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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

THE REEL REALS: Lon Chaney


Leonidas Frank Chaney with his mini-makeup case
Born April 1, 1883

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has known me for four seconds (exactly four), that Lon Chaney-- in my humblest of humble opinions-- is the greatest person who has ever inhabited the planet earth. (That includes you, Jesus. Pft. Showoff). Lon was a cinematic warrior. His incredible talent and his many, many faces (allegedly 1000), were as diverse as his audience appeal. What bridged his heroes, anti-heroes, cripples, ghouls, fiends, and heart-broken torch bearers together was the uncanny skill, integrity, and honesty with which he made them materialize. His characters were, more often than not, tragic martyrs, burning on a pyre of destroyed illusions, unrequited loves, and irreparable scars with which the brutal knocks of life had informed them.

This was his art. Formulation. Even when he played the hardest of hard-bitten criminals, he never left their humanity absent from their motivations. Rome wasn't built in a day; no man became a liar or a thief by happenstance. In the same way that Lon would only answer the fan mail of the outcast and underdog prison inmates, he saw the poetry and the devastation of Mankind's heart. So, in his mutilated Quasimodo or Erik the Phantom, their is a profound depth of feeling and vulnerability that a lifetime of emotional depravity had built within them. In his conniving crook of The Shock, The Penalty, and Victory, there is a hardened core surrounding an insecure and self-protective victim-- in various stages of disarray-- actually quite desperate to be loved. In The Black Bird or Outside the Law, there is a bitter chip of sexual resentment and thirsty revenge present in his demeanor that is only worn by those to whom life has been most cruel. In Shadows and Mockery there is a childlike innocence exposed, that which is housed in all men but is often too deeply entrenched to be uprooted and freely offered to his fellow man.


Lon as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Lon is a continuing force of nature. His allure and his inspiration-- to actors, makeup and special effects artists, artists, and fans-- continues due to his intense and unrepentant, even self-flagellating indulgence in his performances. Viewers peer into the worlds he created-- and he THRIVED on each challenge-- and they see only the man, no matter what shape, size, or moral or immoral intent he possesses. The basis of this naked and gutsy transcendence was humility.

Lon's education in preparation for both acting and becoming a man came from his parents-- both of whom were deaf and, therefore, taught their son and his three siblings to communicate solely through physical expression, be it a slight shift of the eyes or facial contortion or through the digital specifics of sign language. He also grew up with the fiercely protective nature demanded of one growing up with "abnormal" parents. A sensitive but intensely proud and defiant child, he deflected ignorant prejudice and would continue to do so his whole life. In his eyes, all men (and women) were created equal and, as such, his entire theatrical and cinematic career was devoted to translating the many facets and nuances of each individual's beauty, flaw, and humanity.

Lon in the lost film A Blind Bargain,
 in one of his two roles in the film.

It took one viewing of the play "Richard III" in his hometown of Colorado Springs for him to choose his occupation. As soon as he was old enough, he and his elder brother John set out traveling on the theatrical circuit, with Lon's immovable determination maintaining his staying power through thick and thin long after John and many other gave up. He also found love and the worst kind of heartbreak. His first marriage to Frances "Cleva" Creighton, a singer whom he met and wed on the road, ended in notorious tragedy. Struggling with marital quarrels, the pressures of life in the entertainment business, rumors of Cleva's extramarital dalliances, her increased addiction to alcohol, and both of their stubborn natures, led to their divorce... But not before Cleva dramatically drank a bottle of mercury bi-chloride backstage at one of Lon's performances in an overly dramatic suicide attempt. Once Lon learned that she would survive, he took their son Creighton (Lon, Jr) and with his stage reputation ruined, set his sights on the possibilities opening up in Hollywood. (He would later find happiness with wife Hazel Hastings. Poor Cleva was never able to sing another note, a fact Lon never knew).

Starting out as an extra, Lon used his well-honed makeup skills to draw various filmmakers' attention and sllllooowwwly but surely established himself as one of the most popular and most beloved stars of the day. Few in the industry could ever understand his box-office appeal. He was attractive but not typically handsome. His characters were abstract and often crude. He did not promote happy endings. His biggest fan, perhaps, was constant collaborator and director Tod Browning. What. A. Team. What Lon offered was truth. He was a pre-pre-method actor. His crawl to fame in The Miracle Man as the con-artist posing as a "saved" cripple shocked and impressed audiences, and they would continue to be amazed by his craft until his premature death at the age of 47. The chain-smoking chameleon would pass away from throat cancer in 1930, right after he made the seamless transition to the talkies with the remake of his earlier film The Unholy Three.

Why so glum, chum?

New generations continue to be enthralled with this instinctual genius. What we continue to find in Chaney that we adore is Trust. You can sense the care he gave every performance, you admire the imagination he used to give it life, and you see reflections of yourself exorcised and set free by him that you may not have even wanted to admit were there. Chaney was a simple man with an extraordinary talent performing the most outlandish of jobs. But he never saw it that way. He just saw the first part. Just a man. Just some guy, who seemed to care a Hell of a lot more than everybody else. I mean... Damn...
Happy Birthday, ChameLeonidas. Your mama didn't raise no Fool.

Monday, March 31, 2014

THE GREAT KATHARINE HEPBURN BLOGATHON!


 
 
Unfortunately, it's been awhile since I've written a thorough essay for this blog, but what better reason to buck up and ravenously tap on my laptop than to celebrate the ultimate cinematic heroine, Katharine Hepburn! Indeed, I have been coerced (gratefully) to enter the Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, which will feature multiple essays on the woman, her work, and her life, during the days surrounding her birthday. I have a little over a month to put the pedal to the metal and come up with something that I hope will illuminate this illustrious warrior of women in a different and interesting way. My theme: the duality and androgyny of Kate the Great in her art. I'll let you know when it gets posted next month!
 
For those interested in entering themselves-- entering the contest themselves, not literally entering... nevermind-- pick your topic and visit MargaretPerry.Org with your name, theme, blog, and website, and get t'work. Can't wait to see what everyone comes up with. :) Long live the Queen!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

NOW, THAT'S FUNNY: Gable Gaff


Clark takes a reading break.

Many would be surprised to know that Clark Gable was quite the lit' lover. As a young, struggling actor, he even performed poetry readings. Naturally, in order to maintain his tough guy persona on the big screen, he did not broadcast his appreciation of poetry and prose. As such, many people mistake the following story as a revelation of Gable's ignorance and not his humor.

Gable was hunting pals with director Howard Hawks, (a national pastime I don't exactly dig, but this was before the days of... Who am I kidding, we still suck). Anywhoodle, on one of their outings, this guy named William Faulkner tagged along. To josh with him, Gable put on his best ignoramus face and performed this little scene with the acclaimed author:

Gable: Mr. Faulkner, what do you think somebody should read if he wants to read the best modern books? Who would you say are the best living writers?

Faulkner: (pause) Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, and myself.

Gable: Oh? Do you write, Mr. Faulkner?

Faulkner: Yes, Mr. Gable. What do you do?

 Needless to say, Gable was well acquainted with William's writing, however, most particularly due to Hawkes revised descriptions of the event-- half concocted in fun and half to uphold Gable's rough and tumble, man's man reputation-- many identify Gable's line of questioning as being emblematic of his ignorance. In either case, the Clark kinda got verbally bitch-slapped by William Faulkner, didn't he?

THE REEL REALS: Deanna Durbin


Deanna Durbin

Deanna Durbin was Universal Studios' answer to Judy Garland. Actually, that's reversed. Judy Garland was scooped up by MGM after Universal passed her over for Deanna! This may seem like a bad business decision based on Judy's remaining allure, but Deanna's voice and talent was just as big as that of her contemporary. What Garland had in brass and innocence, Deanna had in grace and surprising sophistication, particularly considering that her onscreen career began at the age of 13.

With an elegant, soprano voice that had a range and power above and beyond her years, Deanna also possessed the intelligence and maturity that would make her a sharp as a whip, though miniature, leading lady. While the youngest member of the cast, she always stole the show in her productions, including the Three Smart Girls films. Audiences responded whole-heartedly to her adorability, her voice, and her personality-- which was part angel, part rebel. While she was always looking to solve a problem, her characters often mucked things up in the process. Still, she always sang people back to her side.

Unfortunately for Hollywood, Deanna grew up. The awkward years between adolescence and adulthood always pose problems for young women in the industry. The studio wanted to maintain her public draw but feared that she would lose her audience if she started becoming a woman and not the innocent teen whom they had fallen in love with. Slowly, she made the transition with films like First Love opposite  Robert Stack, and by the time she starred in It Started with Eve opposite Robert Cummings, she was accepted as classy yet feisty adult, her career continuing undamaged. However, Deanna wanted more out of her career than the standard good girl roles that she had been given. 

Naturally, Hollywood as ever was loathe to allow for any change in her screen persona. As such, Deanna bowed out, determined to experience a full, rich life outside the spotlight. After all, she'd been working since she was a teenager. There was much more to her identity than she had ever been given the privilege to truly exhibit. So, she ditched town and moved to France where she lived out the rest of her days in privacy with her family, passing away just this past April (2013). Her song lives on.

THE REEL REALS: Constance Talmadge



Constance "Dutch" Talmadge

The Talmadge sisters were three: Norma the glamorous, Natalie the silent, and Connie the clown. Constance Talmadge was one of silent cinema's original firecrackers. Unlike the elegantly postured Norma or the shy and depressive Natalie, Constance-- nicknamed "Dutch"-- was a buoyant woman of energy and fun. Raised to be assertive and strong-- all the Talmadge women learned to fend for themselves when their alcoholic father abandoned them-- Connie embraced the absurdity and harsh realities of life and combatted them with her humor and independent spirit. Embarking on a career in cinema almost as a gag-- "Well, why the Hell not?"-- she may not have taken the craft as seriously as the more ambitious Norma, but she possessed an even more charismatic presence that would draw contemporary audiences to the flame of her warmth and vivacity.

Constance was a staple in what would be known today as the Romantic Comedy wherein she naturally transitioned her bright personality to that of the hammy but attractive buffoon, perhaps not going as far as fellow comedienne Mabel Normand but packing her emotional sentiment with an equal blend of hilarity. Her most recognizable role remains that of the Mountain girl in D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, but she performed as the leading lady in many popular films of the time including both shorts and features: Her Night of Romance, The Love Expert, A Pair of Silk Stockings, etc. When the talkies intruded on the family profession, the sisters opted to bow out, probably predicting that their Brooklyn accents wouldn't translate well into sound. Constance had no regrets and let bygones be bygones.

Constance's private life unfortunately dwindled in her late years. Once wooed by Irving Thalberg, Connie's need for personal liberty was not easy to be contained. She was married four times and her high-living ways-- her hopes of outrunning the past and making the best of things-- caught up with her when she became dependent on alcohol. Still, the tough old bird made it to the 1970s before her candle was finally snuffed out. Though nowhere near as popular as she was in her own day, her goofy, honest, and infectious performances inspired future funny females whose work allows her own to live on. Remnants of her own contributions can still be found in the blessed modern world of DVD and live streaming, where she continues to encourage her audiences to laugh it up. What else have ya' got in the end?

THE REEL REALS: Conrad Veidt

 
 
Conrad Veidt
Conrad Veidt is best remembered for the macabre and disturbing personalities he portrayed, particularly during the silent era. This period allowed him to be an international phenomenon, as silent cinema was a universal language-- his thick, German accent did not hold him back from gaining a foothold in the industry as his movies were released in other countries. He was the somnambulist of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, he was the chronically smiling yet pitiable creature in The Man Who Laughs, and his digits were out of control in The Hands of Orlac. His thin build, sharp features, and intensity, made his villains, fools, and infidels as shocking as life shattering lightning bolts, striking the audience to the heart, unnerving them, and wounding their very sanity.

The fact that his greatest characters were conveyed in the days of utter silence only made them more eerie and effective. The horrors he was able to communicate with his eyes and body alone, as a student of the exaggerated but profoundly effective German expressionistic movement, were enhanced by the mystery of his wordlessness. He was a creature, a ghoul, an unhuman thing lurking in the corners, penetrating the walls of your safe home, and hiding under your bed. He was an infection, slowly entering the system and tampering with one's very sense of reality...

Of course, Conrad wasn't just about terror. His career in cinema was incredibly varied and his performances as one of the most revered character actors of his era run the gamut from the Devil to the Saint. His sensitive and curious soul gave him the courage to approach many odd ball characters and taboo subjects, including the homosexual-themed film Different from Others. He wasn't afraid of the repercussions. He wanted to tell stories. All of them. After performing in the first German sound film, he was forced to flee his own country when Nazism took over the film industry and his outspoken disdain for the movement put a target on his head. The rest of the world was glad to have him, especially Britain, to whom he continually donated a great deal of his wealth to the war effort. He later participated in many a sound film, including A Woman's Face and the iconic Casablanca.

However, just as he was beginning to reinvent himself in America, he passed away at the young age of fifty when he suffered a heart attack. Once describing himself as "Lucifer in a Tuxedo," his saga lives on through his remarkable work, which he always attacked with a passionate zeal few other actors can equal. A fascinating human being, a game changer, and a gentleman, he remains a riddle as multifaceted as the many different beings he brought to life on the big screen.

THE REEL REALS: Colleen Moore


Colleen Moore

Colleen Moore is not remembered as well as the other flapper girls of the 1920s, including Clara Bow and Louise Brooks, but she was actually the first "definitive" flapper. After Olive Thomas gave birth to this cinematic presence in 1920, Colleen kicked things up a notch and solidified what such terminology meant with her performance in Flaming Youth. While Clara gave the flapper sex and Louise later brought mystery, Colleen brought the initial ingredients of fun, life, and liberty. The younger generations, particularly women, were embracing the rolling times of a new era, and Colleen was one of the pioneers to light the way.

Her charismatic onscreen presence and natural gift for acting were on prophesied in her adolescence. She knew she wanted to be a movie star, looking up to the first Miss Independent pioneer Mary Pickford as a guide. With her intelligence and burning ambition, it didn't take long for her to catch fire in Hollywood, after an initial boost from D.W. Griffith. Thus, the awkward, skinny girl with one blue eye and one brown became a major power player influencing the nation through her exciting and touching performances.

More than a flapper, Colleen could easily morph from her generation's power child to the comedienne, to the tragedienne, to the romantic. Lilac Time remains a poetic depiction of young love, the sentimental kind all long for in their memories. Her transition to sound film in works like The Power and the Glory and her final project The Scarlet Letter also show the drama queen at her most intense with her uncanny ability to convey both pain and courage. This intelligent, business-savvy lady would prosper through her 18 year career, save and invest her money, and build her dream house ("The Enchanted Caste" doll house which is now on display in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry).

She was a bit unlucky at love, marrying four times-- two of which ended in divorce, the other half ending in her spouse's death and finally her own-- but many believe that former lover King Vidor was the one who got away, (or was it she who escaped him)? Whatever the case, this role model of freedom, spirit, and grace continues to flicker on, burning the candle at both ends into eternity and bringing well needed life back into the universe when one is lucky enough to glimpse one of her few remaining films. What she gave will never deteriorate, will never be lost. It lives on in the 'flaming youth' of every generation.