Sunday, October 16, 2011

GIRL 27 (2007)

Haunting investigation on golden era Hollywood.  Widely available on Netflix, Amazon, etc... 

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Lon Chaney would proclaim, "between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney", and escape Hollywood for his cabin in the woods. That may not have been entirely true, he was still aware of the goings-on in Hollywood with an eye on upcoming talent. He may have not wanted his son, Creighton, to follow in his footsteps, but that wasn't to say he couldn't pass on his legacy to a fellow actor.

Some of Chaney's best work is when he had final script approval, making his films not just Chaney vehicles but in all but name, Chaney productions. One of his biggest grievances was having to work in films with stars with inflated egos. Both these reasons contribute to why HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) is a masterpiece, and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) is sadly flawed.

It's interesting to note that as the 1920's stretched on, you can see that the roles the Man of 1,000 Faces were cast, were aging along with him. He was able to make himself older for films like MR. WU (1927), but apparently it was significantly more of a feat to play parts of younger roles. Or at least, he wasn't given the opportunity to attempt younger roles.

In WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1928), he plays an aging beat cop in love with a young girl. It's not perverse, but it's getting there. In LAUGH CLOWN LAUGH (1928), he literally raises from childhood the girl he falls in love with. WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928) features Chaney unaware that he is in fact torturing a girl who is his daughter! TELL IT TO THE MARINES (1926) featured Chaney as a high ranking marine in love with a girl who was too young for him and he knew it. He forfeited her to William Haines. Notice the running theme?

Age was not the alienating factor in earlier films from 1919-1925, such as THE PENALTY (1921), SHADOWS (1922), OUTSIDE THE LAW (1920), HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) or even as late as PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) and HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1925).

In WHERE EAST IS EAST (1929), he plays the protective father figure of Lupe Velez. Even though Chaney is the big name on the bill, he virtually plays support to showcase the incredible talent of the two younger actors. Lupe is romantically wrapped up with James Murray. Just a year or two earlier, James Murray was a background actor, picked out of obscurity by King Vidor for his masterpiece THE CROWD (1926).  Lon Chaney probably saw this film, and requested to work with the young, promising actor. THE CROWD (1926) remains one of the most emotional, powerful films ever made. It is completely character driven and at times painfully hard to watch. We can see the ageless human drive to succeed at life applies to all ages. I'm sure Lon Chaney saw this film and thought, truly, "A little laugh, a little tear."

This new character set up, of Chaney as troubled, but positive father figure, was a new chapter in his career. Finding the right dynamic of actors to be paired with was the challenge. But in watching WHERE EAST IS EAST (1929), it is obvious he found it in Lupe Velez. She virtually leaps off the screen with innocent, hilarious energy. In a Chaney film, that would never have happened if he didn't agree to it. Including James Murray in not one, but two, follow up films after WHERE EAST IS EAST (1929), is even more telling into his respect for his fellow actor.

Regrettably, THUNDER (1929) is a lost film. But it featured a similar set up of Chaney as a father figure, this time to James Murray. We will probably never know if this is a classic or not. But from behind the scenes, how Chaney was attempting to steer his career is very interesting. There is always talk about how if he hadn't died, he would have played Dracula, would have been the obvious choice for Frankenstein, etc... While that may have been true, it is very interesting to consider that he may have continued to identify raw talent and shape individuals, like James Murray, to take the roles he was unable to play as an aging actor. Chaney did not believe in just making faces and pretending to be an amputee, etc., he played flesh and blood characters who were flawed and hurting. I believe James Murray possibly viewed him as guide in Hollywood. Losing Chaney so suddenly may have contributed to an already mentally troubled Murray, jumping into the Hudson River and committing suicide in 1936.

There are lots of unanswered questions. But the hunt for lost and forgotten truth is as inherent a human quality as any role played by Lon Chaney, Sr.

"It was beauty that killed the beast."

1933 photoplay novel
Willis O'Brien made King Kong come alive.   An 18 inch tall metal armature, bulked up by sponge rubber and covered in rabbit fur, reached out and emotionally touched millions of people.  King Kong was a lone creature captured and brought to a strange land; there is no doubt in the viewers' mind that Kong was a living breathing character that did feel pain, and wanted to feel love.

An audience often projects feelings on an actor, and in the process unknowingly creates a much more powerful theatrical performance.  There have been film editing studies done in Russia in the 1920's, testing an audience to view a stone-faced actor, edited back and forth with a wide variation of different scenes.  The audience would give feedback that they thought the actor showed incredible pathos or restrained joy or some other wildly varying emotion, all depending on if the scenes they were cutting to and from were traumatic or touching.  The actor was given no direction but was instructed to simply remain still.  The editor, and the minds of the audience members, did all the work.

Willis O'Brien's creations resonate so strongly because when the audience is looking at Kong's face, or body movements, they may think they are seeing a stop motion animation figure, but are actually peering into the deepest, darkest places of Willis O'Brien's soul.  Kong was like putty in O'Brien's hands, and it is possible he funneled all his life's grief and pain into that creature.

By his own account, Willis O'Brien was pushed into marrying Hazel Ruth Collette by her family.  In 1919, they had the first of their two children.  As time went on, Hazel emotionally unraveled, resulting in a divorce in 1930, with shared custody of the children.  After multiple ignored warning signs, Hazel's mental instability culminated with her shooting and killing both of their young children.  She then turned the gun on herself.  This tragic incident coincided with the height of Willis' career with the production and release of King Kong and Son of Kong in 1933/34.  Unlike her children, Hazel did not immediately die from her own wounds, but wasted away in a hospital while awaiting trail for her actions.

Unbelievably, O'Brien picked himself up, briefly dated another woman named Hazel, Hazel Rutherford.  Pictures are hard to come by, but she was apparently beautiful.  The last time he heard from her was through a note she left him at his home while he was away.  She wrote that she had been diagnosed with an advanced case of breast cancer, that could only be combated with a radical mastectomy.  Hazel was not willing to bear the disfigurement.  This was a goodbye note.  After leaving O'Brien's home, Hazel climbed to the seventh floor of the Mayfair Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, and plunged to the street below.

Thinking about the process of stop motion animation, O'Brien would have had to shut out the world, close the door to all his problems, clamp down all moving pieces and oversee an enormous gorilla let loose on a miniature, gleaming, art deco cityscape.

Whether intended or not, O'Brien infused his creations with life that far exceeded a simple animation technician.  As he made in his screen debut of 1933, there was grief written all over the face of King Kong.  But on display was truly Willis O'Brien's raw rage at a civilization that let him down, a life that seemingly consisted of nothing but sorrow.  His family was ripped from him.  No matter how many biplanes he lashed out at, he was stuck; there was no way back to Skull Island.

I'd like to thank Monsters From the Vault Magazine for introducing me to the private life of Willis O'Brien, and the extensive research compiled by Don Shay in Cinefex #7.