Showing posts with label silent films. Show all posts
Showing posts with label silent films. Show all posts

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Short, Spooky Films of Segundo de Chomón, “The Spanish Méliès”

Today’s silent horror film for 31 Days of Silent Horror Films is actually more than one film. To coincide with today’s Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, I’m focusing on the short films of Spanish film pioneer Segundo de Chomón, who also happens to be a pioneer of silent horror.

I always find it odd that horror films as a genre are seen as a niche interest, or at least considered to be outside of the mainstream. It’s a little puzzling considering that many of the very first films ever made featured supernatural themes and horror characters. Georges Méliès’  Le Manoir du Diable (The Devil’s Castle) from 1896 depicts a skeleton that turns into a bat, then into the Devil, who conjures up a host of spooky spectres. It’s one of the earliest films in existence, and it’s decidedly horror. Even Edison took a stab at horror with his famous 1910 version of Frankenstein.

Spanish silent film pioneer Segundo de Chomon.

But, while pioneers like Méliès and Edison are known outside of silent film geekdom, not many people are familiar with the name Segundo de Chomón. De Chomón, who not only was a master of early film techniques, but also an innovator of horror special effects, is often referred to as “the Spanish Méliès,” but in many ways surpassed the achievements of the more famous filmmaker. Whether or not you agree with his superiority to Méliès, de Chomón is inarguably the most important Spanish director of silent films.

Aragon-born de Chomón was lured into the film world by his wife, French actress Julienne Mathieu. One of the earliest French film actresses, Mathieu appeared in a slew of early early Pathé Frères productions. De Chomón became an agent for Pathé Frères films in Spain, and by 1901 was producing his own actuality films of Spanish locales. He soon learned to hand-tint films and ultimately helped develop the Pathéchrome process. Inspired by Méliès, he began working on trick films, and Pathé was happy to support his efforts, hoping to compete with the French filmmaker’s popular projects. 

Claymation head from de Chomon's Haunted House.

De Chomón quickly moved past mere mimicry of Méliès work with stop-motion and double exposure effects and developed his own camera tricks. His films display his innovations in hand-drawn animation and silhouette animation, the latter of which he was among the first to use. De Chomón developed his own methods of single-frame techniques, optical dissolves, and traveling shots, taking it all farther than Méliès ever did. In fact, when Méliès company was beginning to fail, de Chomón was gaining even more steam. He accepted an invitation to work on films in Italy and directed the special effects on notable full-length films like Cabiria  and Maciste in Hell  (Film #10 in the 31 Days of Silent Horror Films event). Filmed using a tracking camera of de Chomón’s own invention, Cabiria is said to feature the first ever “dolly” shot in film.

Special effects aside, one of the other ways de Chomón pushed the envelope further than Méliès is with his stories, and that’s where his importance as a horror filmmaker comes in. De Chomón played more with fantastic narratives and surreal elements, weaving them into a story, rather than just presenting them for the sake of a special effect. Sometimes those elements are downright gruesome, such as the worms that appear inside a cake in Panicky Picnic. Even by today’s standards, his horror elements are often eery and unsettling (the face that appears in the mirror in La Maison Ensorcelée is still nightmare-inducing today). 

Animated silhouettes of demons interspersed with live action shots.

La Maison Ensorcelée (1908) or The Haunted House is a prime example of what made de Chomón so special in his time. It’s loaded with special effects, and some of them are effects that continued to be used in horror film for decades to come. Enchanted clothing would still seem like a pretty neat trick when Bedknobs and Broomsticks came out 63 years later. Also notable are the multiple kinds of animation techniques used in the short (plus the fact that it’s blended in with live actors): hand-drawn animation, silhouette animation, miniatures, and claymation all make an appearance in the film. While stop-motion animation was around before  de Chomón came along, the enchanted breakfast in La Maison Ensorcelée is still one of the best examples of it in early film, with self-slicing sausages and tea that pours itself. Lest it all seem more quaint than horrifying, that spooky character from the mirror shows up again for a frightening finale.

One of the other de Chomón films of particular interest to silent horror film fans is Satan S’amuse (1907) or Satan at Play. On the surface, it’s a magic act, similar to the many shorts of Méliès or other magicians-turned-filmmakers like Walter Booth. De Chomón has added some horror touches that go beyond the skeleton costume of the titular demon. Particularly grim is a levitation act performed with two (for the time) attractive women. Each woman is wrapped in a swath of dark paper, rather like a giant cigar, before she is levitated, then set aflame. We see the bundles begin to disintegrate before our eyes just as they vanish, taking the presumably charred bodies of the women with them. By the end of the macabre magic show, the Devil sets the entire set on fire. (While not a horror element, I was particularly pleased to see the Pathé rooster appear briefly on one of the illusions. The rooster served as a way of copyrighting the films, and it’s always fun to spot it when it turns up. This is one of the most clever uses of it I’ve seen.)

As a bonus, I’d like to mention La Grenouille or The Frog (1908). It’s a fun bit of surrealism that proves just how influential De Chomón still is today. Those who follow pop music will recognize that Lady Gaga borrowed several elements from the film for her video to the song “Applause,” right down to the tinted smoke and the clamshells (and of course the obvious spinning head).


It’s hard to know for sure why de Chomón’s name is not as well-known as that of Méliès, but some speculate that it’s because he was from Spain but did so much work in France, thus no country ever really claimed him as their own. There’s also the fact that he was largely forgotten after his death, while several people worked to champion Méliès after his death and preserve his work. And, of course, modern audiences know Méliès thanks to the movie Hugo. Regardless of why he was forgotten, Segundo de Chomón needs to be rediscovered and remembered for his contributions to horror films and to all films with special effects. He was indisputably a master. 


This post is a crossover post for both Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon ...

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Unknown (1927): Lon Chaney, Tod Browning, and One Beautifully Bizarre Plot

Lon Chaney as an armless knife thrower in Tod Browning's The Unknown. Some of the stunts were performed by real-life armless foot double Paul Desmuke, who went on to perform for years billing himself as "Lon Chaney's Feet."

I was intrigued by The Unknown long before I ever saw it, all because of an anecdote related to how the film went missing for decades. Researching and writing a book about lost films means I’ve heard about a lot of different ways that films are lost—fire, earthquakes, destruction by Nazis, being left on the subway, or being dumped into a mining pool, to name a few—but this one is in a class of its own. The Cinémathèque Française ultimately found a 35mm print of The Unknown in their very own archives, where it had become lost among all of the hundreds of reels of unidentified film similarly marked “Unknown.” (Well, technically marked L’inconnu.) This is the only instance I know of in which a film’s title caused it to be lost.

Man, am I glad they found it. I’m about to fall victim of the problem I have where the more I like a film, the less capable I am of talking about it. I just want to grab people by the shoulders and shake them as I drool and say, “Watch this! Watch this weird and wonderful thing, right now!” Let me just begin by saying that this is a Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaboration in which Chaney plays an armless carnival knife-thrower. That should be enough right there, and as much as I’d love for you to read the rest of my post, if that is enough to intrigue you, then go … go and watch it now, because I’m going to lay down some spoilers. (Come back and read the rest later!)

And if that’s not enough for you? Well, this film is going to get a lot weirder. And then it’s going to get weird some more. And I’m not talking about weird for 1927—this is weird for the ages.

Lon Chaney is a circus performer known as Alonzo the Armless, and the film’s first scene shows us Alonzo in action, throwing knives, with his feet, at Joan Crawford. Now, silent film fans know better, but there are a lot of people in the world who only know Crawford from her later work—in other words, as the scary hag of Mommie Dearest fame—but in the 1920s, she was an ingenue. Here, she is eighteen years-old and luminous as Nanon, the circus manager’s daughter. Alonzo’s talented toes alternately hurl knives and shoot bullets around the outline of her perfect figure, and as each weapon penetrates the board, she loses a piece of her clothing, revealing a skimpy costume underneath.  As if this psycho-sexual act doesn’t have enough psycho in it, the whole thing takes place on a huge, rotating platform, Alonzo flinging and grinning and shooting, and Nanon getting nakeder and nakeder as she spins by. 

Alonzo the Armless prepares to entertain.

After the show, we learn that Alonzo is desperately in love with Nanon, who feels safe around the only man she knows who doesn’t try to grope her. In fact, she has a near-pathological aversion to masculine meathooks: “Men, the beasts! God should take all their hands.” Also in love with Nanon is Malabar (Norman Kerry), the circus strong man with a wispy mustache, who seems a bit of a scuzz. He skulks around her caravan after the show and seems intent on doing some of the groping she so despises, and tells her he loves her, and that he’ll tell her so every day (in other words, expect him to drop by for some harassment on the regular). Alonzo enjoys watching Malabar rebuffed, and even gives him the advice to take Nanon in his arms, knowing that she’ll recoil from him even more.Malabar is the anti-Alonzo, all strong and handsy. Good, safe, armless Alonzo is clearly the one who will win her hand-hating heart.

Malabar the Strong Man can't figure out that Nanon doesn't like to be touched.
I'm rooting for these two, whether it makes sense or not.

Alonzo heads back to his caravan, where his dwarf assistant Cojo (John George) then unstraps him from a torturous-looking corset contraption, revealing … Alonzo’s arms. He’s a faker! Alonzo the Armless is really Alonzo With the Conventional Number of Arms. (As you’re taking in this plot twist, it’s impossible not to think about the fact that Lon Chaney is spending so much of the movie with his arms confined in this thing, which doesn’t look fun at all—a sign of his dedication as an actor. He also looks lean and muscular and pretty damn good, and I’m thinking that while he’s certainly an unconventional romantic lead, it’s working for me.) Alonzo mutters something about the police and what they’d give to know who he really is. Oh no, I think. The good guy is sinister. Am I still supposed to root for him? I love flawed lead characters, so I figure that it’s safe to still consider Alonzo the good guy. Surely the “what he’s done” has some good explanation or is something noble, like stealing from the rich.

Oh, and it is also revealed in this scene that he has two thumbs on one hand. 

Alonzo the Non-Armless, with sidekick Cojo. Note the double thumbs.

Soon after, Alonzo’s status as Good Guy goes from cloudy to non-existent when he murders the circus manager. I can’t help but recall something a theatre professor once told me as we were reading Corneille’s Le Cid: “If you want to win a girl’s heart, don’t murder her father.” Alas for Alonzo, a flash of lightning illuminates his double-thumb as Nanon witnesses the murder. While she then knows that someone with two thumbs is the killer, no one suspects Mr. The Armless. In fact, as the cops arrive to question and fingerprint the gypsies, Alonzo is nonchalantly strumming a guitar with his feet.

Alonzo convinces Nanon to stay behind with him as the circus moves on, and Cojo witnesses a bit of intimacy between the two. The dwarf is not amused, and warns him that he can never let her touch him that way again lest she notice he has arms. He also reminds him that she saw the weird thumbs of the man who murdered her father. In other words, there’s no sane way the two can ever really be together. Alonzo, who has unstrapped his arms, is now so flustered that he’s lighting up and puffing away at a cigarette held between his toes. “You are forgetting you have arms,” Cojo laughs, but there may be more to it than that. Alonzo has reasoned out that while there may be no sane way the two can be together, there may be an insane way. 

Chaney's intensity shows in every single frame.

A word here about Lon Chaney’s acting: it’s among the best I’ve ever seen. He manages to convey both anger and anguish in these scenes. Everything about this whole story is absurd, yet I’m buying it, because Chaney is convincing me that every bit of his emotions are real. And that’s why I continue to buy it, to believe it, even though the next turn of events is shocking.

Alonzo tells us of his plan, though the title cards don’t let us in on it. They only show us Cojo’s horrified response: “No! Never do that!” But Alonzo does do that, which turns out to be blackmailing a surgeon to actually remove his arms. It’s the most over-the-top solution to a problem that could probably be conceived, but here, it sort of has a twisted logic. The only thing that Alonzo doesn’t consider is his recovery time, and during that time, Malabar, who it turns out isn’t such a bad guy after all, has continued to spend every day telling Nanon he loves her. When Alonzo returns from his surgery, with nothing new to report, because no one knew he had arms to begin with, Nanon and Malabar have news of their own. They’re engaged! Not only has Nanon gotten over her fear of hands, but she loves Malabar’s big, strong hands.

In one fell swoop, Alonzo has lost the woman he loves to a man with arms, when he has just had his own removed in order to be with her. It’s like a perverted Gift of the Magi. Chaney’s response is one of the best moments in all of silent cinema. He smiles the biggest, fakest, most twisted smile you’ve ever seen, then breaks down into laughter. They laugh along at first, but the laughter becomes more and more maniacal until Chaney completely implodes. It’s the greatest visual meltdown I’ve ever seen.

No longer afraid of his arms.

While I’ve revealed most of the plot, I’ll hold back a little of the ending which is deliciously twisted, and involves a circus act and horses on treadmills.

It’s hard to know what to make of all of this, but I do know The Unknown is one of the most amazing silent films I’ve ever seen. As ridiculous as the set-up is, there’s something very modern and universal about it. The themes of obsession, sacrifice, loss: they’re things we all know, and Chaney’s performance makes us feel every bit of it along with him. Joan Crawford’s Nanon may at first seem silly with her fear of being touched, but it’s similar behavior to anyone who has suffered abuse.

Chaney and Browning would ultimately collaborate on ten films, and while it’s often remarked upon that each of their greatest works were outside of that collaboration, this is undoubtedly the best film they made together. The Unknown most certainly deserves to be known. 

The Unknown is available on DVD via Amazon, and streams in various spots around the internet (it’s in the public domain, though soundtrack quality varies). 

One of 31 silent horror films I'm watching this month. See the link below for the complete list (some with full reviews).