Michael F. Blake is not only an Emmy award-winning makeup artist, he’s the author of three must-read books on actor Lon Chaney—the “Man of a Thousand Faces”—which can all be found at arm-and-a-leg prices at Amazon.com (since they’re all out-of-print). In addition, he was the go-to guy on TCM’s documentary Lon Chaney: Man of a Thousand Faces, which is available on The Lon Chaney Collection DVD set that I talked about back in September 2004. (To demonstrate that he’s not just a one-trick pony, Mike has written other books—notably his most recent, Hollywood and the O.K. Corral: Portrayals of the Gunfight and Wyatt Earp.)
I made Michael’s acquaintance online many years ago in a now-defunct chat room devoted to classic movies. Politically, the two of us are poles apart—but that matters very little, because we’re completely simpatico when it comes to the major issues of the day, like the greatness of both John Ford and Jack Webb. But it was Mike who planted the seed in the fallow mind of your humble narrator that yielded the appreciative fruit of a new-found respect and admiration for Lon Chaney’s talent. I had, of course, seen Lon in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925—many, many Halloweens ago, a friend and I stayed up til’ four in the a.m. to see this movie), but upon reading Blake’s The Films of Lon Chaney, it made me curious to seek out other features (or I should, what was still available) by this amazing actor, which I inevitably ended up doing: The Ace of Hearts (1921), The Unholy Three (both 1925 and 1930 versions), The Unknown (1927), Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) and West of Zanzibar (1928). (I still haven’t been able to catch Tell it to the Marines  or While the City Sleeps —but my luck’s bound to change one of these days.)
The reason for this (typically) long-winded introduction is that I got around to seeing another of Lon’s feature films the other day, thanks to a purchase from Vintage Film Buff.com: the 1927 melodrama Mr. Wu, directed by William Nigh. I don’t think you can call it one of Chaney’s greatest films, but one thing I’ve learned in viewing his movies is that even lesser Lon is better than most anything else—he’s such a screen presence that it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. Chaney plays two roles in Wu: the title character, an authoritative Chinese mandarin, and his one-hundred-year-old grandfather—who has raised his grandson to adhere to the strict rules and discipline of their exotic culture…but at the same time has insisted that the younger Wu be schooled in the knowledge of the Western world, tutored by James Muir (Claude King). Wu grows to manhood and is subsequently married to a woman chosen for him practically at birth; his wife dies shortly after the birth of their daughter, Nang Ping (Renée Adorée). When Nang Ping reaches the age of marriage, she, too, will become manacled to a man chosen for her by her father—but when she falls for the very Occidental Basil Gregory (Ralph Forbes), complications set in.
I must confess, Mr. Wu starts out in a fairly predictable fashion—I was expecting a sort of Cantonese version of Abie’s Irish Rose. But once Wu learns that Gregory has seduced and abandoned Nang Ping, it sort of shifts into a Fu Manchu-like melodrama, with the doggedly determined Mandarin out to wreak vengeance on the callow young Brit for “defiling his daughter.” I liked how director Nigh handles the scene where Wu learns of his daughter’s perfidy: a tattletale servant gives him the skinny, and he’s punished for this act of dishonor by his master in a sort-of ambiguous hari-kari sequence. Wu kills the servant…but at the same time, it’s like the guy rushes to his doom, like Oscar Homolka in Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936).
Lon Chaney was the consummate professional, taking enormous pride in the creation of each makeup for the characters he played on screen. He’s very convincing as both the aged granddad and the fierce patriarchal aristocrat—the makeup for both took anywhere up to four to six hours to complete. But I also enjoyed Adorée as the daughter, who’s even more convincing than Chaney (well, technically this isn’t true—it’s no doubt based on my familiarity with what Lon looked like in real life and unfamilarity with the actress) and is practically unrecognizable from her role as John Gilbert’s French girlfriend in The Big Parade (1925). Fortunately, there are some real Asian performers in the cast—Anna May Wong appears as Nang Ping’s devoted friend/servant, Loo Song—but because Wu was filmed in less enlightened times there are some unavoidable stereotypes and wince-inducing lines like “Darned if I’ll drink tea with a chink!” Director William Nigh—who would later crank out Monogram quickies featuring the East Side Kids, the Cisco Kid and Mr. Wong—does a pretty good job here (he would later direct Chaney in the now-lost Thunder ) but I couldn’t help but wonder while viewing the film what Tod Browning would have done with this.
Mr. Wu made its auspicious debut on Turner Classic Movies back in 2000 (complete with brand-new musical score), and though I’m not particularly well-versed re: TCM’s schedule (I’ve found that looking at movies I don’t have access to is a bit masochistic) I believe it turns up every now and then (usually in the wee a.m. insomniac hours). If you haven’t caught up with it, I urge to do so at your first opportunity.