goes on for what feels like forever. There's one interesting overhead camera shot of a card game, but what would be a neat 15 sec shot goes on for several minutes. The print quality is also the weakest of the bunch; it is sharp, but with lots of wear and tear in the preprint. The Young Composer Grand Prize winner, Vivek Maddala, did a score that really doesn't fit the picture. Mr. Maddala is certainly talented, and I'd be happy to hear him score, say, L.A. Confidential, but his quasi-jazz score just doesn't work for this. To be sure, it's interesting to see Chaney in his pre-MGM days, but this film is really for scholars and hardcore buffs only.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928, MGM) has long been a personal favorite of mine. Besides the presence of a radiant 14-year old Loretta Young, Chaney is at his very best, playing a clown who adopts a young girl, and falls in love with her as she blossoms into a young woman. (I mean, really, who could not fall for Loretta Young!) The story is, frankly, overly melodramatic, with Nils Asther playing a cardboard lover with laughing fits, but the film is so well acted, Chaney is so good, Young is so vibrant, and it's so beautifully directed by Herbert Brenon that it's a surefire winner. And unlike Ace of Hearts, the score by another Young Composer, H. Scott Salinas, is a gem. Salinas clearly understands what music works for silent films. My only minor gripe...why not use the beautiful "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" theme song written for the film? A very minor quibble about what is otherwise one of the highlights of the DVD set. Print quality is stunning, and a brief section of missing footage does little to damage the continuity. (Listen to the Blake commentary track and he will walk you through all the missing scenes.)

The Unknown (1927, MGM) belongs in the pantheon of genuinely sick movies and, as such, is a favorite of horror film buffs. Director Tod Browning made 10 features with Chaney, and this is probably the best of the lot. The story is of Alonzo (Chaney), a knife-thrower in a circus, who pretends to be armless to evade detection by the police. An astonishingly young Joan Crawford, in one of her first starring roles, is drawn to him because she "can't stand to have men touching her" so the armless Chaney gives her comfort. I won't spoil what happens next, but suffice it to say that things take a turn for the kinky in this deliriously rich drama. Alloy Orchestra did the score and they are a group that you either love or hate. A cacophonous opening title sequence had me reaching for the MUTE button on the remote, but once we get past the opening it settled into a fairly conventional score that was quite effective in highlighting the bizarre circus backdrop of the picture. Another stunning quality print that is so sharp you can see the too-in-focus gauze Browning used for some of the Crawford sequences.

London After Midnight (1927, MGM) is a legendary lost film, and despite Internet rumors to the contrary, the last print was destroyed in a fire in the 1960s. Historian Rick Schmidlin has reconstructed the film with stills and intertitles and while there's only so many tracking shots you can use to zoom in on a dead body, this gives a good sense of what the film must have been like. That is to say, boring. The construction job Schmidlin did is magnificent, and it only reinforces what those who saw the film when it survived in the 1950s have said...that it's a stiff. The few vampire sequences of Chaney in makeup are part of cinema folk lore, but they represent only a relatively small portion of the picture. Nevertheless, this is a revelation to watch. The musical score by the Robert Israel Orchestra is a traditional silent film score and is first-rate.

Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces is a feature-length documentary by film historians/producers Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury. Like Brownlow's earlier work (Hollywood, Unknown Chaplin) this is impeccably done and includes rare footage that even hard core buffs have never seen, as well as some unused interview footage left over from Hollywood of now-deceased actors and production staff. A wonderful documentary that alone makes this DVD worth the purchase price.

Despite the minor quibbles noted above, this is a must-own set for Chaney, horror, and silent film buffs. One can only hope that this will lead to a couple more similar sets that fill out all the missing Chaney MGM silents.

© 2003 Jon C. Mirsalis

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