A number of people have written about the talkie after watching the silent but I’ve done it the other way round: not much of a USP but it’ll have to do. The sound film struck me as incredibly lacking in hope and more than unnecessarily sleazy whereas the original trusts in Lon Chaney to act his way through the outlandish narrative emerging with something like believable redemption. Huston’s so far damned St Peter’s bookies have stopped taking bets on which level of Hell he’ll end up in… but for Lon… Purgatory is still a long shot.
But in silence, we get caught up with another tragedy for Lon Chaney and his acting, as always, is peerless. Not that it’s so cut and dried as Walter Huston is no slouch and played the role first, starring in the 1926 Broadway play by Chester de Vonde.
|Silent back-story: Phroso and Anna|
Flint holds court over a group of misfits all of whom are physically and mentally incapable of leaving his domain. There’s the English Cookie Harris (Forrester Harvey) whose criminal past locks him into African exile, Hogan (Mitchell Lewis) and a woman whose purpose can only be guessed at, Tula (Lupe Velez who is distractedly wrapped in a very pre-code cloth).
|Lupe Velez and Walter Houston|
Phroso too has created his little empire on the same basis but his entourage is rather more homely – even including a Doctor (Warner Baxter) there to help control his constant pain. “Dead-Legs” Phroso has his men and the natives steal directly from Crane and his plan becomes clearer early on: he has been keeping tabs on a woman born to his ex-wife while she was with Crane and is intent on dragging her from her protected world into his as a part of his ultimate revenge on Crane.
|Lionel Barrymore and C. Henry Gordon|
Back in 1932 – is this getting confusing? – Flint has used a mixture of drugs, slavery and drink to pervert not only the girl, here called Ann Whitehall (Virginia Bruce) but also the doctor, (Conrad Nagel) who comes along just before she arrives. The two are helpless, addicted and drained with Crane intent on killing them both as softly as it takes…
|Mary Nolan - before|
In 1928 a lot was left to the imagination and Chaney’s unmatched expressiveness carries across so much more than just a reptilian thirst for revenge.
He encounters his nemesis and the end game begins with Lionel Barrymore’s Crane edging C. Henry Gordon’s Gregg – he is much fuller as a character and his greater role in the plot is another way the story is made more complete.
|Virginia Bruce - after|
The two doctors are men of honour, the talker perhaps the less strong-minded but both the young women perform well – both pulled down from their pure-mannered education to the life of drug-addled, jungle prostitution: Virginia Bruce just edging it with her words actually giving her the advantage over Mary Nolan for the only time in the contest.
|Warner Baxter, Conrad Nagel and Virginia Bruce|
Walter Huston does give a spectacular performance as the man with mind and body twisted by the need for the most distasteful revenge against the man who robbed him of his wife and his legs. But Lon Chaney edges it for his uncanny physicality: you believe his legs are useless and you not only hate him you cry for his loss as well.