Shadows (1922)

‘He who winds the yarn and finds his mate, Must grab her quick and kiss her straight.’

Sympathy Gibbs is unhappily married to the brutish Daniel, head of the fishermen of the small coastal village of Urkey. One night a terrible storm wrecks the entire fleet, and Daniel is believed to have drowned. One of the only two survivors is a mysterious Chinaman who was rescued from the sea shortly before the disaster occurred…

Stilted romantic melodrama of the silent screen, directed by Tom Forman. It was primarily a vehicle for new star Lon Chaney, the ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’, whose fame would reach international levels with ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923).

When disaster overtakes the fishing fleet of Urkey, it’s a mixed blessing for the downtrodden Sympathy (Marguerite De La Motte). She’s suddenly free of her abusive husband, Daniel Gibbs (Walter Long), who is assumed lost at sea, his fate confirmed by the only fisherman that lives through the storm. The sole other survivor is shipwrecked Chinaman Yen Sin (Chaney), fished out of the sea just before the storm hit. Despite the tragedy, there’s a silver lining for banker Nate Snow (John St. Polis), who has loved De La Motte from afar for years and now hopes to marry her.

Despite being ostracised for his lack of Christian beliefs, Chaney elects to stay in Urkey and open a laundry, which he operates from a scow at the harbour. Bullied by the local children, he is rescued by new arrival John Malden (Harrison Ford, no, not that one!), who has been assigned the post of village minister. The churchman and De La Motte fall in love and eventually marry, with St. Polis as their best man. Ford is away at an ecclesiastical conference when he gets the news that De La Motte has given birth to their first child. However, that same night he receives a letter from Long, who did not drown after all and wants money to buy his continued silence.

Given the considerable passage of time, it’s hardly surprising that some examples of silent cinema now appear as historical relics, examples of a bygone era and the moral values that shaped it. This film is a case in point. It’s not simply that the caucasian Chaney plays an Asian character; that practice was common in Hollywood for many decades afterwards. It’s more that the turgid, preachy tone takes precedence over any possible entertainment value. Something that would be confined mainly to biblical epics in the more commercially focused studio era that followed.

Matters start brightly enough with the abusive relationship between Long and De La Motte depicted without resorting to overblown theatrics. The storm follows hard on the heels of this opening, and Chaney’s outsider status in the village is immediately established afterwards. Somewhat unexpectedly, this is not due to his race but his refusal to embrace the Christian faith. When Ford saves the Chinaman from the young bullies, it begins a lasting friendship, although the heathen persistently resists Ford’s attempts to convert him.

Obviously, Chaney’s appearance in an Asian role will cause a problem for some viewers, particularly given the teeth-grating pidgin English intertitles that serve for his dialogue. However, it’s worth noting that his character is the film’s main protagonist. He sorts out the leading couple’s difficulties and resolves the blackmail plot when, in marked contrast, nominal ‘hero’ Ford seems incapable of taking any positive action whatsoever. Placing an oriental character in this kind of affirmative role was highly unusual at the time and for many years afterwards. Also, he gives a superb performance under a makeup of his own design, complete with a stooped posture and increasing frailty as the character’s health begins to fail. He is unrecognisable, and there’s a total lack of the stereotypical mannerisms and expressions favoured by occidental actors of the time when portraying orientals.

What really hurts the film instead is its second half. As soon as Ford receives his first blackmail note and makes the first payoff, the film tips over into overwrought melodrama, and everything comes to a shuddering halt. A quarter of an hour of Ford wringing his hands and agonising over his domestic arrangements follows. After all, not only is he not married to De La Motte, but he has fathered a child with her. As a result, he can no longer live with her and spends the next year doing his best to avoid her and their daughter. As a minister, his behaviour is understandable; however, he doesn’t tell her why he’s doing it, which is unforgivably self-indulgent and cruel. Yes, the sudden news that her old husband is still alive and she has borne a child out of wedlock with a priest would be bad enough, but allowing her to spend a whole year in misery and confusion seems a hell of a lot worse. Still, it does let him play the martyr, I suppose.

In terms of the drama, things deteriorate even further. The last act is fundamentally just an extended death scene where Chaney resolves the blackmail plot, although why he’s waited so long to do it is a bit of a mystery. The film is a showcase for Chaney, so it’s understandable that this sequence will last a while, but it’s 25 minutes long, qualifying as one of the most protracted death scenes in movie history. It’s not unaffecting, but the sheer length of it removes a great deal of the emotional impact. Of course, the old Chinaman sees the error of his heathen ways before the end and converts to Christianity, further ramming home the film’s values and message. It doesn’t seem to bother him that it was Christianity that excluded him from the church at Ford and De La Motte’s wedding, despite his status as the couple’s best friend.

There is anecdotal evidence that Chaney wanted to film a life of Christ, and he had already starred in the religious-themed ‘The Light of Faith/The Light in the Dark’ (1922). So it may have been the film’s message that drew him to this project, along with rising to the challenge of the role. However, the film delivers its moral lessons in such a deliberate, heavy-handed way that it kills the pace and allows no room for anything but the most basic plot development.

De La Motte is best remembered for starring opposite Douglas Fairbanks in ‘The Mark of Zorro’ (1920) and ‘The Three Musketeers’ (1921). She’d made her screen debut at 16 two years earlier, but in between her debut and stardom had lost both parents separately, her mother in a car crash in which she was also injured. She married for the first time in 1924 to actor John Bowers, and the two starred together in several successful films. However, talking pictures killed their careers, and they turned to vaudeville before the marriage ended. The alcoholic Bowers drowned himself in the sea several years later. She married again in 1939 but divorced four years later; her final screen appearance was as a waitress in the Western serial ‘Overland Mail’ (1942) which starred Lon Chaney Jr. She died of cerebral thrombosis in 1950 at the age of 47.

Essential viewing for Chaney fans, of course, but, despite his fantastic performance, it’s a hard slog to get through.

The Light of Faith/The Light in the Dark (1922)

‘…an’ it’s an elegant room if I do say so meself as shouldn’t.’

A heartbroken girl takes a room at a cheap boarding house but falls seriously ill after being unable to find a job. A petty thief who has fallen in love with her sets out to steal an antique cup, which he believes has magical healing powers…

33-minute short subject originally shown in schools and churches, retitled and edited down from the feature-length release ‘The Light in the Dark’ (1922). For many years, it was thought to be the only version of the film that had survived and is of principal interest now for another pre-stardom turn by Lon Chaney.

Pretty young Elaine (Hope Hampton) rents a room at a boarding house, immediately catching the eye of fellow lodger Tony Pantelli (Chaney). However, she’s still in love with society playboy J Warburton Ashe (E K Lincoln). Failing to find work, Hampton eventually collapses from malnutrition, bringing on a breakdown and heart problems. Full of remorse and realising the strength of his true feelings for Hampton, Lincoln has been desperately searching for her without success. Fleeing to England to forget, his dog digs up an old silver cup in the ruins of an abbey.

When Lincoln returns to New York, newspapers speculate that he has found the Holy Grail. The reports profoundly affect Hampton, who is still dangerously ill. When Chaney asks her to explain, she narrates the story of the Grail’s origins. Convinced by her faith, he determines to steal it and use it to make her well again. He pulls off the robbery, but the police are hot on his trail.

This is an unusual story from director and co-writer Clarence Brown that neatly manages to sidestep the melodramatic excess and earnest religiosity that might be expected, even in this truncated form. Instead, events remain firmly grounded in the everyday world until the final act, and those more extravagant developments were apparently originally diffused by a coda removed from the shortened version. However, the story works well enough, and the only significant signs of the heavy edit are the uneven pace and the presence of Detective Braenders (Charles Mussett) in the climactic scenes in night court. A lingering shot of his angry face shows that he initially had a much more significant role in proceedings.

From a technical standpoint, it’s the cinematography that catches the eye. The film was the first shot in a new two-strip technicolor process, although it appears to be little more than the usual tinting when viewed today. However, it was remarkable enough at the time to be a significant component of the film’s marketing campaign.

The most notable sequence is the 6-minute visualisation of Hampton’s retelling of the Grail story. There are some striking images, not least Chaney playing Sir Galahad in a terrible wig! However, we also get a dream sequence told by Hampton’s ‘beautiful maiden’, which features her vision of the Grail and the faithful lining up to be healed. Some of these memorable images are inspired by the paintings of Edwin Austin Abbey.

More good news is that the lead performances from Hampton and Chaney are strong, with the horror icon being particularly affecting as the thug with a swiftly melting heart. The original cut apparently contains a stunt where Chaney swings from the roof of a bus onto the elevated train tracks at Ninth Avenue to evade the police. A breaking board on the train platform left the actor hanging in mid-air, 30 feet above the ground, and he had to pull himself to safety. It would be interesting to see if the accident made it into the final film. After the film’s relative box office disappointment, co-writer William Dudley Pelley alleged that Hampton (as producer) had the film recut to downplay Chaney’s role as the actor had walked away with the picture. This may be true, of course, but more on Mr Pelley a little later.

The original film ran over an hour and fills in some of the blanks in the story. It opens with Hampton’s character (a coat check girl originally named Bessie MacGregor) accidentally struck by the car of Lincoln’s mother, who takes the injured girl back home to recover. It’s there that the two lovers meet for the first time, although she walks out when she realises that his apparent romantic interest was just a bit of fun. Only afterwards he realises his feelings are as genuine as hers and tries, unsuccessfully, to find her again.

Chaney also steals the Grail on two occasions, the first time as an attempt to raise money from a pawnbroker to buy medicine for Hampton, the second being included in the shortened version. There was also an apparent coda which undermined the cup’s status as a holy relic, which was understandably removed when the film was distributed to a church audience. Some sources report a near-complete version of the film was discovered among the effects of a theatrical projectionist in 2003. Also, that restoration was carried out by the International Museum of Photography and Film, but, to date, the results do not appear to be publicly available.

Hampton was a beauty contest winner discovered by early movie distributor Jules Brulatour, who became her manager and eventual husband. Reportedly, an Egyptian Sheik offered to buy her when they were on their honeymoon in 1923, but Brulatour refused because her jewellery was worth more than the sum offered. Not perhaps the exact answer to the question Hampton might have hoped for, but they remained married until he died in 1946. She entered films five years before their wedding and appeared predominantly in films that he financed, although her career did survive the transition to talkies. After wrapping up her film career with a supporting role in Randolph Scott Western, ‘The Road to Reno’ (1938), Hampton became a singer, touring with the Philadelphia Opera. In later life, she was a leading New York socialite.

During filming, Chaney and co-writer Pelley became fast friends, although their relationship apparently cooled toward the end of the decade. Pelley was a practitioner of the occult who believed in a prophecy revealed to him in 1929 that linked his own inevitable rise to power with that of Adolf Hitler. He formed a Christian militia called the ‘Silver Shirts’ and foresaw a nation where African-Americans would be re-enslaved, and all Jews placed in ‘walled-in’ ghettos. Reports differ on the Nazi’s response to Pelley, but some have asserted that Hitler planned to make him the American Führer after his conquest of the United States.

Unfortunately for Pelley, things began to unravel after America entered the war and his ‘Silver Shirts’ came to the attention of the Special House Congressional Subcommittee on Un-American Activities. President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally instigated a further investigation, and Pelley was found guilty on eleven charges relating to insurrection and sedition in April 1942. Sentenced to 15 years, he was released in 1952 and spent the rest of his life in Indiana, founding a religion based on his belief in extraterrestrials. He passed away in 1965. The world has not missed him.

A balanced examination of spiritual questions set in the context of a relatable, human story. It would be great to see the more complete version, though.

Flesh and Blood (1922)

‘Again the cunning signal – one, two, three!’

After fifteen years behind bars, a convict breaks jail so he can see his dying wife. Rushing to her side, he is too late, so he attempts to reconnect with his daughter, who believes him to be dead. Meanwhile, the detective who arrested him before is hot on his trail…

Lon Chaney finds himself on the wrong side of the law again in this crime melodrama directed by independent producer Irving Cummings. Between major studio assignments and as a free agent, the horror icon in waiting kept busy with such projects, little knowing that international superstardom was just around the corner.

Ex-lawyer David Webster has been serving a decade and a half stretch in the local hoosegow when he hears that his wife is seriously ill. She may have disowned him, changed her name and told her daughter that he was dead, but he’ll still move heaven and earth just to see her. During his time at the bar, he saved Chinatown kingpin Li Fang (Noah Beery) from incarceration and the debt is repaid when the big wheel arranges his escape and subsequent sanctuary. But Chaney’s journey across the city’s rooftops to see his wife ends in tears. His long lost daughter Marjorie (Edith Roberts) stands distraught on the sidewalk, decked out in mourning clothes.

Determined to prove his innocence and find his daughter, who has moved away, Chaney adopts a disguise by walking around on crutches and pretending to be a crippled beggar. By chance, he encounters Roberts again at the local mission house, where the clientele calls her the ‘Angel-lady.’ Still guilty in the eyes of the world, Chaney determines that she never know his true identity and charms her instead by playing her mother’s favourite songs on the violin. He’s surprised to discover that not only is the mission moving to a new settlement house donated by businessman Fletcher Burton (Ralph Lewis) but that Roberts and the man’s idealistic young son, Ted (Jack Mulhall), are in love. The problem is that Lewis is the man who framed him all those years ago and the target of Chaney’s plans for revenge.

This project has all the hallmarks of warmed-over, second-hand ingredients assembled with little imagination or conviction. For a start, Chaney’s disguise seems nothing more than a deliberate call back to his successes in earlier productions ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919) and ‘The Penalty’ (1920). It only consists of him walking with crutches; there is no effort to hide his distinctive facial features. Whereas it’s reasonable that Roberts doesn’t recognise him after fifteen years, the fact that it prevents identification at the hands of Detective Doyle (DeWitt Jennings) and the rest of the local force is a bit of a stretch, to put it mildly. And it serves little to no purpose in the unfolding narrative, other than allowing for a tame ‘unmasking’ scene at the climax.

To Cumming’s credit, the film doesn’t lean too heavily on the sentimental aspects of the tale, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Roberts is cast as the typical ‘female martyr’ of cinema’s silent era, and one of the mission’s customers is a lame young boy with a ‘can do’ attitude and a cheery grin. There are also a few nice touches in Louis D. Lighton’s screenplay. Chaney doesn’t object to his daughter hooking up with the son of his old enemy so long as he’s satisfied that the lad has good intentions and he’s what Roberts wants. He’s even prepared to abandon his plans to have Lewis confess to his old crime, but, of course, Lewis objects to the match because he wants Mulhall to marry more advantageously. So, the story does develop on mostly predictable lines.

A significant issue for a modern audience may be the presence of white-bread Noah Beery in the role of Li Fang. Fortunately, his appearance as a Chinaman avoids the worst excesses of the era. He dresses in a white business suit, and his dialogue on the intertitles is free from colloquialisms or nuggets of Oriental wisdom. Also, more often than not, there were simply no Asian actors with the necessary experience to take on such a role. Of course, an argument can always be made sufficient opportunity was not available to acquire that experience in the first place.

The most positive aspect of the film is, without question, Chaney’s performance. Although he had shown a tendency to play to the gallery on occasion, there’s little evidence of that here. His David Webster is a tragic and emotional figure, but the actor plays his cards close to his chest, given the era’s style. By now, Chaney had played plenty of thugs, tough guys and villains, but his David Webster is a far more contained proposition, even in his confrontation with Lewis in the final act. His dealings with Roberts are also nicely played, even if his longing stares in her direction might come across as a bit on the creepy side if the audience didn’t know she was his daughter. But it’s good to see Chaney continuing to give it his all, even though he must have been aware that this was an inferior project.

If it seems a strange decision for Chaney to front an independent picture at a time when he was starting to make waves at the studios, it may simply have been that it was just the best thing on the table at that moment. Chaney had grown up in far from affluent circumstances, quitting school around the age of 10 to look after his ailing mother full-time. He worked as a tour guide at 14 and a carpet layer at 17 before turning to the theatre shortly afterwards. The year 1922 saw Chaney appear in no fewer than eight films, seven of them features. No one could fault his work ethic or question his success as a breadwinner.

A minor footnote in the film career of star Lon Chaney but one his serious fans will want to view, even if there is little to recommend it other than his performance.

The Trap (1922)

‘The morning sun was not more radiant than Gaspard.’

A trapper returns from a hunting expedition into the wilderness to find that a smart operator has stolen the title to his gold mine and turned the head of his intended bride. Consumed with hatred, he bides his time and, seven years later, puts his plan of revenge into motion…

Lon Chaney heads back out into the great American wilderness where he’d already spent some time as a trapper, most notably in ‘Nomads of the North’ (1920). Director Robert Thornby’s colourful tale of redemption and revenge was shot largely in Yosemite National Park and the spectacular setting help enhances a melodrama that moves in some surprising directions.

Gaspard, the good (Chaney) is well-known as one of the happiest men in the idyllivc French-Canadian settlement of Grand-Bellaire. He spend the summers hunting for pelts, the colder months working his mine and the rest of the time romancing his wife-in-waiting, Thalie (Dagmar Godowsky). But his mining claim gets jumped by city slicker, Benson (Alan Hale), who has the law on his side after performing some legal sheningans way beyond the illiterate backwoodsman. Hale’s silver tongue has bewitched young Godowsky too, and Chaney is left with nothing.

Seven years pass and Hale and Godowsky have a young son (Stanley Goethals) but everything else is going to hell in a handbasket. Godowsky is dangerously ill and the family business is on the verge of collapse, thanks to Chaney’s secret assistance. The trapper then orchestrates a bar fight between Hale and local hardman, Big Pierre, the Bully (Dick Sutherland) and, when shots are fired, Chaney claims he was looking the other way. Hale’s pleas of self defence fall on deaf ears and he only escapes the noose because Sutherland recovers from his wounds. 

When Godowsky finally expires from her illness, the field is clear for Chaney to take custody of the young Goethals and complete his revenge. But he finds himself beginning to care for the growing boy and, when news comes that Hale is to be released, the trapper plans one final, despaerate act of vengeance. 

After Chaney’s breakout performance in ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919), the quality of his roles increased notably. Films such as ‘The Penalty’ (1920) and ‘Outside The Law’ (1920) may have still cast him in villainous roles, but there were more to these characters than the one-dimensional heavies he’d previously been given. There was also the occasional heroic part, and this film was unusual and that it gave him the opportunity to play someone who, by turns, fulfills both roles.

At first, Chaney is the niave, happy-go-lucky frontiersmen who sees the best in everything, and it is quite a revelation to see the actor laughing it up in the early scenes. Of course, this is soon followed by the embittered schemer who brood and plots, a persona far more familiar to lovers of the actor’s work. The fact that the influence of the precosious Goethals triggers a redemption in Chaney may seem a little corny to a modern audience, and the little shaver performed the same duty for felons Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman in ‘Outside The Law’ (1920), but it works because Chaney puts it across. This is also assisted by the film’s final act, which sees him sliding back into villainy to protect his new found happiness. 

It is surprising to see a character in a film of this vintage that not only has the capacity for both good and evil but acts on both sets of impulses, leaving the audience uncertain whether to side him with or not. Likewise, Hale is also not the one-dimensional villain that might be expected and, although some might question the way the characters change over the course of the film, the drama does take place over a number of years and it’s quite refreshing to see this level of complexity. 

In terms of performance, Chaney is a little varied here. At times, he is surprisingly understated, at others he falls prey to the overly demonstrative stylings that can devalue some silent productions to modern eyes. It’s in the quieter moments that he is most effective; trying to hide his illiteracy in the school room then realising he is holding his book upside down, befuddled by the sudden downturn in his fortunes in the first act and then unable to summon up the will to enact his revenge on urchin Goethals later on.

There are some other flaws in Thornby’s film, too, principally a failure to convey the passage of time effectively. This is obviosuly an issue with the final presentation as it is one of the keys to the motivations and actions taken by the principal players. Godowsky’s part is also terribly underwritten; we never get any solid insight into why she forsakes Chaney in the first place, and her depature from the film is very hurried. The final scenes with The Teacher (Irene Rich) are a little too pat as well, although her introduction has allowed for some of Chaney’s subtlest moments beforehand. 

Thornby’s directorial career came to a dead stop with the introduction of talkies, but Hale went on from strength to strength becoming one of the silver screen’s most familiar character actors over the next thirty years. Little John to Errol Flynn in ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938), the singing driver in the multi-Oscar winning ‘It Happened One Night’ (1934), Porthos in ‘The Man In The Iron Mask’ (1939) and doomed garage owner Ed Carlsen in ‘They Drive By Night’ (1940) to name but a few. 

This film has several points of interest for the Chaney enthusiast. At the time, the actor was not tied to one particular studio and this was a one-off picture he agreed to do for Universal whilst he was attempting to set up his own production company. Those plans eventually came to nothing, but his growing status in the industry is reflected in the circumstances surrounding this production. Chaney was involved with the writing of the picture (along with legendary producer Irving Thalberg and others) and was billed for the first time as ‘The Man With A Thousand Faces’. This was somnewhat ironic, considering the fllm does not include any of his intricate makeups but the name stuck. 

Also, the film was prestigious enough that when it was originally shown in theatres, it opened with a live-action ‘prologue’. This included a tenor singing the song that Chaney is supposedly singing in the film’s opening scenes.

Another interesting fact is the film marks the screen debut of one Lon Chaney Jr, appearing as a boy in one of the crowd scenes. Considering his father vehemently opposed his son following in his footsteps, it can perhaps be assumed that Junior was visiting the set that day and decided to get in on the action!

A significant picture in Chaney’s developing career and a film that, allowances made, still stands up pretty well today.

Outside The Law (1920)

‘Brother, we must see the new fountain Uncle Oliver spoke about.’

A high-ranking criminal begins to reform under the influence of a Chinese philosopher. The change doesn’t sit well with his associates, though, and one of them frames him for the shooting of a police officer. While in jail, his daughter joins the gang to take part in a jewel heist…

Silent crime drama from Universal that pairs rising star Lon Chaney with director Tod Browning. The duo had already worked together on ‘The Wicked Darling’ (1919), but this was the first in a series of far more significant film collaborations that continued until Chaney’s premature death.

Exposure to the teachings of Confucius through the unofficial head of Chinatown, Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren), is giving local crime boss ‘Silent’ Madden (Ralph Lewis) pause for thought. His pretty daughter, Molly Madden (Priscilla Dean), has already rebuffed the personal and professional advances of torpedo Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) and ‘going straight’ is looking more and more attractive.

However, Chaney isn’t cool down with these developments. On the one hand, he’s determined to get ‘Silky Moll’ Dean into his gang (and into his bed, no doubt), and he wants a bigger piece of the criminal action too. Taking advantage of a gun battle in the street, Chaney shoots a patrolman and frames Lewis. Although the evidence is not conclusive, the innocent man is sent up, and Dean turns to the dark side.

The gang plan to lift some jewels from a rich man’s house during a party, and it falls to Dean and cracksman ‘Dapper’ Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman) to do the heavy lifting. Things go south on the night, and the duo barely escapes the police, taking a powder with the swag and holing up in a rented apartment. Forced to remain in hiding for weeks, they begin to fall for each other and start to question what they’ve done. Meanwhile, both the authorities and Chaney’s gang are waiting in the wings.

By 1920, Lon Chaney had reached a point in his career where he might not have been a star, but his name carried enough weight to be billed just below headliner Priscilla Dean in this prestigious Universal crime drama. His breakout success in ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919) had come after seven years and over 100 pictures and, although the vast majority were short subjects, the title is probably a good deal higher.

Chaney was far from conventionally handsome, so a good number of those roles had been as thugs and villains, and so it’s no surprise that he infuses the character of ‘Black Mike’ with a vicious swagger and a genuine sense of danger. It’s disappointing that he displays cowardly traits when cornered at the climax, but it was something that the conventions of the time demanded. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful portrayal.

The fact that matters don’t sag too badly when Chaney is offscreen is primarily due to an excellent performance by Dean, with capable support from Oakman. The young couple’s voluntary confinement is compromised by a young boy (Stanley Goethals) who lives in an apartment across the hall. The soft-hearted Oakman fixes his kite, but Dean remains indifferent to the little moppet’s charms. Of course, she can’t resist forever, but Dean and Browning do an excellent job of conveying her inner struggle and slow conversion.

Of course, when faced with a film from this era that deals in part with ethnic minorities, some modern-day commentators will point out the casting issues. E. Alyn Warren, who plays Chang Lo, was a white American and Chaney breaks out the makeup box to play his servant, Ah Wing. There’s no story reason for this dual role; perhaps it was simply that the actor wanted a fresh challenge, and it’s fair to say that he does make for a creditable Chinese man and is almost entirely unrecognisable. One of Warren’s other servants is played by an unbilled Anna May Wong, who would later become the first Chinese-American movie star, so it is fair to say that at least some effort was made to cast appropriately.

The Browning-Chaney partnership produced ‘The Unholy Three‘ (1925), ‘The Blackbird’ (1926), ‘The Unknown’ (1927) and several other notable pictures. The director wanted his star for the title role in ‘Dracula’ (1931), but Chaney was already terminally ill by then. Problems with adapting to sound recording may have been a factor in the staginess of the later film because it certainly wasn’t anything to do with the limitations of Browning’s technique. Here, the final action scenes are staged with quick cutting and multiple setups that inject a breakneck pace and genuine excitement.

Dean was born to theatrical parents and first gained big-screen attention as a comedienne in a series of shorts starring Eddie Lyons and Lee Moran. The movie serial ‘The Gray Ghost’ (1917) proved her ticket to the top, and she became one of Universal’s top female stars, her starring projects including ‘The Wicked Darling’ (1919), which involved both Browning and Chaney. Dean and Oakman were husband and wife in real life but divorced in the mid-1920s, with the actress marrying famous ’round the world’ aviator Leslie P Arnold in 1928. Her career nosedived abruptly with the arrival of the ‘talkies’, and she retired in 1932.

A tightly written, well-crafted crime thriller that’s more than just a signpost of greater things to come.

The Mysterious Airman (1928)

‘It is handled solely by remote control and, by its use, we can make it hot for Pilot X.’

A private airline utilises an experimental safety device, which is proving highly successful in adverse flying conditions. However, their flights are coming under renegade attack from a renegade band of pilots who seems to want to drive them out of business. Can it be that a rival airline is trying to obtain the device, or is something more sinister going on…?

Twelve-episode independent movie serial from the last gasp days of silent cinema. Although the ‘talkies’ had taken the film world by storm when Al Jolson played ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927), the industry remained sceptical about committing to their long-term future, and it was a couple of years before silent film production ceased. There were also technical and financial issues for smaller filmmaking outfits to overcome, such as the Weiss Brothers, the small studio behind this ‘super chapter play of the air’.

Baker Aircraft Inc. should be reaping the rewards of the latest invention from their boffin in residence, Professor James Joyce (Chris Allen). Instead, the innovation has brought owner Frank Baker (Walter Miller) a new slate of problems. The Aerometer might ensure a safe flight in any weather conditions, but that’s not much help when his planes are being constantly downed by the machine-gun fire of Pilot X and his flying minions. Giving up on police assistance (were they ever involved?), Miller vows to unmask the mysterious villain, whose face is always hidden behind his flying helmet.

The main suspect in all this criminal activity is William Craft (Robert Walker), owner of the rival Global Air Corporation. You see, Miller won’t let anyone else have use of his precious Aerometer, which brings up an interesting question. If the Aerometer is such a boon to aviation and pilot safety, doesn’t Miller have a moral obligation to share it with everyone? Rather than keep it for the exclusive use of his own airline? And isn’t someone in authority going to compel him to do so? The writers eventually realised that this was a bit of an issue, and after a few chapters, we find Miller scheduling a shipment of some working models to the government. In exchange, he gets official help from detective Dan Mullins (Alfred Hewston).

The serial follows the familiar pattern of the opposing forces tussling over various McGuffins; blueprints, for the most part, although Allen has also invented a flying torpedo, which makes for a good excuse for some minor explosions and a couple of cliffhangers. In fact, in a way, the Aerometer is the ultimate MacGuffin; not only do we never find out what it does or how it works, we never even get to see this fantastic device! Instead, we’re treated to various smart young men having conversations standing next to planes out on the field. All of them are dressed in flying togs, or Argyle sweaters with flat caps and sport neatly trimmed tiny moustaches. Meanwhile, Miller crashes so many aircraft it’s a wonder his airline hasn’t already gone out of business.

But there are some compensations here. For once, the female characters are pretty strong, and they participate in the action. Miller’s fiancee is Shirley Joyce (Eugenia Gilbert), who, of course, is the Professor’s lovely daughter, but she’s also a pilot in her own right. On more than one occasion, she takes off from the field to lend assistance and puts herself in mortal danger, and she’s fully aware of the risks. She’s far more active than the airline’s top pilot, Barry Madden (James Fitzgerald) or general manager Albert Orren (Eugene Burr). Walker’s better half is another aviatrix, Fawn Nesbit (Dorothy Talcott), who helps him primarily because she wants to use the Aerometer to mount a solo attempt to fly around the world.

One of the main plot threads is the true identity of the mysterious Pilot X, and screenwriter Harry P Crist gives us a whole gallery of possible candidates. As well as all the employees of Baker’s airline, there’s former mail pilot Henry Knight (Ray Childs) who owns the Aero Inn where all the pilots hang out. Then there’s the Joyce family butler, John Perkins (Arthur Morrison), who acts suspiciously in the way that only movie butlers ever could. Further muddying the waters is Maxamillion Kartof (Hamilton Morse), representative of the country of Sardonia, who is somehow involved. Unfortunately, all we know about him is that he has the best business card in history; all it has on it is his surname and the name of his country. Luckily for the forces of truth and justice, the outcome here is never really in doubt. Miller seems to be indestructible, emerging without a scratch from his numerous crashes and cracks up, although he does tear his suit jacket once, which must have been quite annoying.

The main issues from an entertainment point of view revolve around the formulaic plot and action. Obviously, this is an accusation that can be levelled at the majority of movie serials, and to some extent, it’s endemic to the form. The issue here is that a lot of the action takes place in the air, and the filmmakers don’t have the resources to realise them convincingly. Most of these sequences are a combination of long shots so extreme that the aircraft are merely blobs in the distant sky and close-ups of the actors in mock-up cockpits against a moving backdrop of washed-out clouds. Of course, allowances must be made for the vintage of the production, but these shortcomings and the repetitive nature of unfolding events make for a bit of a challenging watch.

Director Harry Revier toiled away in the independent arena for two decades and is remembered today for some rather notorious productions. ‘Child Bride’ (1938) was a drama focusing on older men marrying pre-teen girls in the Ozark Mountain region. Although presented as a condemnation of the practice, of course, it was just an excuse for some tasteless exploitation with 12-year old actress Shirley Mills skinny-dipping in the nude. The film ran into censorship problems in several American states but was financially very successful. Mills went onto a screen career that mainly featured uncredited roles, although in some notable productions such as ‘Shadow of A Doubt’ (1943) for Alfred Hitchcock. However, her greatest claim to fame was playing Ruthie Joad in John Ford’s classic ‘The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Revier’s other interesting productions included the outlandish serial ‘The Lost City (1935) and ‘Lash of the Penitents’ (1936). The latter focused on a fictional murder but apparently featured real-life scenes of monks performing acts of self-flagellation during ceremonies taking place in the desert. The story goes that Revier obtained this footage by filming these rituals in secret. However, the monks discovered his presence and opened fire, hitting him in the hand. The resulting injury eventually resulted in the amputation of two fingers. There’s no corroborating evidence for this story (and why would monks have guns?!), but it sure makes for a great anecdote.

A rather primitive movie serial that has some charm but struggles to overcome a repetitive and underdeveloped story.

L’Inhumaine/The Inhuman Woman (1924)

‘Your humanity leaves me cold. Only superior beings interest me.’

A famous singer plays with the affections of the notable men of the day, remaining aloof, despite many offers of love and marriage. Her latest admirer is a handsome young engineer, and when she rejects him, he declares his intention to commit suicide…

This highly unusual French silent picture was a showcase for the groundbreaking techniques of director Marcel L’Herbier. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an early filmmaking artist at work, even if the story aspects of the finished work can’t match his vision.

As famous for her exclusive parties as her vocal prowess, world-famous chanteuse Claire Lescott (Georgette Leblanc) is the target of many of the most famous men in the world. However, she seems content to rebuff their advances with a smile. The latest gathering at her mansion includes business tycoon Frank Mahler (Fred Kellerman), the Maharajah of Nopur (Philppe Heriat), radical philosopher Kranine the Apostle (Leonid Walter de Malte) and several other famous men from the world of science and politics.

And what a party it is! Dinner is served at a table floating in the middle of her lounge’s indoor pool, which comes complete with ducks! The servants wear identical uniforms and papier-mâché heads, complete with grinning lips and narrow eyes, and Leblanc holds court in a spectacular creation of veils and feathers. However, there’s an empty seat at the table, thanks to the late arrival of handsome young engineer/scientist Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain). It turns out he’s just as keen on Leblanc as all the other guys, and he throws himself at her as soon as he gets the opportunity, even though this tactic hasn’t worked for anyone else. Leblanc meets his advances with the same amused ridicule with which she greets every other proposal, although it’s clear from her body language that she’s more interested in him than her other suitors.

Distraught at her refusal, Catelain declares his intention to take his own life and storms out. Shortly afterwards, his wrecked car is found at the bottom of a cliff, and it seems he has made good his threat. Leblanc is grief-stricken at the young man’s death. Tormented by guilt, she visits the mausoleum where his recovered body is resting. But it’s then that she finds out things aren’t always what they seem.

The latter days of European silent cinema are rightly celebrated for their technical accomplishments and artistic virtuosity, and here we have another fine example. The first hint we get that this is something different is there in the opening scenes in Leblanc’s mansion. The massive interior was a set designed by painter and sculptor Fernand Leger and helps give the film a very different look, which is strangely reminiscent of the pop art production design of the 1960s, yet still retaining its own unique identity. This mixture of Art Deco and Cubism means that the square is a recurrent design motif throughout the film, with buildings comprised of blocks and lines cut straight and true. Later on, some curves and circles intrude with the devices housed in Catelain’s laboratory, but there’s still a strong sense of mechanics and efficiency. This is a world fashioned by man into the shapes that he has chosen.

This extravagance is matched by the daring of L’Herbier’s filmmaking choices. Early on, we see a miniature of Leblanc’s house from a distance. It’s not particularly convincing, but the model work looks far better when we see a car approaching. When the vehicle stops and someone gets out, the shot seems animated, and, again, it’s pretty impressive. But then the lackeys standing like statues at the front door begin to move, and we realise that the scene is actually live-action. It’s a seamless transition that makes the viewer question the judgements he made about the previous shots in the sequence.

L’Herbier also chooses to shoot the entertainers at the party in a radically different way. When they perform a fire-eating act, he has the camera looking down on them from way overhead, probably the studio rafters, which, again, reinforces the sheer scale of Leblanc’s home. He’s also very precise in his use of colour tinting. We see Leblanc and Catelain conversing in an indoor garden seemingly populated by giant paper flowers, and all the scenes that take place here are tinted green. Similarly, the brief sequences featuring radical philosopher de Malte and his acolytes are rendered in scarlet. The director also employs surprisingly fast cutting for a film of the period, which helps a good deal with the pacing. Unfortunately, this is necessary, given the slight nature of the story and the film’s two-hour length.

And it’s that story which proves to be the film’s major weakness. It’s simply insufficient to sustain a film of this length, and, whereas there are always technical aspects to admire, the film fails to make any real emotional impact. The romance between Leblanc and Catelain fails to resonate because they are broadly unsympathetic characters, driven by selfish desires and self-absorption, rather than more relatable qualities. Leblanc is also decked out in a series of wild, bohemian outfits and incredible hairstyles, which might be interesting visually, but doesn’t help with the emotional grounding of the story. The film isn’t particularly good at establishing the nature of their relationship either. She’s invited him along to her party, and he already seems madly in love with her before he arrives. But have they ever met before? Any shared history, however brief, is never mentioned.

Things do improve when the film (finally) enters the science fiction arena in the third act. Here we get an extended look at Carelain’s laboratory, which, of course, he fails to keep up to applicable Health and Safety standards in the grand tradition of movie scientists ever since. The purpose of his inventions are somewhat vague at times, too, with even the man himself admitting that he doesn’t know what his latest device will do, despite its production of ‘a force of unexpected effects.’ However, he does hijack listening devices worldwide so everyone can listen to Leblanc sing, which is a strange foreshadowing of live streaming via the Internet today. The fact that he and Leblanc can watch the reactions of listeners sitting around in their homes is a little less believable, though.

But, outside of our main couple, some of the broader themes are certainly of interest. This is a film that enthusiastically embraces the machine age to come, a very forward-looking point of view at a time when mechanical innovation was typically viewed with suspicion. But it also seems to suggest that technology has a transformative and humanising effect on individual people. It’s an interesting notion, but one that seems hopelessly naive and simplistic, given developments in social media over recent years.

L’Herbier came to film during military service with auxiliary units during the First World War. His first significant production was the propaganda piece ‘Rose-France’ (1918) which was notable for its innovative camera techniques. This led to a six-picture deal with Gaumont, but the studio was often unhappy with his experimental tendencies and his handling of budgets. By 1924, L’Herbier had formed his own company to ensure a level of artistic freedom, but the venture had foundered by the end of the silent era. This was despite some commercial and critical acclaim for the films that resulted. Nevertheless, the director adapted well to the talkies and continued making films until the 1950s, and with some success. However, it appears those projects were often guided by commercial considerations rather than artistic ones.

If the story fails to engage, the settings and techniques should. They combine to deliver a highly individual and captivating viewing experience.

Tarzan The Tiger (1929)

Tarzan The Tiger (1929)4‘The flaming God has spoken, and his wrath must be appeased!’

Financial problems back in England put the estates of Lord and Lady Greystoke at risk. Fortunately, the nobleman knows of some fabulous jewels in the lost city of Opar, deep in the jungle…

Black and white, 15-chapter serial that was released in two versions; one wholly silent and one with an added soundtrack of sound effects but no recorded dialogue. This was a direct sequel to lost serial ‘Tarzan The Mighty’ (1928) and was based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fifth novel starring the character called ‘Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar’, which was published in 1916.

At first glance, life seems pretty good for Lord Greystoke (Frank Merrill). Lazy days spent lounging around his African plantation with beautiful dark haired wife, Jane (Natalie Kingston) and entertaining visitors like hunter Albert Werper (Al Ferguson). But a telegram from England brings trouble to paradise; money is urgently required to save the family estates back home. No worries, though, Merrill knows of the whereabouts of the fabulous Jewels of Opar. Kingston immediately suspects that this is just the excuse her husband needs to get his loincloth out of mothballs, but what can she do?

Tarzan The Tiger (1929)

‘What you choose to do on your weekends is really none of my business.’

When Merrill heads off into the wild to see his ‘jungle friends’ (most of whom try to kill him!), little does he know that Ferguson is close on his heels. You see, he’s an absolute rotter and hand in glove with the local slave trader, Achmet Zek (Sheldon Lewis). Together, they’re plotting to grab the gems for themselves and also to sell Kingston to the highest bidder when she follows Merrill into the jungle. Sure, Ferguson would rather have her for himself, but he’s not that bothered. Jewels and cash come first, after all.

Complications ensue when the residents of Opar take exception to all of this. They’re a primitive bunch, who seem to spend their entire time worshipping their sun god under the leadership of high priestess, La (Kithnou). She has a previous infatuation with Merrill too (more like an obsession) and is determined to make him her mate. The big guy’s not interested until part of the temple roof falls on his head and wipes his memory. But, even without most of his faculties, he still rejects her and falls for Kingston all over again when she finally makes the scene. Muddying the waters is the late arrival of Philip Annersley (Clive Morgan), Merrill’s cousin from England who has apparently come to help (but he’s got a moustache, so watch out!)

Tarzan The Tiger (1929)

‘Men!’

This is a fast-moving if a somewhat repetitive slice of jungle fun with most of the action centred on the human characters and conflict, rather than on the jungle beasts. Having said that, Merrill does get to fight some of them on occasion. This includes Numa the Lion, who holds a long time grudge against Merrill because he’s obviously a very clever lion. The jungle man has a similar problem with simian siblings Taglat and Chulk, both played by Charles Gemora, but mostly he’s locking horns with Ferguson and Lewis and evading Kithnou’s rather aggressive amorous intentions.

Merril’s loss of memory allows for some extended quieter exchanges between Merrill and Kingston, but these are not permitted to slow up the action too much, and Kingston is an appealing presence. The addition of sound effects to a silent film does make for some rather odd moments though, with the addition of muttering voices whenever the acolytes of Opar appear. Also, we get to hear Merrill’s jungle cry, but it’s not a patch on the familiar Weismuller one. Merrill sounds more like someone cheering on his local sports team after a few beers in the car park beforehand.

The film is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the source material, with the only marked difference being the absence of Kithnou’s knife being used as a plot device. The title cards are credited to Ford Beebe, who went onto become a prolific director of serials and the man behind the ‘Bomba the Jungle Boy’ series. Whether he had a hand in adapting the novel for the screen is unrecorded, but, being one of the earliest novels in the series, it’s a reasonably sensible, straightforward plot. Later titles in Burroughs’ series included Tarzan’s trip to the earth’s core, that time he got miniaturised to the size of an ant and a lost civilisation of talking gorillas who have based their society on the works of William Shakespeare.

Tarzan The Tiger (1929)

‘Wha-hey!’

A third instalment was planned of Merrill’s adventures as Tarzan. However, the idea was scrapped when his voice was deemed ‘unsuitable for talkies’ (which probably meant he asked for too much money) and the public never got a chance to hear him as the movie world’s first talking Tarzan. He’s not bad here; he has the necessary muscular development, although he’s not overburdened with charisma. Unfortunately, he’s not helped out by the costume department who clothed him in an off the shoulder animal skin and a headband that looks more like it belongs in a 1980s MTV music video. This observation does bring up an interesting question, though: why on earth is he known as ‘Tarzan the Tiger’? Sure, we do see some stock footage of one of those big cats but how it’s ended up in Africa is anybody’s guess!

Wonderfully, the exotic Kithnou was actually born Lillian Worth in Brooklyn. She’d already played the Queen of Opar eight years earlier in ‘Adventures of Tarzan’ (1921) with Elmo Lincoln, a film that also featured Merrill in a bit as an Arab Guard. Or had she? Some sources claim that the actress has been misidentified in this film because of her earlier appearance in the role, and that its not Worth in this picture at all, but a Hindu actress billed by her correct name.

Tarzan The Tiger (1929)

‘What’s my name again?’

Director Henry MacRae made more than a hundred silent pictures, mostly shorts, but his career didn’t survive the coming of the talkies. Kingston also failed to make the transition; this was her last notable role, although her star had been rising up to this point. She started as a dancer and was a descendant of the first Spanish Governor of California.

This is an entertaining silent serial if you bear in mind the technical limitations of when it was filmed. Losing a few chapters and some running time would have probably helped, but that’s true of most 15 chapter serials.

The Power God (1925)

The Power God (1925)‘Cowards! Crooks! We should have known you couldn’t play fair!’

A scientist invents a machine that renders fossil fuels obsolete. An arch-criminal determines to obtain it by any means necessary and make himself the world’s first ‘power god’…

Early, silent 15-chapter serial from independent Goodwill pictures that was the brainchild of Ben Wilson, who produces, stars and directs the first four episodes of a ‘Ben Wilson Production.’ Not surprisingly, it’s most interesting today from a historical point of view and the development of science-fiction cinema and movie serials in general.

Working on his own dime, the elderly Professor Sturgess (Lafe McKee) has invented a new wonder of the ‘radio-electric age’, an engine that draws energy from the atmosphere and can discharge it as bolts of electricity. This mighty invention looks like a box with some dials on it and comes with a convenient carrying handle. But rugged assistant Jim Thorpe (Ben Wilson) is more interested in the hand of the old coot’s daughter, Aileen (the perpetually worried-looking Neva Gerber). When Wilson asks for McKee’s permission, he gets knocked back. Inventors make rotten husbands apparently.

The Power God (1925)

Boo! Hiss!

The Professor shows similarly brilliant judgement by allowing news of his invention to reach industrialist Jarvis Humphreys (William H Turner) who is president of the local cult of filthy rich oil magnates. They determine that the device must never be used and Turner is happy to take the responsibility of ensuring its suppression. He gives the job to crimelord Weston Dore (Allan Garcia), little realising that the crook will execute a swift double-cross and attempt to obtain the machine for himself. Meanwhile, Wilson and Gerber plan to elope but choose the same stormy night when Garcia’s minions come to call.

What follows is the usual round of chases, captures and escapes that were to become only too familiar to matinee audiences over the following decades. The device is, of course, just a MacGuffin, an excuse for all the non-choreographed fisticuffs, car chases and running here, there and everywhere. Later serials developed this particular conceit with the infernal device usually dependent on a whole range of individual MacGuffins which must be obtained to make it work; e,g, blueprints, vacuum tubes, fragments of a meteorite, Element X, etc. etc.

The Power God (1925)

‘Really? You’re going to use that take?’

But, forget all that, because this just might be the very first cinematic instance of ‘the device that must not fall into the wrong hands’! Obviously, with thousands of silent movies lost to time, it’s impossible to say, but I haven’t come across an earlier example. It’s a useful doo-dad anyway because, long after you’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t actually do anything, Wilson and Gerber hook it up to an idle steam locomotive (somehow!) and speed off down the track in pursuit of the plans! The action soon becomes repetitive, though, with scriptwriter George W Pyper floundering around to provide excuses for several unlikely developments. The story is credited to Rex Taylor and Harry Haven, and it’s unclear as to who bears responsibility for most of the silliness on display, but silliness there is.

For instance, why would a scientist just happen to have a secret passage in his home? Why has he a hidden laboratory in the basement when no-one knows what he’s doing, and he’s quite prepared to offer his invention for sale to the first suit who happens by with a smooth line of double-talk? Why does falling out of a car make Gerber lose her memory? Why does she then agree to formally wed Garcia even though he’s convinced her that they’re already married? It won’t be legal anyway because he already has a wife (Ruth Royce) so why does he want the ceremony to go ahead? What’s the point? It’s all rather baffling. In much the same way the villains are constantly fooled by Wilson’s brilliant escape plans, which nearly always involve shouting ‘look over there!’ and then reeling about throwing as many haymakers as he can.

The Power God (1925)

‘Call that a moustache?’

As entertainment, this is pretty basic stuff, even for the era when it was made. Still, some aspects do serve to demonstrate that the movie serial formula was yet to become set in stone. For a start, there is a brief plot recap at the beginning of each episode, but the protagonists are introduced with a title card as they appear on screen during the action. My favourite of these is the identification each week of actor Grover Eagle Wing as a ‘man of mystery’ (presumably because he wears a turban but also because we never really find out who he is!). There’s also a surprisingly large amount of location filming, reminding the present-day audience that it was the only the coming of sound and the challenge of recording it, that forced filmmakers into the studio. The end of episode cliffhangers are also very limited in scale, presumably because using library footage from other, higher budgeted, films to provide them was an idea whose time had not yet come. However, there are no ‘cheats’ in the following episodes to allow our heroes to escape, which makes for a refreshing change.

But we need to talk about Chapter Five. Wilson has been imprisoned in an asylum run by Garcia’s lackey, Dr Clack (the ridiculously over-demonstrative Nelson McDowell). Wilson escapes by switching places with a dead patient and is removed by truck for burial by two black attendants. When he sits up under the winding-sheet once they’re out on the road, the two servants flee in terror. Ok, so it’s 1925, and you don’t expect enlightened portrayals of black characters, but the title cards of their dialogue are filled with the sort of stereotypical colloquialisms designed to define the men as ignorant and stupid. Worse follows. Wilson uses engine grease to ‘black up’ and impersonate one of them. When he comes face to face with Garcia’s men, they are entirely fooled. I guess because all black men look the same, right? When he meets Gerber later on, she may have lost her memory but she’s far more inclined to trust him once the grease comes off. It’s an unpleasant sequence of events, to say the least.

The Power God (1925)

‘Lawdy, lawdy.’

Wilson was incredibly prolific during the silent era as an actor/producer/director, racking up over 200 credits, although a lot of these were short subjects. He also did some writing, although this was more originating stories than working on scripts. His other most notable credit was ‘The Voice From The Sky’ (1929), another science fiction story which also featured Gerber and was the first sound serial. Listed as a lost film by many sources, a restoration of the surviving footage for a Blu-Ray release was announced by multimedia archive the Serial Squadron in 2020. The coming of sound marked the effective end of Wilson’s career. He was already in poor health and died of a heart problem in 1930 at the age of 54.

This film is very much a product of its time and, at 15 chapters, a bit of an endurance test. However, it does have some interest from a historical standpoint.

The Ace of Hearts (1921)

The Ace of Hearts (1921)‘Love is destruction! Take the woman who has corrupted you and go!’

A secret organisation of concerned citizens sits in judgement of prominent figures in the business world and their negative influence on society. When the latest tycoon who has been accused is declared irredeemable, an assassination is arranged. But when two members fall in love with the daughter of the society’s leader everything begins to unravel…

Unusual silent screen drama starring the legendary ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ Lon Chaney. For once, his skills at the makeup box are not required as this role is not one to add to his gallery of grotesques. Farralone is just an ordinary man (despite a dodgy hairstyle) engaged in an extraordinary business. By today’s standards, I guess the ‘star chamber’ run by old man Hardie Kirkland would be classed as a gang of vigilantes at best and urban terrorists at worst. They’ve set themselves up as judge, jury and executioners; removing the wealthy autocrats who are filling their own pockets at the expense of the common people.

Trouble starts to brew when Chaney and fellow member Forrest (John Bowers) both fall hopelessly in love with Kirkland’s beautiful daughter (Leatrice Joy). She’s no wallflower, fully aware of the organisation’s activities and backs her father to the hilt. Seemingly disinterested in the attentions of either of her eager suitors, she agrees to marry the one who shows himself fully committed to the cause by taking on an assassination. It so happens that there’s a magnate in the crosshairs when she makes her promise and the job falls to Bowers when he draws the Ace of Hearts. Yes, in a similar setup to Robert Louis Stevenson’s story ‘The Suicide Club’, work is allocated on the random turn of a playing card. Joy keeps her word, and the two spend a night of bliss while Chaney sits outside in the rain. However, by the morning, the young couple has found true love and their convictions are crumbling, setting the stage for a crisis of conscience and loyalty.

The Ace of Hearts (1921)

‘I don’t care what you say; you are not going to Burning Man.’

This is a surprisingly modern and thought-provoking tale, pleasingly free from the melodrama which tends to form the modern public’s perspective of silent cinema. There are some excellent character moments, particularly when Chaney pets a dog who shares his nightly vigil outside the young lovers apartment. It’s almost a throwaway gesture but reveals a more human side to his nature, and provides a subtle signpost to his redemption to come.

There’s also some excellent work in the restaurant scene where Bowers plans to plant the bomb which will eliminate the group’s latest target. His resolve is weakened not be any great moral epiphany, but by overhearing the simple talk of two young lovers discussing their mundane financial and family problems. An extended, and rather clumsy, alternative ending to the film was originally planned, but was vetoed by Sam Goldwyn, a rare instance of a studio head making a sound creative decision!

This was probably a difficult sell to an audience of the time. For a start, there’s almost no background information provided about the principal characters. Also, we’re not given any details of the group’s previous activities, although it does seem fair to assume that they’ve not just been sitting around playing cribbage. The original novel by Gouverneur Morris had them as a communist secret society, but the film sits on the fence politically by sidestepping all questions of ideology. All we learn about the group’s target is that he’s a rich man who has been investigated for months and must die because of unspecified crimes against society. No doubt such ambiguity was necessary in order to avoid any possible controversy and get the film released into theatres.

The Ace of Hearts (1921)

‘That’s the last time I’m going to that beauty salon…’

As you would expect, the performances are a touch histrionic at times, but still restrained in comparison to some contemporary examples. Chaney, in particular, is excellent as the conflicted Farralone, and his emotional swings and final redemption are never less than convincing. This film was another three-way pairing of the star with director Wallace Worsley and novelist Morris; the same team who had delivered hit crime thriller ‘The Penalty’ (1920).

Although this film is not quite as distinguished a production, it’s still a worthy entry in Chaney’s filmography. Worsley was also behind the megaphone for ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923), the film that turned Chaney into a global superstar. Joy was a protege of world-famous director Cecil B DeMille and made a number of films with him, including a featured role in his epic version of ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1923).

Not a famous film in Chaney’s glittering career, and one that may not appeal to fans of his more grotesque creations, but a quietly effective picture in its own right.