Image has released two melodramas that feature Lon Chaney in supporting roles. While neither of these are great films, they do give a glimpse into the types of films he was making on his way to stardom. Both films are short, running about an hour each, and come on a single sided DVD.
My Wicked Darling:
This is a minor film, a fairly typical melodrama from the period. The main attraction of the film for me is that it stars Pricilla Dean. She was the first movie star to actually be named by a studio.
In the early days of film the movie producers were afraid that if the names of their popular actors were released, it would create a star system and lead to spiraling salaries. To help prevent this, actors were not given credits in films, and their identities were guarded secrets. This didn't stop movie goers from having favorites though. Dean's films were popular, and her fans referred to her as "The Biograph Girl," after the studio she worked for.
In 1911 Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios, wanted to boost the sales of his studio's films and hired Dean away from Biograph. He then broke the unwritten rule and announced to the press not only that Universal had "The Biograph Girl" but released her name also. He went on to say that the news stories that Biograph had planted about Ms. Dean's death were untrue. Biograph never planted any such stories of course, but it made good copy an gained Universal some extra publicity. Today, few of Dean's movies survive, and this DVD offers a chance to see the early star in action.
In 1919's My Wicked Darling, Dean plays Mary, "the Gutter Rose." She lives on the streets by her wits, stealing to get by. She's fallen in with Scoot Conners (Lon Chaney) a tough hood, and though she is a common thief, she doesn't like it. After snatching a string of expensive pearls that have fallen off a lady's neck, Mary is chased through the streets and hides out in the house of Kent Mortimer (Wellington A. Playter.) Kent lives in a lavish townhouse, but when he discovers Mary hiding in his living room, he informs her that he's lost all of his money, and that the house and contents are going to be auctioned off the next morning. Rather than call the police, Kent believes Mary's story that she had nothing to do with the theft of the pearls and lets her go.
Mary tells Scoot that she lost the pearls in the chase, and his temper flares. His abuse and Kent's kindness make Mary decide to turn over a new leaf and earn an honest living. She gets a job in as a waitress in a cheap diner, and one day encounters Kent again. He's fallen on tough times, and doesn't have a job. The two start dating and get close, when Scoot enters the picture again. He's convinced that Mary still has the pearls, and he's going to get them even if he has to kill her new beau to get them.
This was an average melodrama of the time, stressing a simple plot at the expense of characterization. The film attempts to pull at your heart strings as Mary takes care of a wounded Kent, but today's advances have seen this done before. Parts of the script are fairly ludicrous too. After Kent gets shot, he tells a police officer he'll be alright. Taking him at his word, the officer escorts the bleeding Kent home.
Lon Chaney's part is rather small, and he doesn't use much makeup to
disguise his appearance, a trademark of his. His acting is average
though not outstanding. He plays his part as a thug well, and the
smile he puts on when a friend tells him that Mary is thinking about suicide
is wonderfully evil, but he really doesn't stand out in this film.
Most would be hard pressed to predict the level of fame that he'd later
achieve based on this film.
The print to this film is badly damaged by mildew, and there are spots in just about every frame. (More on this in the video section.) In addition to this, the film had been edited for the forgien market, and they didn't do a very good job of it. A few scenes are obviously missing, and though it is easy to infer what happens in these sections it does dampen the movie's appeal.
Lon Chaney has an even smaller part in this film, (he gets 5th billing) but his character has much more screen presence. Axel Heyst (Jack Holt) has decided to live his life removed from humanity, as his late father extolled in a series of books. He lives on an island in the South Pacific, and eschews all human company. This starts to change one day when he lets a troubled young woman, Alma (Senna Owen,) move onto the island with him. She quickly falls for him, but he resists her feminine wiles, stating that he will never fall in love.
Into this troubled paradise comes Mr. Jones (Ben Deeley) and his two associates Pedro (Bull Montana) and Richardo (Lon Chaney.) They've heard that Heyst has a small fortune hidden on the island and they plan to torture him into revealing it's location. What can Alma do to overcome three hardened criminals and save the man she loves?
Lon Chaney does a fantastic job on his make-up in this film, I wouldn't have recognized him if I wasn't looking out for him. He also does an excellent job as the murderous villain Richardo. His role is very small, but he really makes the movie, stealing every scene that he's in.
It is too bad that his fine acting is wasted in such a dumb movie. The story was based on a book by Joseph Conrad, and I can't help thinking that the book must have been much better. The whole premise of the story, that a man is going to live apart from humanity never gets explained. They only state that this is a philosophy his father endorsed (though obviously didn't live by) in a book Heyst is always reading. They never go into the main character's motivation, or how he can afford to live on an island in the South Pacific without working.
The first part of the movie drags a bit, though it picks up when Mr. Jones and his cohorts arrive. The ending of the film is the best part; action packed and full of excitement. Unfortunately, the way all of the characters behaved at the end was also very inconsistent with the behavior that they exhibited up to that point in the film. It seems like everyone changed their personality just so that the movie would have a happy ending.
While the film is worth watching for Chaney's wonderful performance, it doesn't have much else to recommend it.
The scores for both films were composed and preformed by Eric Beheim. These synthesizer tracks were adequate. The performance was very good, but the score did not enhance and add to the movie the way the best ones do. Some sound effects were added, but other important ones, such as the knocking over of a chair that wakes Schomberg in Victory, are not put in which was a little strange.
The video quality to The Wicked Darling is not that good. The transfer comes from the only surviving print of the film, discovered in the Netherlands Filmmuseum. This print had suffered damage from wear and mildew, and it this mars the movie. Just about every frame has spots caused by mildew, and though you get used to it as the movie goes on, it is a major defect. Aside from that, the film is adequate. The highlights are washed out a bit, but the image is fairly sharp with an average amount of contrast.
The titles are contemporary reproductions, the intertitles in the print from Holland being in Dutch of course. This has a rather jarring effect, with the titles having no spots or defects in sharp contrast to the rest of the film.
The image for Victory was much better, though still not pristine. The picture for this film, which is slightly window boxed, is fairly soft with the image having a slightly blurry look to it. There were some scratches and dirt, which is to be expected, and a little grain too. The detail is fine, as is the contrast. This is a tinted film, and the color works well with the film. Overall a good looking picture, with only slight imperfections.
There are no extras on this disc.
The two Chaney films included on this disc are enjoyable to watch, but
they aren't very major films. Both of them are average melodramas
that really don't hold up to well today. The print for The Wicked
Darling is fairly poor too. Chaney fans should make a point of picking
this up, especially for Victory, but most people will probably be
happy with a rental.