Saturday, 28 May 2016

He who gets slapped… Mockery (1927)

This was the second Hollywood film directed by the great Dane Benjamin Christensen (who made Mysterious X – his astonishing debut  - Blind Justice and the uncanny Häxan) and it has to be said that it lacks conceptual weight in comparison to his European output. That’s not only “show-business” it’s also the pressure of a studio system which expected its talent to shine through the constraints of commercial imperatives and the freedoms of a much tighter brief than UFA and Dansk-Biograf Kompagnie would have offered.

The film was panned on release but did reasonable business not least because of yet another superb performance from Lon Chaney: even when the plot is so-so, Mr Chaney can move the stoniest of hearts with the bending of his back, the slump of his shoulders and a mournful flash of his defeated eyes. His face literally collapses in pain like some great missing link between thought and expression… there’s never been anyone quite like him.

Lon Chaney
When the film was “lost” it was no doubt much coveted but its discovery in the seventies shouldn’t leave us disappointed entirely. The story is “light” for sure but I think the New York Times was a tad harsh in describing it as “…lumbering, dull-witted and, on the whole, unconvincing...” nor was Moving Picture World entirely fair in describing Lon as being “…hopelessly encumbered by the amateurishness of the plot development and handling."

Then as now, audiences voted with their feet and this one may have edged a 7 on IMDB had the primitive telephony of the twenties been able to access the internet.

Barbara Bedford and Lon Chaney
Star power and backlash… plus ca change. It’s still interesting none-the-less to see an American film dealing with the Bolshevik Revolution ten years down the line and bringing out characters on both sides: aristo’s who are good and selfish, insurgents who are the same and Chaney’s character, simple, “slow-thinking and ignorant”, Sergei who gets caught up in events mostly because he hasn’t got a friend on either side. Beyond all politics and class, he ultimately wants someone to connect with whilst all around are simply taking advantage.

The story begins with a gruesome search for food among the bodies of fallen soldiers. A peasant Sergei (Chaney) roots through the pockets and bags of the dead, searching for scraps; he finds the remnants of a chop and gnaws on the bone before spotting someone still alive. Instinctively he moves to help, offering the man some water before he drifts away in his arms.

As Sergei sees her...
He hears a call from the bushes behind and sees a pretty peasant girl (Barbara Bedford) she needs help in getting to the safety of Novokursk and offers Sergei food and, more importantly, friendship, if he will brave the threat of soldiers to get her home.

For their own safety, Sergei agrees to play the woman’s husband but when they are discovered by soldiers their commander refuses to accept that she is a peasant – her hands are too white – or that they are man and wife. He whips Sergei savagely until government troops arrive on horseback forcing them to flee.

Capt. Dimitri unable to apologise for his heart...
Sergei recovers in a military hospital while we learn his “wife’s” true identity, Countess Tatiana Alexandrova. As she waits a young officer, Capt. Dimitri (Ricardo Cortez) who has been sent to collect her, mistakes her for the peasant girl she seems and tries to flirt… shocked at discovering her true identity he utters the immortal line… “Forgive me Countess. I came to escort you to headquarters… but I cannot apologise for my heart.” Dimitri, mate, you better be one heck of a dancer because that sort of stuff just won’t wash… or will it?

Ricardo Cortez
Back in Novokursk and the twentieth century… the Countess breezes around in stylish suede and with authority regained. She is staying at the house of one of the newly-rich war profiteer Vladimir Gaidaroff (Mack Swain) and his authoritarian wife (Emily Fitzroy) which is acting as a temporary headquarters for smiley Dimitri and his regiment.

One day Sergei follows the Countess’ familiar face into the house and, after she finally recognises him, asks if she is still his friend… she is and rewards him with a position on her staff. This is not quite what the simple man was expecting and when he sees her in the arms of the handsome Captain his heart sinks.

The Countess' superiority
Sergei is jealous and he is disappointed after all he saved the Countess’ life whereas all Dimitri has ever done is smile and be charming… his frustration is refined to anger by the careful promptings of Ivan, the Gatekeeper (the brilliantly-named Charles Puffy) whose dentures say so much about his politics… One day, come the Revolution, we will be the masters and they will be the slaves… he opines whilst laughing about Sergei behind his back.

Dimitri and his troop head off to fight the revolutionaries leaving the house poorly defended and, when the action moves closer to home matters come to a nasty head: the rich run running from the poor in what looks very much like a Bolshevik Brian Rix farce.

Mack Swain
In spite of the sometimes awkward shifts from slapstick to serious, Sergei’s transformation into a vengeful revolutionary willing to bring his mistress down is actually quite shocking and confounds the expected trajectory – surely a noble death; steadfastly protecting the fragile beauty beyond his reach is what is required? But no, Sergei is out to take what he wants with no apology…

But it won’t end there – of course – and this twist saves the story in the end and leaves the audience hanging on for a more satisfactory resolution…

The direction from Christensen is efficient more than inspired but there are subtle tones in there such as the heavenly halo around the Peasant Countess’ head and Sergei’s instinctive washing of her feet: his is a biblical love and redemption can always come after a fall.

Mack Swain and Emily Fitzroy make for excellent cartoon capitalists whilst the pantomime proletariat are just as mincingly-effective.  Barbara Bedford makes for an unconvincing peasant – her hands are indeed too white but perhaps that’s the point - she’s otherwise impressively compassionate and feisty and very… neat!

Barbara Bedford: very neat
But it’s the Lon Chaney show and he acts through his make-up with the usual skill – not among his major work but if this was the only performance you’d seen, the only film left, you’d have to give it more respect than the newspaper critics of 1927.

Mockery complete with a sympathetic new score from James Schafer is available from the Warner Archive on DVD-R either direct or via Amazon.

Lon's drunk face

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