'Man of a Thousand Faces', the semi-accurate screen bio of Lon Chaney, includes a sequence early in his screen career in which Chaney (played by James Cagney) performs a slapstick pie fight with silent-film comedians Hank Mann and Snub Pollard (apparently playing themselves, although they never worked together in silent films ... and Pollard never actually worked with Chaney). The recent re-discovery (in 2006) of one of Chaney's early IMP comedies shows that, early on in his screen career, he did perform crude slapstick comedy.
During his stardom, Lon Chaney was almost entirely a dramatic actor. Even his clown roles (in 'He Who Gets Slapped' and 'Laugh, Clown, Laugh') were serious ... tragedic, in fact. After he became a major box-office name, Chaney made only two appearances in comedies. 'The Monster' is a comedy thriller, but Chaney's performance in this movie seems to be in dead earnest. Lon Chaney's only actual performance as a comedic actor during his ten years of stardom is his lead role as the villain in 'Quincy Adams Sawyer' ... which is also the only film in which he actually worked with Hank Mann, in a dialogue scene not remotely resembling the pie fight in 'Man of a Thousand Faces'.
'Quincy Adams Sawyer', based on a then-popular novel, is a pastoral drama with strong comedy elements. John Bowers plays the title role, a young lawyer in the small town of Mason's Corners, investigating the disappearance of some bearer bonds. Chaney gives a seriocomic performance as Obadiah Strout, a crooked lawyer who has snatched the bonds. Strout puts several obstacles in Quincy's path, including the town slut (played by Barbara La Marr) and a homicidal blacksmith named Stiles (Elmo Lincoln). Also crossing Quincy's path is beautiful young Alice Pettengill (Blanche Sweet): she and Quincy were childhood sweethearts; now Quincy meets her again after ten years, to discover that she has gone blind.
SLIGHT SPOILERS COMING. The film contains a couple of sequences that ought to be quite exciting, including a brawl between Quincy and Stiles in which actor John Bowers (a fairly ordinary man of no significant physique) convincingly thrashes the much larger and brawnier Elmo Lincoln. The climax of the film is a cliff-hanging sequence in which Quincy rescues the blind Alice from a ferry that is just about to go over the falls ... except that it doesn't.
This isn't a very good movie. The direction is slack-paced, there are too many intertitles (with clumsy dialogue, some of it in bad 'yokel' dialect) and too much exposition. Several of the characters have long backstories that are only marginally relevant to the action on screen. Almost every character in this large cast is a one-note archetype. The climax, which ought to be a thrilling action sequence reminiscent of 'Way Down East', is too slowly paced and has a 'cheat' ending. In the lead role, John Bowers gives a lacklustre performance. Apparently he was never much of an actor; he's now remembered only for the unusual way he committed suicide.
In the ingenue role, the cloyingly-named Blanche Sweet looks *too* vulnerable. She's so thin in this movie that I genuinely wonder if she was anorexic. She's also flat-chested, with her hair in an unattractive bob. She was just as thin (and bustless) three years later in 'The Sporting Venus' (1925), but in that movie she was quite sexy as a wilful independent lady who controlled her own fate. Here, in 'Quincy Adams Sawyer', she looks as if she would blow away in a stiff wind: the fact that she's playing a helpless blind maiden only adds more bathos.
There is some nice exterior photography in some beautiful countryside, but the set design and the attempts to create a rustic small-town atmosphere fail badly. Several experienced silent-film comedians are in the supporting cast of this film, notably Louise Fazenda, beanpole hayseed Victor Potel, gawky Gale Henry, burly Harry Depp, the unfunny Billy Franey and the athletic Hank Mann (appearing here under heavier makeup than usual, and with more screen time than usual for him). Except for Mann and (briefly) Depp, none of these actors come off well in the stereotypical 'hick' roles they play here.
Lon Chaney is impressive here: even more so than usual, as he gets to play both comedy and genuine menace in the same film ... sometimes even in the same scene. There's one fascinating camera set-up in Obadiah Strout's law office: Bowers (as Sawyer) has just met Strout (Chaney) for the first time, and they're testing each other's mettle. Chaney is acting like a hick small-town lawyer, and Bowers's guard is down. Chaney briefly diverts Bowers's attention elsewhere; the younger man turns away for a moment. In that instant, Chaney's face and posture are transformed on screen, and in a flash we understand that his hick routine is just a false front: this man won't hesitate to commit murder or any other crime. Unfortunately, Chaney gets few such moments in this movie. In the final sequence, when his henchman Stiles turns against him, Chaney is blatantly doubled by a larger stuntman. I'll rate 'Quincy Adams Sawyer' 4 points out of 10.
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