Film Preview: Sheer Silent Film Magic — “He Who Gets Slapped” and The Alloy Orchestra

“Lon Chaney is just a master,” says Roger Miller of The Alloy Orchestra, “and the film ‘He Who Gets Slapped’ has everything that he’s great at.”

The Alloy Orchestra performs live to He Who Gets Slapped. Presented by World Music/Crash Arts on Saturday, January 25 at the Somerville Theatre, Somerville, MA, at 8 p.m.

Lon Chaney in "He Who Gets Slapped."

Lon Chaney in “He Who Gets Slapped.” Photo: George Eastman House.

By Debra Cash

Between playing Quasimodo and The Phantom of the Opera, the great silent film star Lon Chaney starred in He Who Gets Slapped (the cast also includes Norma Shearer and John Gilbert), a surrealistic melodrama directed by Swedish director Victor Sjöström. It was 1924, and the film was to be the flagship release of a new merged studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. (Leo, the MGM mascot, was on hand but hadn’t yet been heard to roar.)

Chaney, known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” because of his prowess in transforming himself through makeup and physical contortion, portrays scientist Paul Beaumont. Betrayed personally and professionally, he joins a small Parisian circus as a clown. The slap becomes both literal — the other clowns knock him around in an act that becomes a popular sensation — and figurative, as he deals with his torment and plots revenge for his downfall. The storyline is based on a play by the Russian dramatist Leonid Andreyev’s 1914 play, which had run on Broadway.

Lon Chaney was born to act in silent films. Not only was he a great, intuitive mime, but he was son of two Deaf parents (his maternal grandparents founded Colorado’s first school for Deaf people in the late 19th century).

Of course, Chaney’s silent performances were always accompanied by music, and Boston’s beloved Alloy Orchestra is among the most acclaimed groups in the world that specialize in creating innovative scores that both enhance the art of silent films and bring them into the 21st century.

Alloy Orchestra Member Roger Miller -- "He Who Gets Slapped" gives us Lon Chaney at his best.

Alloy Orchestra Member Roger Miller — “He Who Gets Slapped” gives us Lon Chaney at his best.

For more than two decades, the band has created scores for familiar and neglected silents. He Who Gets Slapped, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival this past fall and has its area premier (courtesy of World Music/Crash Arts) at the Somerville Theatre on January 25, isn’t the first time Alloy has applied its wall of junk and synthesizer magic to Lon Chaney’s oevre. Their version of Phantom of the Opera, available on Blu-Ray, is one of the trio’s most popular projects. But for Alloy Orchestra keyboardist Roger Miller, Chaney’s performance in the lesser known He Who Gets Slapped is better.

“Lon Chaney is just a master, and this film has everything that he’s great at,” Miller told me in a recent conversation. “Phantom of the Opera is gigantic, it encompasses an entire city and the French Revolution. I get a lot more out of He Who Gets Slapped, because this is a very moody and personal film about a scientist who is wronged: he becomes a clown and lives out his story over and over again.”

Miller, along with Alloy Orchestra director Ken Winokur, who plays clarinet and junk percussion made out of found objects, and Terry Donahue, who plays percussion and accordion (he is the Alloy’s resident master of the musical saw), have a well-honed compositional practice. They screen a film in their studio and then, scene by scene, improvise over the course of a few months, eventually developing a set score.

The music becomes a kind of narrator. “Since there is no sound design, no foley, no talking, no nothing, providing that becomes our job,” explains Miller. With the blessing of MGM, Lon Chaney’s 90 year-old performance has been renewed for new audiences.

Debra Cash has reported, taught and lectured on dance, performing arts, design and cultural policy for print, broadcast and internet media. She regularly presents pre-concert talks, writes program notes and moderates events sponsored by World Music/CRASHarts and cultural venues throughout New England. A former Boston Globe and WBUR dance critic, she is a two-time winner of the Creative Arts Award for poetry from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and will return to the 2014 Bates Dance Festival as Scholar in Residence.

c 2013 Debra Cash

Editor’s Note: This is an extraordinary film, the violence and despair of pre-Revolutionary Russia inspiring a vision of masochism so extreme it anticipates the Theater of the Absurd. One of my favorite Lon Chaney performances — only 1927’s The Unknown, directed by Tod Browning, offers a more fascinatingly macabre view of psychological derangement. That movie is also set under the big top. For silent film makers, the circus’s seeming innocence, its celebration of the childish imagination, made it the perfect place to explore some of the darkest elements of humanity. — Bill Marx

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