This morning as I was reading the arguments on Facebook over whether the Best Actor Oscar was placed in the right pair of eager hands, I thought of Lon Chaney– the Man of a Thousand Faces. In the 1926 movie The Unknown he played Alonzo the Armless– a circus knife-thrower, who, you guessed it, had no arms.
Except he did. He just hid them because his deformed thumb linked him to a murder. Until he decided to have them amputated for real later on, and….
What has this to do with the Oscars? Nothing, really. Lon Chaney played physically disabled characters sometimes, but the Academy Awards hadn’t been invented yet. And given the studio he worked for, it was unlikely he would have ever received an Oscar had he lived.
But I thought of the actor, and the power of his various performances. No matter how often the unmasking scene in his Phantom of the Opera has been spoofed– the actual scene still packs a punch. Along with the rest of the movie– come to that. Some of his films are so bizarre they defy categorization, but he always knew how to grab the audience and hold on– no one could write off his characters as stick-figures in greasepaint, or whatever he did to create his fabled thousand faces.
So what? People sneer at the idea of silent films, and revel in the talkiness of today’s media.
Five years ago, my dad and I were roadtripping to my undergrad college, so I could move in. My time to check in at the dorm was 9 a.m, so we stayed overnight at a Comfort Inn. The next morning, we partook of the free continental breakfast, and Dad, noting that no one was actually watching the Fox News broadcast, changed the channel to Turner Classic Movies. The morning’s movie was He Who Gets Slapped— a Lon Chaney movie about a humiliated professor who becomes a circus clown after his academic career goes up in smoke. An astonishing thing happened.
The room got quieter, and people started to watch the movie.
Dad and I finished our breakfast, and went back upstairs to get our stuff together, check out, and get ready to go. It probably took fifteen, twenty minutes. While I rearranged the load in the car, Dad stuck his head into the breakfast room one last time– it was still fairly quiet, and people were still watching Lon Chaney.
It was astounding. And even though it was an isolated incident, I think it still speaks to the power of cinema and adds some validity to Norma Desmond’s ravings in Sunset Boulevard. “We didn’t talk talk talk! We didn’t words– we had faces!”
So they had, Miss Desmond. So they had.
This year’s Academy Awards garnered a lot of criticism– a lot of it I agree with. There’s a lot to do to make them a better media experience, but the whole Academy might want to take a look at the past and see how movies were made before talkies came in. How characters were developed, and how messages were relayed… there’s a lot in the past that we’re not proud of (check out Selma and The Imitation Game for details), but there is good there, too. And we can learn from it all. As a matter of fact, we should.