Sunday 24 June 2007

By the Sun's Rays (1914)

Lon Chaney made eight (edit: eleven) films in all for director Tod Browning and it would have been more, had he lived longer, because Browning had cast him as Count Dracula in the role that ended up with Bela Lugosi. So far, The Unknown is my favourite but I've only seen half of them, if you can count what's left of London After Midnight as a complete film. As a stills reconstruction it's fascinating, but it isn't enough to even rate as a movie. By the Sun's Rays does still exist, thankfully, even though it was their first collaboration and was made in 1914, no less than thirteen years before London After Midnight. As such it's a historic piece of film, no doubt about it.

In fact this is so far back that Chaney isn't even top billed. M J MacQuarrie, whoever he is, has the starring role as 'John Murdock, the Detective'. Chaney has to settle for second on the bill, as 'Frank Lawler, the Clerk', but he stamps his authority on the film in about half a second flat, shifting around in character like a chameleon while everyone else is just there. Lawler is obviously a bad man, leaving the Deep River Mining Co offices to orchestrate a robbery of their departing gold shipment.

Unfortunately for M J MacQuarrie, there are only two reasons to watch this film. Chaney is one and Chaney and Browning together is the other. By the time detective John Murdock arrives to look into how the bandits are getting their information, it's already Chaney's film, literally as well as figuratively as we're five minutes into a film that only has a ten minute running time. MacQuarrie seems perfectly adequate in the part until Chaney walks onto screen at which point we simply forget who he is or why he's there. Chaney may be a little too much of the silent era villain but he's still amazing to watch.

For Browning's part, I get the impression that there's more going on here than was the norm at the time. To be fair, I'm not really well versed in anything except slapstick from 1914 but this is still a notch or two above what I expected. Beyond the focal characters, there are plenty of others doing a lot more than just sitting around taking up screen space, for a start. It's also hardly the most detailed and deep plot ever put on screen, even in a ten minute short, but it compares well to things like the low budget westerns John Wayne was churning out in the thirties before he became a star. Given that it was made a couple of decades earlier in the year Charlie Chaplin made his first film, that's saying something.

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