Introducing West of Zanzibar by matthew c. hoffman

You can see the popular films at the Pickwick. You’ll see something else at the Library…
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The following is a transcript of my prepared remarks for 3/6/14:

For those wondering what this series is all about, let’s just say I got tired of some patrons saying, “Oh, I’ve seen that movie before!” So this time, I’ve done a whole program made up of lesser-known rarities. Together, we’ll uncover, reexamine, and rediscover.

We have some great movies lined up for you as well as some wonderful special guests—one of whom has joined us here tonight, Mr. David Drazin…… And later in the series, in May, we’ll have a visit from Irene Dunne’s granddaughter. She’ll be here to talk about the life and career of Irene Dunne. And if you don’t know who Irene Dunne is, you’ve come to the right place…

Over the weekend, I’m sure many of you watched the Oscars on Sunday night. At one point in the show there was a representative from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and she spoke about the objectives of the Academy: to preserve the past, to honor the present, and to shape the future. And yet, when it comes to the past it seems like Hollywood these days has a very short-term memory. In those montages of film clips they put together, maybe a handful of scenes are from films made before 1950—and those are usually the most famous images that everyone knows.

The Park Ridge Public Library Classic Film Series is only concerned with one goal: preserving the past by simply keeping the memory of our heritage alive. This spring, I’ve decided to do a whole series on films that are not well-known to the general public. With the exception of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which is in fact part of the other series, all the films screened here at the library have come out on dvd in recent years. Many of which come straight from the Warner Archives. Tonight’s film may actually be the best-known film of those screened here. But every one is worth coming out for. Some might not have the staying power of a Mr. Smith, but all have a relevancy. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be showing them.

Lon Chaney, Sr. has that rare ability to amplify the relevance of older films. He was an actor of great power. His films alone reveal that our past has so much more to offer than people realize. Lon Chaney is the primary reason why there is a series called The Rediscovered. Yes, there are other stars I want to profile, such as Irene Dunne and Claude Rains and William Powell, but eventually, all of those names would’ve turned up in other programs with themes. Certainly Jewel Robbery with William Powell and Kay Francis is a film that would’ve worked well in another pre-Code Hollywood series. But with Chaney, it would’ve been much harder to work him into a theme unless I did a retrospective on him or a whole series on silent cinema. So in truth, The Rediscovered gave me a long overdue excuse to play a film starring an actor who, in my opinion, was the greatest silent film actor of them all.

How many actors today make you feel something—I mean, really make you feel something deep inside– something that stays with you long after you leave the theatre? Audiences in the 1920s had an emotional connection to Chaney. They felt sympathy for him. He often played outsiders of society, characters who were crippled in some way either physically or psychologically. A theme of unrequited love recurs in many of his best films such as He Who Gets Slapped. Moviegoers were drawn to his characters because they could relate to the struggles he endured. Though we never heard him speak a line of dialogue throughout the 1920s, Chaney was a voice for those who could not speak—those who were often viewed as outcasts.

Lon Chaney, Sr. is the influence behind The Rediscovered.
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Tonight’s film is another role in which Chaney plays a character who is handicapped: “Dead Legs,” a stage magician who is seeking revenge against the man who crippled him and took his wife. Dead Legs is not a very pleasant character as you’ll see, but Chaney is still able to give him humanity. There are some wonderful moments that show that he is still human and not a complete monster. His ability to transform his character—to regenerate in some manner—is a theme in so many of Chaney’s films that go back to 1919’s The Miracle Man, which is the film that really made him a star.

This was Chaney’s second to last film with director Tod Browning. They made a total of ten films together. One of their best is The Unknown, in which Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless opposite Joan Crawford. But their most famous work is the one that has never surfaced: London After Midnight—the Holy Grail of lost films. Browning was a master of the macabre who came from a background rooted in carnivals and sideshow hucksters. It was a world that Browning recreated on film, not only with Chaney, but later in films like 1932’s Freaks. For anyone who wants to read up on Tod Browning, you can do no better than a book called Dark Carnival by David Skal.

West of Zanzibar is my favorite collaboration between Browning and Chaney. It’s a very bizarre film, but it is very atmospheric in its mood and African setting which, in fact, never left the MGM studio lot. It also offers Chaney with one of his finest roles. In it, you’ll see the whole spectrum of human emotions. And you’ll see those emotions without any masks or make-up– without the thousand faces he was known for.

Chaney’s appearance often changed from one film to the next, but he was more than a great makeup artist. He was a great actor. One of his finest performances was in a 1926 MGM film called Tell It To the Marines. The U.S. Marine Corps was so impressed with Chaney as the archetypal drill instructor that they made him an honorary Marine. When Chaney died in 1930 from lung cancer, he was accorded military honors at his funeral. Chaney was more than a horror actor. He was a legend very much loved by America at that time.

I played Tell It to the Marines many years ago when I ran the LaSalle Bank revival theatre in Chicago. I played a 16mm print of it for Veteran’s Day. What made that screening so special was that I had a live piano accompaniment for it. The gentleman who performed for me all those years ago is here tonight. I know he will make tonight’s film just as memorable.

If we could give a huge round of applause to David Drazin…

A night of film and music appreciation! Program host Matthew Hoffman with pianist David Drazin.
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