Home Video Reviews
Three of these offerings were transferred from 16mm, in fact, so let's start with the one that isn't. The Public Domain Indestructible Man (1956) has often been released on tape and DVD, usually in terribly inferior picture and sound quality. The version on this disc, (billed as a bonus feature), is a transfer from a wonderful 35mm print. The picture is sharp, and the sound crystal clear. The film has long been a delight for connoisseurs of low-budget 1950s shockers. It was one of only two movies ever directed by Jack Pollexfen, better known as a writer and producer. (Films among Pollexfen's many writer-producer credits include two directed by the much more capable Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man from Planet X 1951 and Daughter of Dr. Jekyll 1957). Chaney's performance in Indestructible Man is one-note, sort of a replay of his earlier Man Made Monster (1941). Aside from one line at the beginning, he is mute; and he is not very well served by Pollexfen, who keeps inserting a miss-matched close-up of a manic, disheveled-looking Chaney at every opportunity. The film provides several great views of downtown Los Angeles in the mid-1950s. Chaney tromps along the streets in shots that were clearly filmed sans permits, with real passers-by instead of paid extras. Locations viewed include the Bradbury Building, and the extinct Angel's Flight Railway in Bunker Hill.
The other feature-length film on this Retromedia disc is Manfish, released in 1956, the same year as Indestructible Man. This is not a horror film, in spite of supposedly being based on two stories of Edgar Allan Poe. It is a distinctly low-budget B-grade adventure picture, with Chaney in a supporting role. Manfish was produced and directed by W. Lee Wilder, who was literally Billy Wilder's less talented brother. The film, shot on location in Jamaica, features Chaney as the likable but slow-witted first-mate, caught between John Bromfield as the captain of the boat that bears the film's title, and Victor Jory as a professor. The male leads are at each other's throats over a potential undersea treasure. The characters played by Bromfield and Jory are thoroughly unlikable, so the viewer roots for Chaney by default. The print here, unfortunately, is not the revelation that Indestructible Man is. Most glaringly, it comes from a black-and-white 16mm print, and yet the film was shot in "Color by DeLuxe." It is also somewhat scratched and battered, with occasionally murky sound. The film is not nearly as fun as its co-feature, and one of the biggest attractions the exotic location and underwater shooting is sadly lacking the intended color photography. It is certainly a rarity, however, so this will have to do until a color print turns up.
The other two featured films on The Lon Chaney Collection are episodes from 1950s TV shows, again taken from 16mm prints. The lesser of these is an episode of Lock Up, a long-forgotten series from 1959-1961 starring Macdonald Carey as roving defense attorney Herbert L. Maris. Apparently, a typical episode would play out in an improbable fashion: police detective Jim Weston, played by co-star John Doucette, would throw a criminal in jail and his friend Maris would investigate and determine the innocence of the accused, freeing them from custody each time in 24 minutes! The episode here, "The Case of Joe Slade," has Chaney as a local good-ol-boy-style sheriff intent on keeping his railroaded suspect behind bars. Chaney is fun to watch, as the sheriff tries every style of persuasion to keep the town's goings-on under his control, but the piece is ultimately a minor curiosity.
The second TV episode on the disc proves to be a real find. It is from a rare anthology series called Telephone Time, which was filmed at Hal Roach Studios and aired on CBS from 1956 to 1958. The host was John Nesbitt, the voice of dozens of MGM shorts from the 1930s and 40s in the Passing Parade series. Telephone Time was evidently a direct descendant of those shorts, as it shares the same earnest tone and deliberate pace. The episode at hand is called "The Golden Junkman," and it must be the high point of Chaney's TV career. He plays Jules Samenian, a poor Greek immigrant whose wife dies, leaving him to raise two young sons by himself. He throws himself into the task of becoming the most prosperous junk dealer in town, so that he can send his spoiled sons to the finest schools. As teenagers, the boys are ashamed of the old man's occupation and lack of education, so their energetic father embarks on a path of self-improvement. Chaney is an absolute delight to watch in this role; the determined enthusiasm of the Junkman borders on pathetic, yet he remains sympathetic and even lovable. (You also yearn for someone to slap around his unappreciative sons). This is a fine example of the sort of low-key, non-exploitive episodic television that was commonly produced for many years, but now comes across as a relic from another era. The original commercials are intact in this piece for maximum impact. The picture quality on both of the TV episodes is quite soft, and each contain a few splices, brief audio glitches and other flaws, but they are acceptable viewing.
The main bonus feature on The Lon Chaney Collection is a short interview with Gary Graver, who was the cinematographer on Chaney's last film, Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). That film was an Al Adamson ultra-cheapie which Graver shot in 16mm. The reminiscences are interesting, but inappropriate for this disc they cover co-star J. Carrol Naish as well as Chaney, and would have been better left as a bonus on a DVD of the Adamson film.
The Lon Chaney Collection is a mere snapshot of a long career the two features and one of the TV shows are all from the year 1956 (although Indestructible Man was actually shot in 1954) but it is a pleasant visit with a sentimental favorite of many horror film aficionados.
For more information about The Lon Chaney Collection, visit Image Entertainment. To order The Lon Chaney Collection, go to TCM Shopping.
by John M. Miller