Tonight I went to UCLA once again for their International Preservation Festival. The line up for tonight consisted of films from the early 30s.
The first one was called A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931) and was directed by William Wyler. The story is about a brutal, hard drinking fisherman (Walter Huston) who has just lost his wife and is trying to find a replacement for her. His gentle sensitive son (Kent Douglass) is suffering greatly from his mother’s death and is unable to deal with his father’s brutish ways. The father decides to send off for a hefty middle aged mail order bride thinking that she will be able to do all of the work around the house and help out with the fishing as well. When a young and delicately beautiful woman (Helen Chandler) shows up instead, trouble ensues when the son falls for her and the father finds out.
Walter Huston really carries this film and does an excellent job! He has a tremendous screen presence and it is impossible to pay attention to anything or anyone else when he is on screen. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Helen Chandler. She is best remembered for playing “Mina” in DRACULA opposite Bela Lugosi. While she is very beautiful, she really can’t act….or at least if she can it just doesn’t translate on the screen. I’m still glad to have had the chance to see this film since it is a rare one. William Wyler was (and is) without question one of the all time great directors in Hollywood.
The next film in the double feature was THE UNHOLY THREE (1930) which stars the great Lon Chaney and is a remake of the 1925 silent version in which he also starred. I have seen the silent version, but this was the first time I had seen the talkie. When it began I realized that I had actually NEVER seen Lon Chaney talk! For some reason, it is always a shock to see silent stars talking. I always use the analogy of a ballerina who is dancing in Swan Lake and then all of the sudden comes to the edge of the stage and starts talking to the audience. It is like breaking a 4th wall of some kind. That said, Lon Chaney had an excellent voice. It is exactly what you’d expect it to be. The plot for THE UNHOLY THREE revolves around a strongman, a ventriloquist and a midget who create their own crime syndicate in order to pull off jewel robberies.
Chaney’s performance is great as you might expect. He plays the character with such menace and such perfection…it is heartbreaking that this was his last film. He had been diagnosed with throat cancer during filming and by the end of the shoot, he knew he was dying. I was looking for some sort of signs of this in the film, but they weren’t there. He looks and seems so strong and in command. He doesn’t show the slightest sign of illness. Ever since I saw THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA as a little girl, Lon Chaney has always been one of my most favorite actors. There weren’t limits on him. There was nothing he couldn’t do…no character he couldn’t play. These days people make such a big deal if an actor changes their looks for a role (think Nicole Kidman in THE HOURS or Charlize Theron in MONSTER) but for Chaney, that was just another day at the office. He transformed himself routinely. He gave even his most twisted characters a depth and an emotional core that elevated them and made them human. Had he lived, he would have been great in 30s melodramas, gangster films and of course the great Universal horror films. His death was a great loss to cinema and to his fans. I don’t think there has ever been or ever will be another actor that versatile again. Thanks to film preservation efforts, his brilliance will continue to live on.