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One of the first "mad scientist" films, The Monster (1925) was Lon Chaney's second film with MGM. Based on a play by Crane Wilbur-who would later script the Vincent Price classic, House of Wax (1953) - it is also the oldest surviving film directed by Roland West. Unlike many of his contemporaries, West's output was limited by his own choosing. After an early success in the theater, West was secure enough financially to pick and choose his films, which he both produced and directed (between 1916 and 1931, he directed only 12 films).
Though West had yet to fully break with the techniques of theater, Chaney had, by 1925, already established himself as a true cinematic actor. Much has been made of the fact that Chaney's parents were deaf-mutes and that he learned to communicate to them through a kind of pantomime. Undoubtedly this early training contributed to his masterly and economic use of physical gestures, but Chaney's style of acting was largely formed during his early years in vaudeville. More to the point, the dominant influence on the acting style of early cinema was itself gestural. The Delsarte System of acting preceded Stanislavsky's innovations and demanded that actors use the entirety of their bodies to "scientifically" express a particular emotion. But the influence of this method began to wane as cinema came into its own. One can see this transition in Chaney's career. While his early roles exhibit the extreme poses and wide eyes so common in films of the time, by the 1920s, with over 100 films under his belt, Chaney had become a master of portraying subtle emotion with but small shifts of expression.
The release of The Monster in 1925 elicited mixed reviews from critics. While Picturegoer claimed that Chaney created "a palpable, menacing reality out of every shadowy movement," the New York Times found that while the "film possesses a degree of queer entertainment, it is neither fish, fowl, nor good red herring." According to the Times, the problem was that The Monster too freely mixed comedy and horror. Today, however, it is precisely this mix that is so intriguing.
It is a rare pleasure to see Chaney take a comic turn. A number of the sequences recall the physical antics of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. The plot itself is deliciously absurd, centering as it does on Dr. Ziska's (Chaney) bizarre decision to use a "death chair" to transfer the soul of a woman into a man's body. And who can resist a film with such humorous inter-titles as: "Johnny Goodlittle - he has ambition, which in Danburg is as bad as having eczema"?
Director: Roland West
Screenplay: Albert Kenyon, Willard Mack, C. Gardner Sullivan, Roland West, Crane Wilbur (play)
Art Direction: W.L. Heywood
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Film Editing: A. Carle Palm
Cast: Lon Chaney (Dr. Ziska), Gertrude Olmstead (Betty Watson), Hallam Cooley (Watson's Head Clerk), Johnny Arthur (The Under Clerk), Charles Sellon (Russ Mason), Knute Erickson (Daffy Dan).
by Mark Frankel