When a silent film such as “Richard III” (1912) is discovered – often cited as the first feature-length film made in America – it's rare that the surviving elements are in such exceptional condition. For most of the silent films produced, very little exists today; this is frequently due to the flammable nature of nitrate stock, and the destruction of prints by studios at the time, to retrieve the silver elements for salvage revenue, once the domestic and international theatrical runs had been saturated.
In that regard, it's rather amazing that a print of Lon Chaney's “The Ace of Hearts” even exists, albeit in a very worm state. As if dragged across coarse asphalt, the fluttering nicks and scratches are at their most extreme during the dark sections of the film's overall high contrast lighting, but because of the relatively short running times of both Chaney films on this disc, there's room for a more consistently larger bit rate. The transfer has excellent blacks and grey levels, with very sharp details in all areas (unless it's an obviously soft focus shot).
Fans of Lon Chaney will certainly enjoy the subtle nuances of his performance – here quite restrained – and his subtle makeup. Make-up is what inspired Michael F. Blake to become an artist himself, but his obsession with Chaney over the years has shored up a solid knowledge of the actor's career, and minutia of early film history. Author of three books on Lon Chaney, Blake knows his stuff, and never bores the listener in a truly superb commentary track.
While in awe of Chaney's gift as actor and make-up artist, Blake offers fairly detailed bio sketches of the film's cast and director, plus the Goldwyn Studios (which within a few years, merged with Loew's and Louis B. Mayer to create MGM Studios). Period working methods and technology also pepper the track, though Blake judiciously sticks to Chaney bio material surrounding the Goldwyn productions, saving other treasure troves of facts for his other commentaries in this superb 2-disc collection.
As part of TCM's Young Film Composers Competition, in which American composers are given the chance to score a silent film (now eclipsing its third year), first-timer Vivek Maddala is given a brief showcase in a featurette, which gives us the fresh face of the competition's Grand Prize winner. Presented in Dolby 2.0, listeners will enjoy the thematically balanced soundtrack that adds some power to an already compelling, atmospheric tale, which Blake astutely explains was constructed as a veiled riff on America's fear of Communist anarchists during the early Teens and Twenties.
“The Ace of Hearts” is part of Warner Bros' Lon Chaney Collection. The 2-disc set also includes the features “Laugh Clown Laugh,” also on Disc 1, and “The Unknown,” on Disc 2, with extra bonus features to boot.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan