Thursday, September 22, 2016

Thoroughly MODern Alley: Victory (1919)/The Wicked Darling (1919)

In December of 1914, I joined what eventually numbered nearly 100 contributors on Indiegogo to raise money for a Manufactured-on-Demand (MOD) program at Flicker Alley, a small independent home video company “born out of a passion for cinematic history and a desire to bring filmmakers and films from out of the past to new audiences with renewed recognition.”  What Flicker Alley wanted to do was take some “unique, significant, and out-of-print classics from the Blackhawk Films© collection” out of the mothballs and put them back in circulation; instead of having to pony up the initial high cost for mass production, they would be able to pass along substantial savings by making more movie titles available for purchase through the magic of MOD.

Let me provide you with an example.  Flicker Alley has two titles in their MOD library—The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection, Volume One and Volume Two.  These two discs were originally released in 2002 as a 2-DVD set by Image Entertainment, but it’s been OOP for quite some time now.  If you were fortunate to buy this when it was still in print, take a victory lap (I was—I paid $17.49 for it in 2003…but I should point out that I’m at that age where I don’t run unless I’m chased).  If not…well, they’re asking $32.93 for one on Amazon as I write this, but the other prices range from $100-$150.  Your best bet, assuming you want to save beaucoups of big bucks, is to go with the Flicker Alley re-release.

Flicker Alley has the occasional sale on their MOD titles from time to time—which is how I wound up with a Lon Chaney double feature of Victory (1919) and The Wicked Darling (1919) in November of 2015.  This DVD was also originally released by Image Entertainment (in 2005).  (A new copy is selling on Amazon for $89.95 as I write this.  I paid $17.95, taking advantage of a Flicker Alley 20%-off sale.)  Both features (they’re relatively short, with Victory running 62 minutes and Darling 59) offer a fascinating look at the early career of the actor who would later be immortalized as “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”  Mastered from 35mm elements, the films also feature new music scores composed and performed by Eric Beheim “using authentic orchestrations and period photoplay music heard in theaters of the era.”  (I smiled at one point during Darling when I heard the familiar strains of Saint-Saëns’ Omphale’s Spinning Wheel—the opening theme to radio’s The Shadow.)

Directed by Maurice Tourneur and adapted by Stephen Fox from Joseph Conrad’s 1915 novel, Victory stars Jack Holt as Axel Heyst, a man determined to live a life of solitude on a remote island near the Dutch East Indies.  Heyst’s plans to remove himself from civilization hit a snag when he meets a young woman named Alma (Seena Owen), a violinist at a hotel owned and operated by a real dirtbag named August Schomberg (Wallace Beery).  Since Alma has attracted the not-at-all-innocent romantic inclinations of both the married Schomberg and the orchestra leader, she begs Heyst to let her go with him back to his seclusion…and in a weak moment, he agrees.

His vanity having taken a severe pummeling, Schomberg arranges for a trio of disreputable hotel guests—Jones (Ben Deeley), Ricardo (Lon Chaney), and Pedro (Bull Montana)—to exact his revenge on Heyst by deceiving Ricardo into thinking there’s a fortune in riches socked away on Axel’s isle.  The Unholy Three pilot a private craft to the island, and the lives of both Heyst and Alma are soon placed in jeopardy; earlier, we saw Ricardo threaten Schomberg with a deadly weapon that most assuredly was not a butter knife.  In dealing with the menace that has invaded his domicile, Heyst learns that a life of solitude isn’t worth a hill of beans in this crazy world…and it’s intimated that he and Alma are headed for a life of happy-ever-after.

Chaney’s performance as the sinister Ricardo is the highlight of Victory; Exhibitors Trade Review said at the time: “The vividly vicious work of Lon Chaney, as Ricardo, deserves more than passing mention.  His impersonation of this singularly unlovable character is a wonderful bit of pantomime … In fact, Mr. Chaney may be said in slang phrase to ‘run away with the play’ at certain stages, completely overshadowing his contemporaries.”  One of these contemporaries is Wallace Beery, no slouch himself in the villainy department…and it’s great seeing these two square off against one another (here’s a tip: bet it all on Lon).  Victory was also chosen by The New York Times as one of the year’s ten best films.  It was remade in 1930 as Dangerous Paradise (directed by William Wellman and starring Nancy Carroll and Richard Arlen), and in 1940 (with Fredric March, Betty Field, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke in a version that placed an emphasis on intervention into WW2) and 1996 (with Willem Dafoe).

While I enjoyed Victory and especially Chaney’s diabolical turn in the film…I’d honestly have to admit that The Wicked Darling was a slightly better movie (yet strangely enough, Lon’s villainy isn’t nearly as effective).  Priscilla Dean is Mary Stevens—not the M.D. from the 1933 picture discussed on the blog a while back, but a pickpocket nicknamed “Gutter Rose.”  She works in tandem with a fellow dipper named “Stoop” Connors (Chaney), with their ill-gotten gains being fenced by a skeevy pawnbroker (Spottiswoode Aitken) who answers to “Fadem.”  Lurking outside a lavish reception, Mary becomes the “recipient” of a valuable pearl necklace dropped by Adele Hoyt (Gertrude Astor).

On the run with the swag, Mary hides out in a house owned by Kent Mortimer (Wellington Playter), and during her brief time spent there, she learns that Hoyt was Mortimer’s fiancée…but that she dropped him like a bad habit upon learning that he’s now dead broke.  (The necklace in Mary’s possession was an engagement gift.)  Her interaction with Kent has a positive effect on Mary: she renounces the pickpocket life, and starts to earn her way in the world working as a waitress.  She even meets up with Mortimer again, falling in love with him.  However, you can take the rose out of the gutter, but you can’t take the gutter out of the rose; Connors and Fadem want their share of that stolen necklace, and Mary is terrified at the thought of Kent’s finding out about her unsavory past (he has told her in no uncertain terms: “I hate thieves”).

The Wicked Darling marked the first of ten collaborations between Chaney and director Tod Browning, and that might explain why I give Darling the edge as the better of the two movies, knowing that a number of felicitous film features would result from their teaming (The Unknown, West of Zanzibar, etc.).  The most famous of the Chaney-Browning efforts is the celebrated lost film London After Midnight (1927), and in reading Phil Hall’s In Search of Lost Films I had my memory jogged by a William K. Everson quote (Everson had seen the film, and hinted that its reputation was greatly inflated) that the movie was comprised of “[t]hree minutes of vampire footage and five reels of Polly Moran comic relief.”  But I really adored Browning’s presentation of the criminal atmosphere in Darling, and how he captures so well the seediness of the characters that inhabit it.   Victory does have an edge over Darling in that it’s a much nicer-looking print; Darling was copied from the sole surviving print in the Netherlands Filmmuseum (it was discovered in Europe in the 1990s), and it sustained some damage from wear and mildew (as well as being slightly shortened due to its Holland distribution).  As always…nitrate won’t wait, cartooners.

No comments: