Silent Reflections – The Shock (1923) and Nomads of the North (1920)

by HELEN GEIB

The Shock and Nomads of the North are two minor Lon Chaney films released as a DVD double feature by Image Entertainment. As a window on Chaney’s career, the films fall at either end of the transition period between his early years playing supporting roles and his later years of superstardom. As entertainment, they illustrate the compensations and limitations of star power.

The Shock (1923)

The Shock is a redemption melodrama set in San Francisco in 1906. Chaney plays Wilse Dilling, a small-time crook who is a minor player in the organization of a criminal mastermind known as “Queen Ann” (Christine Mayo). Dilling is lame – he can walk only with difficulty and with the aid of crutches, and often uses a wheelchair – and embittered. He experiences a new way of life when he is sent by the Queen to work undercover in the telegraph office of a small country town, and wishes to turn over a new leaf after he becomes smitten with the daughter of his target, the town’s banker. All of that is only set-up for the main plot; after Dilling is sent out on assignment, the film skips over his early transformative weeks in the town to rejoin him post-spiritual rebirth. The actual plot concerns his efforts to protect his lady-love Gertrude (Virginia Valli) and her father from the Queen’s machinations.

The character and the milieu play to Chaney’s strengths and he is compulsively watchable in the role. Unfortunately the film offers little of interest aside from his performance. Redemption stories are tricky to pull off; they can be drawn out subtly with delicacy and intelligence, or put over boldly with force and energy. The Shock attempts the latter, but with lackluster results. The scenario is a by-the-numbers example of its type, and staging and shot composition is dull and repetitive. The direction (by Lambert Hillyer) is not nearly good enough to carry off the absurdities of a film that re-writes the great earthquake as an act of providence in direct response to Dilling’s exhortations against the evil Queen and her gang.

There are a few bright spots aside from Chaney. The Queen is an excellent villainess. It is a part that needed only a name change to be re-cast as a villain, a gender reversal I enjoyed for its own sake and for the queen’s costume changes; her every scene brought a marvelous new dress and accessories. The film also offers one of the few chances to see Chaney get the girl.

Nomads of the North (1920)

Chaney gets the girl in Nomads of the North too, although it’s the only point of resemblance between the two films. Nomads is a northwoods melodrama adapted from a novel by James Oliver Curwood, a popular author of the day whose stories inspired many movies. Chaney plays a French-Canadian trapper named Raoul Challoner whose fiancee Nanette (Betty Blythe) is also the object of desire of the scurrilous son of the manager of the company settlement and an honorable Mountie (Lewis Stone).

Nomads is typical of Curwood’s work. It has the positives of the strong frontierswoman and the superficial realism of the unusual setting. It also has the negatives of broad melodrama and sentimental depictions of animals; the Challoners’ dog is best of friends with their domesticated bear, and the film includes tiresome, overlong scenes of both the pets and forest animals.

The story is hokey and too flimsy to support the running time. The direction (by David Hartford) is poor. It verges on incompetent at times like when the dramatic suspense of Raoul’s nighttime jailbreak is dissipated by repeated cross-cutting with a “cute” scene of the puppy and bear cub eating from the same dish back at the cabin. Nor does Chaney’s performance make the film worth watching this time. Whether because the material was poor or the direction of the actors was weak, Chaney unleashed his inner ham at full force. The film’s high point is its climax, an impressively filmed forest fire that was staged on the studio backlot, but looks like the real thing.

Note: The Shock is from a good sepia-toned print and has a fine score by Robert Israel for small ensemble with piano. Nomads is also from a good print and is accompanied by Israel on an instrument called The Fotoplayer; the accompaniment treats the film with the level of seriousness it warrants.

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