Lon Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless in Tod Browning’s 1927 silent film The Unknown, airing again on TCM Oct. 30 at 8 p.m.
An Ode to Silence
‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’ steals another spooky season
“It is the silence between the notes that makes the music” – Zen proverb
I don’t remember if it was a French class or a theater history class, but at some point in college we were assigned the 1946 Marcel Carne film Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise). The masterful performance of Jean-Louis Barrault as the mime Baptiste stole my heart. I had learned about the power of body language to reveal character as early as high school but to see an actor so fine-tuned to tell so deeply nuanced story without so much as an audible sigh was infinitely inspiring.
Now that I’m a teacher as well as a student, I find myself relying time and again on silence as a technique to break beginner actors and playwrights free from the tyranny of text. Forget about your next line. What is happening on stage? We need to physically see the character’s struggle. We need to get caught up in the action of play before we can fall in love with the precision of its verbal poetry. The truth of a play takes place underneath the words — in its subtext. Our most honest moments are what we do when we think no one is looking. When we just are.
For some actors, Halloween is an opportunity to bring their skills out of the theater and show off for strangers who might not go to a play if we paid them. For others, its a busman’s holiday — just another day at “the office.” What it means for all of us, is a chance to see some of the stunning silent Lon Chaney films that aren’t given much attention the rest of the year.
I had the good fortune to wake up on the couch shortly after 2 am Monday, just in time to catch The Unknown on TCM. Alonzo the Armless, a knife thrower in a traveling gypsy carnival, is one of the many roles Chaney played for the director Tod Browning — he frequently played more than one character per film — and many fans consider it his best. And neither is Joan Crawford shabby as his beautiful young assistant Nanon, traumatized by the groping hands of one too many men.
A character actor remembered best for his performances as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Eric in The Phantom of the Opera, Chaney is by no means unknown, but he’s not nearly as studied today as he could be. Born Leonidas Frank Chaney to two deaf parents in Colorado Springs, the actor learned how to communicate beyond words from an early age. Legend has it he would go out into the world and observe people, then return home to act out what he had seen in pantomime to entertain his parents. Like most actors of his day, Chaney honed his skills on stage before giving them up on screen. Equally skilled as his own makeup artist, he became known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”
Many of Chaney’s films, 157 are now considered lost, but several are available to watch online. You could spend days on YouTube watching roughly recorded titles including The Shock, Outside the Law, Shadows, The Penalty, and False Faces. Some of the more worthwhile pictures, e.g. He, Who Gets Slapped can be purchased online. Take advantage of The Vintage Theatre’s screenings of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) at 3 or 7 p.m. on Sunday ($5 suggested donation) or look for the following films coming up on TCM: Oct. 26, 7:30 a.m. Oliver Twist (1922). Oct. 28, 1 a.m. The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Oct. 30, 8 p.m. The Unknown (1927). Oct. 31, 6:30 a.m. London After Midnight (1927).