Long before he was Quasimodo, long before he was the Phantom, long before he was a circus freak, a hypnotist, or any other of his immortal roles, Lon Chaney was just another cog in the Hollywood movie-making machine. Originating in Vaudeville and theater, Chaney labored as a character actor in over a hundred films for Universal Studios before finally hitting it big in George Loane Tucker’s The Miracle Man (1919). Of these, only nineteen survive. It’s one of the most horrifying gaps in any major Hollywood figure’s filmography. What were these missing films like? Did they demonstrate any kind of growth on Chaney’s part as an actor? It’s impossible to tell.
But every now and the a miracle happens and missing films are rediscovered. Such a miracle occurred in 1978 when construction workers accidentally discovered a lost collection of over 500 films from 1903-1929 buried in permafrost in Dawson City, Canada. Among these were two lost Joe De Grasse films from Chaney’s early career: If My Country Should Call (1916) and The Place Beyond the Winds (1916). Now, thanks to our friends at Undercrank Productions, these films are finally available for collectors everywhere. Bundled together with De Grasse’s A Mother’s Atonement (1915), their new DVD Before the Thousand Faces represent a crucial look into one of film history’s greatest blind spots.
None of these films survived completely intact: they are all missing reels and clearly suffer from advanced deterioration. But with reconstructive intertitles and original music scores by Jon Mirsalis, this is the closest we can get to seeing these films as they were originally released. That is, at least, until the fateful day where we’re blessed with yet another miracle.
The first film, A Mother’s Atonement, was a three-reel romantic drama. The third reel is lost, but thankfully all of Chaney’s footage survives since he only appears in the first two. And of all three films, his performance in this film is the closest to what we’d expect of the man who made his reputation playing distorted, grotesque monsters. Chaney plays Ben Morrison, a cruel old man living in a rustic cabin on a nondescript island. Though only thirty-two years old at the time, Chaney’s transformation into an old tyrant was so complete I had to check and recheck IMDb several times to make sure it was really him. It’s not just that he covered himself with a thick bushy beard and snow-white eyebrows and pinched his face into a perpetual glower. He embodies the idea of old, withered age in how he talks and stalks around the island terrorizing his ingenue daughter Jen (Cleo Madison). In particular, Chaney has a way of leaning the upper half of his face towards the camera that makes his giant nose a lighthouse. It’s truly astonishing.
The less said about the film itself, however, the better. Though Chaney is magnificent and the cinematography has moments of sheer splendor—note how the river sparkles like a sea of diamonds in many shots—the story is an incoherent mess. It revolves around Jen’s flight from her father to the mainland where she falls in love and runs into her estranged mother Alice. The straightforward story is hampered by the film’s casting of Madison as both Jen and her older mother, creating significant confusion as to which character we’re watching at any given moment.
And though Jen steals the movie away from her father in the last two reels, Chaney gets a heart-breaking send off in the form of a single shot showing him sitting on a rock by his house, a prisoner of his own loneliness after driving away his only daughter. Maybe Ben Morrison wasn’t a good man. But this single shot still gives us pause. Of all three films, this one has Chaney’s best character, best performance, and perhaps his best scene with this single moment of tragic resignation.
The two Dawson City films are similar in two respects. First, Chaney plays characters who are so remarkably minor they only appear in a handful of scenes. Second, both have so much footage missing that judging them by artistic merit is pointless. Of the two, If My Country Should Call is the more interesting, at least from a historical perspective. The film is a shocking piece of propaganda that could only have been made in the years before the United States entered the hell of World War One. It follows Margaret Ardrath (Dorothy Phillips), an old mother so terrified of losing her son to the flames of war she spikes him with a newly invented “cardiac depressant”—introduced to her by her uncle George played by Lon Chaney wearing a preposterous white wig—so he fails his military medical examination. But the scheme is discovered and she’s harshly chastened. Then, in an ending as shocking for its chest-thumping militarism as for its creative bankruptcy, we learn that it’s all been a dream. Margaret discovers she never drugged her son and announces she’s abandoned all her foolish, womanly reservations about letting men go to war. It’s a good thing a newspaper suddenly announces that the European powers have declared peace or war might have taken her up on that offer.
The last film, The Place Beyond the Wind, is a sententious romance about the trials and romantic tribulations of Priscilla Glenn (Dorothy Phillips), a free-spirited young woman living in Canada who escapes her fundamentalist father for a city life in America. Priscilla’s moving is predicated by a tragic incident instigated by Chaney’s character, a diabolic “half-breed” named Jerry Jo who lures her into a cabin and attempts to ravish her. Priscilla escapes intact, but news of the attack convinces her father that she’s been ruined, causing him to throw her out of his house. The rest of the film exudes the cheerfully sweet lightness characteristic of early Mary Pickford as she becomes a nurse and falls in love with a previously crippled childhood friend. There’s even a scene where she bumps into Jerry Jo, now an impoverished beggar, and magnanimously forgives him for everything.
It’s impossible to talk about Chaney’s performance in The Place Beyond the Wind without mentioning how it plays up abhorrent Native American stereotypes. Chaney’s Jerry Jo is one-note and bland: he’s stoic, firm, and controlled by his libidinous impulses. It’s only after he received the blessing of a white woman that he can be redeemed. This wasn’t the last time Chaney would play a character of a different race—he would try his hand at yellowface in Tom Forman’s Shadows (1922). But it’s still shocking to see an A-list Hollywood actor dip their feet into such racist material. That’s part of why releases like Before the Thousand Faces are so vital: they preserve the history of this great, conflicted art form in all its triumphs and failures. And as a rare glimpse into Chaney’s early years, this release is particularly indispensable.