Lon Chaney Collection

January 28, 2012 9 Min Read

Review by: Fusion3600

Plot: What’s it about?

A one man special effects unit, Lon Chaney was known as The Man of a Thousand Faces and more than lived up to his nickname. Of course, he is best known for his work The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but his career was loaded with impressive performances of all kinds. In this special two disc release from Warner in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies, we’re given a look at some of Chaney’s classic works. You’ll be able to screen three restored films from his resume, The Ace of Hearts, Laugh, Clown, Laugh, and The Unknown, all presented in the most complete versions known to exist. Chaney’s body of work includes numerous films that have been lost forever, so it is a real treat to be able to see these three films in one collection, in a move that is sure to delight Chaney’s fans. In addition to the movies, this set includes a reconstruction of Chaney’s lost film London After Midnight, an in depth documentary on Chaney’s life & career, and several other supplements. I cannot recommend this release enough and if you look below, you’ll find a brief synopsis on each of the films.

1. The Ace of Hearts (1921)- A group of extremists has devised a plan that involves the wealthy members of society, most of which have become expendable, according to these folks. The men (and one woman) in the group will find a way to get up close and personal with rich, perhaps useless capitalists and then decide if their life is worth being spared. If the decision is made that the rich man serves a purpose, then he is left to continue his work, but if his life is deemed wasted, then the plan moves toward murder. Once the decision is made, each member is dealt a playing card and whoever is handed the ace of hearts serves as executioner. But the group has some cracks of its own, so can they continue in their flawed missions?

2. Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)- Tito (Lon Chaney) is a clown in a traveling circus, a performer who once drew in massive crowds with his skills. When he was younger, he found himself in a most unusual situation, however. He and his friend Simon discover an abandoned young girl, who has no chance of survival on her own. Out of kindness, the two take her in and she is raised on the road with the two performers. As time passes and the years roll on, the girl blossoms into a beautiful young woman, known as Simonetta (Loretta Young). Tito’s prime has passed, which has him in a depressed state at the outset. But when Simonetta falls for a rich man, he falls into a spiral of sadness, due his mixed emotions.

3. The Unknown (1927)- Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is a masterful knife thrower, one who performs in a well known circus troupe. But his methods aren’t the usual ones for his craft, as he has no arms and must throw with his feet. This never slows down his act however, if anything it enhances the draw to his shows. Estrillita is a beautiful woman who fears men’s arms, which means Alonzo’s love for her is destined to be returned. He is not an honest or kind man however, as he is willing to lie and even kill to keep his plans on target. When Estrillita is cured of her fears by a new man, what will Alonzo do to settle the score?

Video: How does it look?

All three films are presented in full frame, as intended. These films were taken from the best available elements, but keep in mind, all three were produced in the 1920s and source elements are rare, to say the least. Even so, the versions found in this collection look good and while flawed, we have to judge these on a slanted scale. The Ace of Hearts fares the worst, as time has taken more of a toll on the elements, with more print nicks and grain than the others. The movie still looks solid and is more than watchable however, so this is not a dismal or unbearable presentation. The other two films are a few years more recent and it shows, as the prints are cleaner and the visuals come off as sharper and more refined. I found contrast to be well balanced in each case, so no visual detail is lost in the darkness. I am quite pleased with the treatments on all three films, given their rarity and scarcity of source elements.

Audio: How does it sound?

As all three of these movies are silent pictures, the sole audio element is the musical soundtrack. Of course, new scores have been composed and produced, so the music has a more modern sound. This could have been a problem, but appropriate methods were used in terms of instruments and overall tone, so the music matches up quite well. On a technical basis, the 2.0 surround mixes have a solid presence and make good use of the speakers, but never to the point of distraction. So the audio is more than effective and provides sufficient background, but never steals the focus away from where it belongs, the movies themselves. Each film also offers optional subtitles in French and Spanish.

Supplements: What are the extras?

All three of the feature films have audio commentary tracks by Michael F. Blake, who is obsessed with Chaney’s life. Blake is a goldmine of insight on Chaney, both in his movies and his private life. As such, all three sessions prove to be informative and worthwhile. I was skeptical as to his ability to record all three and not recycle information, but he manages and these tracks shouldn’t be missed. You can also browse collections of still photos and memorabilia for each of the films, as well as watch introductions by Robert Osborne, whom viewers of Turner Classic Movies should recognize. A reconstruction of London After Midnight is next, which gives us a general idea of what audiences saw back in 1927. This classic film was lost in the 60s, which is an epic loss to cinema and this special work is as close as we can get to London After Midnight. The main attraction of the extras is Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces, a comprehensive documentary on Chaney’s career and personal life. This piece runs almost ninety minutes in duration and never lacks insight, so there is no wasted space here. I am overjoyed to have this included in this collection, as the program is so good, it is worth the price of admission by itself.

Disc Scores