Concert Notes

 

SHADOWS

and

THE TRAMP

 

with
John Schwandt
at the
Harrah Symphonic Organ

April 12, 2008

      SHADOWS (Preferred Studios, 1922), directed by Tom Forman, is a little known silent production featuring the legendary "Man of a Thousand Faces" Lon Chaney (1883-1930), a year before his triumph as Quasimodo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (Universal, 1923). Best known for his versatility in a wide range of unique characters bearing different faces from one film to the next, SHADOWS has him portraying a lonesome Chinaman, one of several in his long range of screen roles. Aside from squinted eyes, his character sports his hair cut evenly around the top of his head, and shoulders not in the hunchback tradition but slightly in forward position. Unlike other American actors in their attempt in portraying Orientals, typically villains instead of heroes, Chaney breaks away somewhat from that stereotype by concentrating more on the heart and soul of his character, although his spoken words through the use of title cards fails to break from the Hollywood tradition, speaking in typical broken English, Chinese style.

      Taken from "Ching Ching Chinaman" by Wilder Daniel Steel, the story opens with a plot development set in a fishing village of Urkey that introduces an attractive woman named Sympathy (Marguerite De La Motte), trapped in a loveless marriage to Daniel Gibbs (Walter Long), "admiral of the fishing fleet," a union arranged years ago by her now deceased father. One night a storm breaks out, drowning Gibbs and washing ashore the mysterious Yen Sin (Lon Chaney), identified as a Chinese cook and lone survivor of a sunken ship. Because he refuses to take part in the community in prayer, Yen Sin is cast aside, addressed as a "heathen" by a leading missionary. Regardness of racial prejudices he encounters, Yen Sin settles in the New England village, living on a houseboat where he supports himself as a laundryman. Although not a religious man by nature, he has a good heart and forgiving soul. Hoping to be accepted by the community, he makes his first step with "Mista Bad Boy" (Buddy Messinger) by winning him over by giving him Chinese lechee nuts shortly after being teased unkindly by him and his friends. Enter John Malden (Harrison Ford), a new minister in town, who takes an interest in both Yen Sin, whom he tries to convert, and the lovely widow, Sympathy, whom he soon marries, much to the dismay of Nate Snow (John St. Polis), owner of everything in town except what he wants, Sympathy. All goes well with the young couple, complete with their infant daughter, Ruth. However, things start to change for the minister as he starts receiving letters indicating that Gibbs is very much alive. Believing that he has "coveted thy neighbor's wife," John's personal life is tormented with guilt and fear, unable to inform Sympathy of what's been bothering him and give a good sermon in church on Sundays. Because of his friendship with Yen Sin, it's up to him to reveal the secret that could possibly save him from possible disgrace. And what's the secret? Only the shadows know.

      Regardless of Chaney's name heading the cast, most of the attention centers upon his co-stars, Marguerite De La Motte, remembered mostly as Douglas Fairbanks frequent co-star in such notable productions as THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920) and THE IRON MASK (1929), and Harrison Ford (no relation to the popular actor of latter years). Ford's character as the guilt-ridden minister almost resembles that of the Reverend Dimmesdale from Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, "The Scarlet Letter," where the minister from that story has fathered the child of a married woman whose husband, too, is believed to have perished at sea. Though no scarlet letters this time around but letters of blackmail and mystery, it's Lon Chaney whose performance holds attention throughout its 68 minutes of screen time. Others members in the cast include: Priscilla Bonner (Mary Trent); and Frances Raymond (Emsy Nickerson).

      A melodrama with a moral message that could very well be a passage from the Bible, SHADOWS is of great interest today due to Lon Chaney. Distributed through a minor film studio, SHADOWS is fortunate to have survived at all considering how many silent films have disappeared throughout the years. One of its known TV revivals happens to be on a public television series, "The Toy That Grew Up" that aired periodically between 1965 and 1972, especially on WNET, Channel 13, in New York City. Availability on video cassette was through Blackhawk in the 1980s, and Kino Video a decade later, each acquiring the same organ score by Gaylord Carter.


Chaplin
      In THE TRAMP (Essanay Films, 1915), Charlie Chaplin is a tramp on the road. A hobo manages to exchange Charlie's sandwich for a brick so Charlie must eat grass. The same hobo molests a farmer's daughter; Charlie comes to aid with the help of the brick. When two more hobos show up Charlie throws all three into a lake. The grateful girl takes Charlie home where he fails as a farmhand. He again helps drive off the hobos (who are now trying to break into the house). The girl's fiance arrives. Though a hero, Charlie, knowing he must go, writes a farewell note and leaves for the open road.

This film is pretty typical of the earlier incarnation of The Little Tramp character. Charlie is a hobo and is drawn to helping a lady who is being harassed by bad hobos intent on stealing her money. At first, Charlie is somewhat inclined to do the same thing (something the earlier Tramp shorts might have had Charlie doing and something the later version never would have even thought of doing). But very quickly he realizes this is wrong and devotes much of the movie helping her. The Tramp thinks that the girl is in love with him so he sticks around even after the evil hobos have departed. However, eventually he discovers she actually has a boyfriend and so he excuses himself from her life--leaving a note to that effect. In effect, this script is an early version of Chaplin's full-length film, THE CIRCUS--where Charlie again is in love with a young lady whom he helps from danger but he eventually walks away when he realizes she loves another.