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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Lon Chaney Collection
The Lon Chaney Collection
Warner Bros. // Unrated // October 28, 2003
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matt Langdon | posted November 2, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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Lon Chaney always played wild, scary and intriguing roles that garnered our pity and our sympathies no matter how horrifying they were. Part of the reason is because Chaney could play the agony of unrequited love like nobody else. His ability to lose the girl, when the movie hero would usually win her, was remarkably heartbreaking. This is just one reason why Chaney made an indelible impression on the history of cinema. The other was that he had a creepy presence on screen – even when he played the good guy.

The Lon Chaney Collection is a two disc set from Warner Bros. and has three full length silent films, one documentary and a re-created lost film.

The quality of the films on both discs varies. The two films on Disc One are Ace of Hearts and Laugh Clown Laugh. While neither film is scary they are both sufficiently wacked just enough to hold our interest. Ace of Hearts (1921) by Wallace Warsley is a film about a murder club – of sorts – who meet in private to decide who they will kill next. They make the decision by dealing cards to each member until the 'ace of hearts' shows up. The person with that card must kill a person – usually a rich capitalist of their choosing – who, 'has lived too long.'

It's a bit corny but the film's focus – believe it or not – is on the nature of love. In this case Chaney and one of the other fellows are in love with the one woman in the club. She is a bit of a sourpuss completely committed to the cause but they both vie for her hand in marriage. Chaney finds a way – he thinks – that will land him the girl. The story goes on…slowly.

The second film is Laugh Clown Laugh made in 1928 by Herbert Brenon. It is a much more tender and affecting film. In it Chaney plays a circus clown who one day happens upon a three-year-old girl left by the riverbank. Chaney takes the girl in much to the chagrin of his circus partner – who believes women bring bad luck. Chaney keeps the girl anyway and in time the girl grows up into a beautiful young woman. So much so that Chaney suddenly realizes that he has fallen deeply in love with her.

The young woman is played by a thirteen-year-old Loretta Young (Oscar winner in The Farmer's Daughter) but she looks a bit older. As the story goes on the girl falls in love with a suitor who Chaney has unwittingly invited to be part of his circus. Chaney sheds many a tear and must decide what is best for him and his little adopted girl.

The third silent feature film is The Unknown (1927) by Tod Browning, which is hands down one of the best films of Chaney's career. In it he plays Alonzo the Armless a criminal on the lam who hides out in a circus by pretending to be armless. There he does a knife throwing act with a woman he is madly in love with. The woman - who is played by a young Joan Crawford (of Mildred Pierce fame) - takes a liking to Alonzo because he is not always pawing her like the strong man Malabar the Mighty does.

The Unknown is as crazy as it sounds and then some. There are many spoilers but I'll leave those out and just say that if you only rent this DVD make it a point to watch this film.

The other film is a re-created one titled London after Midnight, which was directed in 1927 by Tod Browning. There are no prints remaining of the film due to a fire in the 1960's but there are a good number of production stills. Using the stills a team led by preservationist Rick Schmidlin put the film together as best they could. Many photos are used multiple times with various close-ups and zooms to bring the film to life.

The film is a more traditional horror film. It takes place in England and is about a mad killer with pointed teeth and bulging eyes played by Chaney named simply 'the man in the beaver hat'. Chaney also plays the detective in the film who may or may not have something to do with the crimes being committed. Although watching stills takes a while to get used to the film does have a certain appeal and from the looks of the chiaroscuro lighted stills the film seems to have been a pretty good one.

The final film on Disc Two is a fine documentary by noted film historian Kevin Brownlow titled Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces. The documentary, which is 85 minutes long, is filled with interviews, numerous facts and plenty of movie clips. Originally made for Turner Classic Movies in 2000 the film is the definitive film biography of Lon Chaney.

Video:
The video quality is fair to good. Each of the films is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. New prints were struck for each film but no restoration work seems to have been done on the two films on Disc One. Ace of Hearts looks poor and is full of every kind of film scratch you can imagine. Laugh Clown Laugh looks a bit better although it clearly has worn through the years. On Disc Two is The Unknown, which looks fairly good. Apparently the print had been lost for years – since it had the word 'unknown' as the title. Although, I'm not sure this would have helped the print stay clean the print does look good. The re-created film London at Midnight looks good. It is nothing but photographs but all of good quality. The documentary is fairly new and looks good. On each of the films there is some compression artifact noticeable but it doesn't distract too much since the films prints are not pristine.

Audio:
These are silent films but the special thing about this DVD is that each of the films has a brand new musical score. Each of the scores sound great and are presented in stereo. The best is done by the Alloy Orchestra for The Unknown. All of their scores have a modern feel to them but are true to the nature of the film and often add several layers of nuance that you cannot get with a simple organ or piano. The score for both Ace of Hearts and Laugh Clown Laugh were written by winners of a Young Composer contest sponsored by Turner Classic Movies. The first is an excellent score by Vivek Maddala and the other one by H. Scott Salinas is equally fine if not a bit more traditional. These scores are so much better than the simple scores that usually accompany silent films especially Maddala's score, which enriches an otherwise torpid film. The score for London after Midnight is composed and played by the renowned silent film composer Robert Israel and his Orchestra.

Extras:
On Disc one is a short introduction by Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies. Each of the full-length features has a commentary track by Michael Blake. Blake is an expert on Chaney and the commentaries on each film are excellent. Blake gives lots of information about every facet of the films and the actors as well as general historical backgrounds.

Originally, I considered the documentary Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces to be a movie outright so I didn't count it as an extra. However, a couple e-mails tell me it should be an extra so I will include it as one.

Overall:
The Lon Chaney Collection two disc set is a must for any Lon Chaney fan. Disc one is good – although in Chaney' career the two films on it are footnotes to his more famous roles. If you are only interested in renting the Disc then I recommend watching Disc Two where you get The Unknown one of the wildest silent films ever made and the excellent documentary Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces. The DVD quality is most likely as good as it gets and the musical scores are all original and add a modern dynamic to the films, which should keep silent film fans content as well as make inexperienced silent film audiences not used to the aesthetic of silent film more appreciative.

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