Friday, March 15, 2013


A group of pompous, self-satisfied New Yorkers have made it their goal to assassinate every powerful capitalist in America. Wait, have we stumbled into the weekly MSNBC staff meeting?

Uh-uh, these are the characters in Ace of Hearts, the 1921 melodrama starring Lon Chaney, himself the ace of aces character actor, and based upon the novel by the peculiarly-named Gouverneur Morris. (Jokes about his brothers Mayeur and Senateur are, frankly, too obvious even for me.)

Chaney, as Farallone, watches with envy as fellow anarchist Forrest (John Bowers), wins the honor of killing their next target by way of pulling the ace of hearts from a deck of cards. At this point, little differentiates them from al-Qaeda other than their lack of sexual congress with livestock. But Lilith (Leatrice Joy), the sole female member -- with whom Farallone is hopelessly in love  -- will marry Forrest just to buck up his courage. That's one way of collecting life insurance!

The morning after their wedding, though, Forrest and Lilith are feeling bad about assassinating rich people willy-nilly. That's love for ya: one minute you're married to "The Cause," as Lilith claimed to be, the next you're taking a one-way trip to Bourgeoisieville. Slacker! Farallone takes advantage of Lilith's new-found emotions. If Forrest backs out of his assignment, Farallone will make sure the group doesn't take revenge. But if he's killed, Lilith must marry him. (The circumstances surrounding my marriage is remarkably similar, but that's for another time.)

Forrest, disguised as a waiter at a posh restaurant, has planted a bomb at his target's table. You can tell the victim-to-be is an evil capitalist because he wears a pince-nez and dresses for breakfast like an ambassador being introduced at the Court of St. James. But only when Forrest sees a young, happily-in-love couple making goo-goo eyes nearby does he have a change of heart. (A sight like that tends to make me want to vomit, but to each his own.) He tenders his resignation to his fellow terrorists, returning the unexploded bomb before he and Lilith leave for a better life. The penalty for this act of treason is death. As the cards are dealt to see who will kill Forrest, Farallone keeps his promise to protect him by setting the timer on the bomb. When he receives the ace of hearts, all he can do is laugh. Seconds later, he and the others are killed in the resulting blast.
Homegrown terrorists were an unfortunate part of American life at the time of Ace of Hearts' release; the Wall Street bombing had occurred less than a year before. Yet  these folks look more like the board of directors at J.P. Morgan rather than a motley bunch of revolutionaries. I mean, they own a townhouse on what appears to be the Upper West Side. Damn, if that's Marxism, I want in! 

Chaney, however, stands out from the rest in the simplest of ways. With his then-anachronistic hairstyle (the better to show off his haunted gaze), he resembles  a 17th-century vampire. While the others regard their assassinations as a combination business deal/sporting event, only Chaney appears to be emotionally aware of the consequences of their actions. 

It's this emotion that makes his own last-minute change of heart convincing. Via subtitles, he tells his partners-in-crime, "I myself am no longer sure that the world can be regenerated by destruction... Construction is what the world needs. Love is what the world needs." And you thought Burt Bachrach & Hal David came up with that one.

When people hear the name "Lon Chaney," they tend to think of monsters. But the truth is, Chaney played what could be referred to as a monster only three times that I can think of: the title roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, who were in reality horribly-deformed humans, and a vampire in London After Midnight, who turns out to be a police detective in disguise. So, in other words, he never played a monster. Talk about a bad reputation.

Yet those aforementioned portrayals were so effective that it's undercut his reputation as a superb character actor. Few, if any, could so effectively get across feelings without the use of sound whether through his eyes, physical movements or just standing there.

And speaking of emotions, nobody can play "sad" like Chaney. So torn up is he about losing Lilith, he tortures himself by standing outside her apartment in a driving rainstorm on her wedding night, just waiting until Forrest turns off the bedroom light. If that's not enough self-abasement, he spends the rest of the stormy night curled up on her building's front stairs. It says something about audiences that they apparently loved seeing Chaney put through the wringer in almost every role, usually over a woman, and often ending in his death. Better him than them, I guess.

Chaney made Ace of Hearts just as his career was really going places. Physically, it wasn't nearly the  challenge as his previous role playing the legless gang boss in The Penalty (another one by Gouveneur Morris, making him a two-termer for Chaney). Nor was it as entertainingly sick as two of his later classics, He Who Gets Slapped and The Unknown. (The latter's greatness can be judged by the way it drove my wife out of the room.) There's just something about Ace of Hearts' story and Chaney himself that I found quite involving and, ultimately, moving. He sports no bizarre make-up or physical distortion to create character depth here, just unparalleled talent. 

Chaney, although occasionally physically florid, is so head-and-shoulders above the rest of the cast here that, in the end, none of the other actors matter. You could completely recast his Ace of Hearts co-stars and it would play exactly the same. I'm not sure any other silent actor so carried movies on his shoulders. Audiences probably felt the same way, making him one of the most popular stars of the '20s. Even when the parts became more twisted (often literally), people felt the humanity underneath the otherwise demented surface. When one realizes that the complete oeuvre of, say, Vin Diesel or Kate Hudson will be digitally preserved until the sun burns itself up, it's doubly a crime that only about a third of Lon Chaney's movies have survived.
Movie history alert: Ace of Hearts was a Goldwyn Picture, before Metro and Mayer joined the party, so it gives you a chance to see Slats, the original lion. Unlike the more familiar, roaring Leo, Slats just kind of sits there, eyeing the room for a comfortable place to nap. If that's not disappointing enough, he looks like he just raided Motley Crue's wig closet. Hairdresser required on the set, now!

Ace of Hearts, while not Chaney's best, is still fascinating and gives a good idea of what he could do without his famous make-up kit. One of his most popular roles, in fact, was the gruff, plain-as-dirt drill instructor in Tell it to the Marines in 1926. So realistic was his portrayal, he was made an honorary member of the Marines. Four years later, the military provided an honor guard at his funeral. Appropriate for a man who hid behind a host of memorable characters, his crypt is unmarked.


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