The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution (the second of two) to The Chaney Blogathon: Two Men, Thousands of Faces—which is currently underway from November 15-18 and sponsored by Movies, Silently & The Last Drive-In. For a complete list of the participating blogs and the subjects being covered, click here.
From 1919 to 1921, the United States of America found itself in the grip of what historians would come to call a “Red Scare”—it was believed that because of the Russian Revolution of 1917, that sort of political rebellion would spread to Uncle Sam’s backyard and foment all sorts of trouble from anarchists, Communists, immigrants and any other member of the unwashed who refused to genuflect at the altar of capitalism. It led to such government interventions as the Sedition Act of 1918 and the infamous “Palmer raids,” which were a series of attempts by the Department of Justice (the “Palmer” was U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer) to “round up the usual suspects” and deport them because of their Bolshie leftist leanings.
In Hearts—though the members of the secret society are not identified with any sort of political label—an organization carries out assassinations on citizens that the membership believe to be corrupt and a cancer on society’s fee-fee. The targets are designated as “The Men Who Have Lived Too Long”—and the assassin who will dispose of said target is chosen via a deck of cards…with “the ace of hearts” being the winning ticket in the murder sweepstakes.
Lilith deals the ace of hearts to Forrest, and announces that as a bonus for winning assassin blackjack, she will tie the knot with him. Farallone is despondent at this news, but tries to keep his spirits up despite a bit of overacting. Forrest, who’s been posing as a waiter at the restaurant where the target (Raymond Hatton) dines every day, will dispatch the filthy capitalist to The Great Beyond with a bomb device invented by the group’s chemist (Edwin Wallock).
Lilith and Forrest, now wedded to one another, are starting to have second thoughts about carrying out their mission. And the downcast Farallone will also be transformed by unrequited love into sacrificing himself on behalf of the couple.
The Ace of Hearts was the second of five films that “The Man of Thousand Faces,” Lon Chaney, made for Sam Goldwyn in the period between his contracts at Universal and MGM. It’s considered second-tier Chaney, but despite its melodramatic elements I’ve always found it to be an entertaining picture. It’s an early example of what would be recurring themes in most of the actor’s movies—unrequited love and self-sacrifice—plus it’s interesting to note that Lon doesn’t need elaborate makeup to play his character (he wears only a wig of long hair, to suggest that Farallone is an artist). With the exception of The Penalty (1920)—which I’ll confess I enjoy a lot more because of its macabre elements—Hearts is the only one of the Goldwyn Pictures productions to survive: the other three presentations—For Those We Love (1921), Voices of the City (1921) and A Blind Bargain (1922)—are lost films.
It also demonstrates why I’ve long believed that Lon Chaney was one of the greatest actors of both the silent and sound eras (though he was only able to make one talkie); he certainly was one of the most expressive, and I never cease to be fascinated by how he’s able to use body language and gestures to convey what’s inside his character—qualities that Blake speculates were a necessity since both of Chaney’s parents were deaf and mute. (I won’t deny that there are a couple of occasions in this movie where Chaney goes a little overboard by hamming it up a little; a stronger director than Worsley might have had him tone it down a tad.)