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Image Entertainment presents
"If you knew what I've been, what I've done, you wouldn't even talk to me."
DVD ReviewWhile Lon Chaney is today best known as being the "Man of 1000 Faces," he often appeared in films in relatively straight makeup. Collected on this disc are a pair of such appearances, including a rare role as a romantic lead instead of his usual part as a heavy.
In the 1920 epic Nomads of the North, scripted by James Oliver Curwood from his best-selling novel, Chaney is trapper Raoul Challoner. When he is a year overdue returning from the Arctic, his sweetheart Nanette (Betty Blythe) is told by Black Marat (Gordon Mullen) that Raoul is dead. In despair, she consents to marry the sleazy son of the general store owner. Raoul returns, interrupts the wedding and in the ensuing fracas kills Black Marat. Raoul and Nanette then take off for the wilderness of Canada, pursued every step of the way by dogged Mountie Michael O'Connor (Lewis Stone, later best known as Judge Hardy).
It's strange to see Chaney as a romantic lead, but he does quite well with it. He also interacts with a pup and a bear cub for a lengthy portion of the movie, a sequence that has a certain charm. Rather stagebound, the picture has an inordinately enclosed feeling, relieved primarily in the bear cub sequences as Raoul canoes down river. The supporting cast doesn't offer Chaney much help here, with Stone's Mountie strictly a one-note affair most of the way. Spottiswood Aitken as Nanette's father is passable as a sick man on his last legs, though he suffers from a poor makeup job obviously not done by Chaney.
The companion piece, The Shock (1923) has a more typical Chaney role. Playing one of a long line of physically crippled criminals, Chaney here is Wilse Dilling, who works from the Chinatown base of the malevolent Queen Ann (Christine Mayo), despite his useless legs. Sent by Ann to the small town of Fallbrook, Dilling undergoes a reformation under the influence of banker's daughter Gertrude Hadley (Virginia Valli, misspelled Valley on the keepcase). When the order comes to do harm to the banker, Micha Hadley (William Welsh), Dilling is in an ethical dilemma. Again, a rich young man is a romantic rival, but the whole concludes in an unlooked-for special effects extravaganza.
While there are a great many good things about The Shock, there are also some problems. There is a terrific sequence in Queen Ann's house where the crippled Dilling struggles for a drawer containing the documents that will save Hadley, intercut with the approaching thugs that shows marks of an understanding of prototypical Hitchcock suspense, as well as a practically hopeless situation for a climax. Unfortunately, a deus ex machina conclusion rather spoils the effect. Christine Mayo goes way over the top to portray Ann as an utterly heartless and vicious villain. Intriguingly, the young rival (played by Jack Mower) is given his own ethical dilemma, providing what is often a stock character in such pictures with an important part to play and simultaneously providing a comparison point for the audience against which to assess Chaney's character.
While neither picture is great art, nor do they really rise much above melodrama, a performance by Chaney is always worth watching. Some very good accompaniments from Robert Israel help round out the disc. That for Nomads is performed on a Fotoplayer, a device that combines a piano, small organ, percussion and a full array of sound effects. While it takes some getting used to, it provides an appropriate backdrop. That for Shock is a more conventional small orchestral score; occasionally it seems far too heavy for what's being displayed on the screen.
Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: The full-frame transfers are thoughtfully windowboxed to avoid loss of picture to overscan. Nomads of the North is taken from a 35mm nitrate print, and is loaded with plenty of fine detail and texturing. There's some unobtrusive speckling, but it looks marvelous overall. The source for The Shock is a duplicate negative, but it's in noticeably worse shape, with a great many scratches and nicks; at one point I actually thought a scene was set during a rainstorm, but it just turned out to be heavy scratching, apparently at a reel change. Unfortunately, this is probably as good as this movie will ever look if this is the condition of the negative. Towards the end, there seems to be a segment added in from another, much lower quality print, which reemphasizes the sad state of much of our silent film heritage. The grade is high, taking into account the condition of the source materials, but they're by no means hard to watch. Nomads is black & white; Shock is sepia with blue tints for night sequences.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The sound on both films has excellent range, without compression or distortion of any kind. In particular, the organ on the Fotoplayer has great immediacy and sounds as if it's in the room with the viewer. There's no hiss or noise; indeed, there's nothing to complain about here at all.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 34 cues and remote access
Extras Review: The films are fairly well chaptered, but that's about all there is in the way of extras. Even that is muffed; when the viewer attempts to go to the second screen of the chapter listings for Nomads, the disc instead goes to the second page of chapter listings for Shock. I was unable to find any way to get to the rest of the chapter stops for Nomads short of just inputting the chapter number.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsA pair of films featuring Lon Chaney in straight makeup display his acting range to good effect, with The Shock adding on an ambitious effects conclusion. Both are from generally attractive source material and the transfers are excellent. No extras, though.
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