Monday, November 18, 2013

Lon Chaney & William S. Hart, "Riddle Gawne" (1918): The Good Bad Man and the Cripple From Hell

The Good Bad Man and the Cripple From Hell.

Both men wore the face of the Devil. William S. Hart wore it in 1916, modeling for a portrait of Satan's face in The Devil's Double. Lon Chaney had not yet worn the Devil's face when they met in 1918.

Hart was a star, a "good bad man" they called him, his other face flickered out from beneath that drawn, grim visage he wore over it, a covering of austerity and morality that meshed uneasily with the fire below. Chaney was too short for the part in Riddle Gawne, a villain to stand face-to-face with Hart. But Hart saw it. "Inches never made an actor," he said.

Chaney faced him as the cameras were rolling. "I can't realize it; boys, I'm up in the air," he said, and shooting stopped. "It’s the first time I’ve ever been allowed to play a scene when the star was in it."

Hart took him aside. "Diamond cut diamond" was the way it worked, he said; the villain made of the same steel as the hero, the actor made of the same steel as the star. Chaney took it in, his malleable face turned upward towards that long stony face. "Bill Hart saved my life," Chaney would say a decade later.

The scene, Hart remembered, was a 'pippin'.

Later, dull nights between shooting stretching on, a playful court and mock punishment sentenced Hart to an ass-paddling at Chaney's hand. A diversion, a rib on a star from a friendly crew; but Chaney didn't forget the lesson. "That man Chaney was raised, went to school, and graduated in a boiler shop, swinging an eighty-pound sledge," Hart later wrote, nursing memories of a sore behind.

Age and industry dulled Hart's fires, the warmth and goodness in him could not help but show. As his star fell, Chaney's rose. Hart led the box office in 1915/16; by 1928/29 it was Chaney. Chaney filled the screen with the abject, the disgusting, the hateful: 'cripples', vagabonds, 'orientals'. Neither Chaney nor his characters would truly cede their position to the "curly-haired boys and girls"; the character actor superseded the place of the star. A writer of the time called him "a man with a monomania" that "has eaten him alive for years". On screen, something in Chaney was, in his characters and in his performances, insistent.

It was in 1920 that it happened. Riddle Gawne had led to the crooked gait of The Miracle Man (1919), and then he bound his legs behind him and lurched on crutches through The Penalty. A "cripple from hell" fueled by lust and hate. It was there that he clambered a platform to pose for a young sculptor, his face rigid and cold, and brought to the screen once more the face of the Devil.

[William S. Hart's recollections quoted from William S. Hart, My Life East and West. "Bill Hart saved my life" and "curly-haired boys and girls" quoted from Photoplay, February 1928, Ruth Waterbury, "The True Life Story of Lon Chaney". "Monomania" quote from Photoplay vol 31 no 3, Feb 1927, Ivan St. Johns, "Mr Nobody". "Annual Exhibitors Herald Boxoffice poll" figures taken from Richard Dyer MacCann, The Stars Appear. Riddle Gawne image from Silent Era website. Reference to "cripples" and "orientals" draws on the specific language used in relation to Chaney at the time and obviously isn't even remotely ok today.]

Approximately one reel (about ten minutes) is all that remains of Riddle Gawne. Chaney and Hart share no scenes in the surviving footage
This post is part of the Lon Chaney blogathon run by Movies Silently and The Last Drive In.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Waking up...

Retro Remote Jr has been in suspended animation for a few months (and things have been pretty slow over at RR Sr. as well), but a Lon Chaney blogathon run by Movies Silently and The Last Drive In seems like a perfectly good reason to come back to life. RR loves some Lon Chaney.

Stay tuned for a post on Chaney Sr's lost (except for 10 minutes or so) 1918 film Riddle Gawne.