They Didn’t Need Words

From "He Who Gets Slapped."  Look at that face.  You can feel the shock and hurt.

From “He Who Gets Slapped.” Look at that face. You can feel the shock and hurt.

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.

And yet…

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.


An Act of Vampiric Penance Part III

I think I’m starting to get the hang of this whole penance thing.  It’s hard work, as much as I want to carry it out.

In Part II I explained why Bram Stoker’s Dracula upset me so much.  Now I will rhapsodize about the people I had the urge to light candles for during the movie– Bela Lugosi and Peter Cushing.

Norma Desmond would be proud.

Norma Desmond would be proud.

There is no doubt that Bela Lugsoi is the iconic vampire– even the iconic Dracula.  The accent, the elegance, the slicked-back hair and intent eyes… he didn’t need buckets of stage-blood; he had his face!  And voice– that was a quintessential part of his characterization, but it would have worked had the movie been silent.  Lugosi had a wonderfully expressive face, and when he looks at a character, the audience always knows whether he wants to simply drink their blood, kill them in a particularly messy way, or make them Bride #4.

He also managed to simultaneously be menacing and appealing.  One can see why Lucy would be drawn to him (especially compared to the English men around her), but also why Mina would be nervous from him from the start.  Even if we hadn’t already seen what he had done to Renfield in Transylvania.

Moreover, he was consistent in that characterization.

And that was the end of the Count.

And that was the end of the Count.

Now to Cushing.  As van Helsing, he brought a new level of energy to the part that many try to emulate, but few could match.  He was also very serious, even harsh, but was just as capable of calming the little girl that vampirized Lucy had taken– giving her his coat and telling her it made her look like a teddy bear.   Like any good doctor, he knew how to use the bedside manner. This version of Dracula’s nemesis could even make a joke (telling the hotel valet that the voice on the dictophone was just him talking to himself), though one got the impression that van Helsing had little time for such things and preferred to be slaying vampires.

Admittedly, the physicality Cushing brought to the part proved problematic for the series, as the studio felt it had to “outdo” each installment, and the results quickly became preposterous.  However, that is not his fault, nor does it take away the power of his performances in Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula.  Both reveal a man of great intellect, strength of character and body, willpower, yet still some fallibility (see Top 10 Vampires #9 A Baroness Meinster).  He wasn’t a cloud cuckoolander, nor was he a nightmare-fuel attendant.  He juggled the very difficult task of ridding the world of monsters while still being able to function in polite society.

His presence is still quite large.  It’s the pictures that have gotten small.

And that’s that.  Now for that Coppola wine.


Top 11 Scariest Performances: #11 Gloria Swanson

norma-desmond1“We didn’t talk talk talk!  We didn’t need words; we had Faces!”

So says the faded silent movie star, Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard, directed by the acerbic Billy Wilder.  Hiding out in her old mansion for decades, it becomes pretty obvious almost as soon as the hero gets a flat tire outside the driveway, that the actress inside has gone completely batty.  Yet she still has some of her allure from the glory days, and he is drawn to her (and her money, but ultimately to her).  It is a fatal mistake– and not only for Joe, her own ex-husband (Erich von Stroheim) loved her so much he chose to live as her butler rather than leave her for good(yes, he’s cuckoo, too).

The movie opens with the young man, Joe,’s voice over the police fishing his bullet-riddled body out of Norma’s pool, and it ends as she literally descends into total madness, imagining the police and reporters to be actors and film crew, while she assures an imaginary Cecil B. deMille that she is “ready for her close-up.” (

By the way, spoilers do not exist if a movie opens at the ending.

Anyway, as the icon of tragic craziness, Gloria Swanson is superb.  Her Norma is a living Expressionist relic from the 1920s– it’s in how she looks, moves, talks, and in how she holds her face. Swanson was an actress in the silent era, and knows how to do exactly what Norma needs to, and Norma, as an experienced actress, knows how to exact sympathy, which is what makes her dangerous.  When Joe tries to leave for the first time, she cuts her wrists, and he is guilted into staying.  But at the same time, she’s not evil, and one does feel sorry for her when she does venture out to Paramount Studios to see deMille and is “given the brush,” so to speak.

And for a character who despises “talk,” Swanson gets tremendous mileage out of her dialogue: pitiable, insane, venemous, confused, tragic.  The range is frankly fantastic.

The end result is incredibly unsettling.  No one else in the movie acts even remotely like Norma, not even the other faded silent movie stars, which emphasizes her instability and isolation.  She is an icon, up on a pedestal, and while she is beautiful, it doesn’t pay to get too close.