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Lon Chaney — Tod Browning: The Unholy Two

The Blackbird

Between them, Lon Chaney and Tod Browning made nearly 300 movies, almost all of them in the silent era. And in the eight thrillers they made together, the shape-shifting star of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and the director of Freaks (1932) created a uniquely twisted form of masochistic romantic melodrama. These movies about twisted bodies and twisted souls — in classic melodrama, the two almost always go together — which will be showcased beginning this weekend at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, were not ghettoized as horror movies or produced on the cheap; they were expensive mainstream star vehicles released by Universal and MGM. Chaney had become a star in silent movies by making his own body an element of visual spectacle, startling audiences with his often grotesque and painful deformations. That process even becomes part of the story in Browning’s The Blackbird (1926), where Chaney plays a dual role as both a brawny, arrogant London criminal mastermind and his crippled “twin brother,” distorting his features and twisting his limbs and all but popping his joints into position in an effort to evade the police. Chaney often devised his own torturous “appliances,” crushing his limbs into a corset to portray an armless knife-thrower in The Unknown (1927), or tying back his legs with leather straps as a double amputee in The Penalty (1920). In his roles for Browning, the suffering the actor endured resonated with the often agonizing psychosexual torments the director seemed to relish inflicting on his characters, who typically were mutilated “beasts” debasing themselves before beauties who could barely conceal their revulsion. In West of Zanzibar (1928), Chaney’s Phroso the Magician is first taunted and then pitched off a balcony by his wife’s lover (Lionel Barrymore), and then, as the paraplegic “Dead Legs,” literally drags his body to Africa and devotes the rest of his life to engineering a revenge that includes selling the lover’s golden-haired daughter into prostitution. Surprisingly often when watching these films, we find ourselves rooting for the “monster,” which in the end is the classic American underdog, bent and twisted into a disturbing new shape or two. (UCLA Film and Television Archive; Feb. 18–March 12. www.cinema.ucla.edu)

—David Chute


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