So the TCM Chaney marathon has come and gone, as well as the anniversary of his death. I’d rather remember his birthday (April Fools!) than the former, I suppose.
I remember pouring over FMF in the early 70s. I’m sure I wasn’t alone and other 12 or 13 year-olds developed a keen sense of loss, knowing somehow he had died before his time and yet thinking that 47 was impossibly far away.
I just turned 50 this past Saturday. And yet I look at photos of Chaney and realize what 47 looked like in 1930 – back in another era. Chaney’s face was lined and care-worn by his late 30s – a hard life on the road and then the slow climb in pictures beginning around 1913. But Chaney barely wore make-up in his role as Grumpy Anderson in Thunder in 1929. I suppose it could be argued that with the onset of the pneumonia that was the first sign of his bronchial cancer, that a decline in health aged him prematurely. Perhaps – but he looked “old”, much older than 45 looks today, when he made While the City Sleeps, his thinning hair and growing bald-spot prominent. I suppose we can blame the type of film used in those days for a small part of this perception.
Terminally ill when he shot The Unholy Three, Chaney wore a toupee in production, unlike the pre-production stills which showcased the filming of the original ending. Perhaps Chaney’s hair was too thin and unruly to allow him to doff the old lady’s wig cleanly as he had in 1925. Or perhaps, he simply looked much older than 5 years before. He was certainly thinner but still managed to carry on – still managed to pick up Harry Earles and deposit him in the water barrel, perhaps with more difficulty than the old lady had swept him off the floor in 1925. Chaney always made physical exertion look effortless when called for to appear effortless, like climbing up the rungs on the wall with his legs bent-up behind him to spy on the hat makers in The Penalty.
We’ll never know if Chaney’s speaking voice had changed somewhat during the shooting of The Unholy Three. It grows inconsistently thin and higher-pitched in some scenes, strong and resonant in others. Western-Electric sound was fairly mature by 1930 – I can’t blame the engineers. Or perhaps those were just the natural qualities of his speaking voice. The film left us begging for more. If I wanted to remember Chaney’s acting-style and long to see where it might have gone in other films, I only have to think of the exchange between he and Ivan Linow when he is accusing him of stealing money and a ring in the previous heist, just before nearly setting the ape on him: “...you’d better shoot on the square because you ain’t got brains enough to double-cross me and get away it.”.
And it occurs to me that it might have been Chaney, not Jimmy Cagney who might have been remembered for uttering the words, “you dirty rat” as he did in that very scene.
Chaney it seems, was much older at 47 than we are around that age today, for better or for worse. I’m very pleased that his name is still in the lexicon as we travel ahead in the 21st century. And Chaney was just beginning his film career a few years shy of a hundred years ago…