A real rarity for Chaney fans: Our beloved monster plays a straightforward leading man. Lon Chaney and Betty Blythe are a pair of Canadian lovebirds who must flee when he is framed for murder. Lewis Stone plays the Mountie charged with bringing Chaney to justice. And he won’t give up because as the Hollywood Mounties say: “We always get our man!”
Lon Chaney… as the leading man?
Lon Chaney played hundreds of roles during his Hollywood career but there was one type of character that is so rare in his filmography that it is rarely mentioned: The straightforward leading man. Not scarred or missing limbs. Not monstrous in appearance. Not a gangster or psychopath. Just the average hero. You know, hale and hearty and out to romance their lady love.
Nomads of the North is one of the very few examples of Lon Chaney playing a completely normal good guy. Let’s take a look and see how he does. The film is an entry into the popular wilderness genre that was so stylish during the silent era.
Betty Blythe plays Nanette, the local beauty of a small settlement deep in the Canadian woods. Everyone, it seems, wants to marry her. She has already turned down dashing Corporal O’Connor (Lewis Stone) and local bigwig Bucky McDougall (Francis McDonald). She is waiting for Raoul (Lon Chaney), her fiance. Raoul went north but is one year overdue.
Immediately, the movie has certain… issues. Our heroine, who has lived in the woods her whole life, rushes about utterly enchanted by trees! leaves! squirrels! I mean, I live in the mountains and I don’t know anyone who dashes about madly at the first sight of a chipmunk or pine cone. I don’t think Nanette is very bright. That or director David Hartford has seen too many D.W. Griffith movies.
While O’Connor takes Nanette’s rejection with dignity, Bucky schemes to win her through nefarious means. He has one of his cronies claim that he saw Raoul die, leaving Nanette free to marry him. If I were Nanette, I would have tracked down O’Connor instead but, as I said before, Nanette is not all that bright.
And nearly twenty minutes in, we get our first glimpse of Lon Chaney’s character, the decidedly-not-dead Raoul. Unlike Nanette, Raoul is not enamored of ferns and chickadees. No, he is fixated on his puppy, Brimstone, and his bear cub, Neewa. I mean, he holds long conversations with them, kisses them on the mouth and mugs outrageously at their antics. Then he shows them a photo of Nanette and jokingly threatens of murder them if they don’t love her.
Kind of makes you yearn for ferns and chickadees, no?
I mean, I love animals. And, yes, I do dress my lab mix up as a bumblebee just for kicks. But even I think this is taking things a bit far.
Anyway, during the canoe ride back to civilization, Neewa jumps overboard and Brimstone, whose leash is tied to the cub, falls in too. I certainly hope the filmmakers didn’t just toss these poor little creatures into the drink but I very much suspect that they did. Raoul tries to get them back in the canoe but ends up going over a waterfall and (in a possible first for movies) crashes, injuring himself.
The film then goes off on a tangent with Neewa and Brimstone creating their very own baby animal version of The Defiant Ones. Complete with title cards. Yes, the animals talk. This goes on for a while and while some of the footage is fun, the whole sequence is completely pointless. Raoul joyously reunites with his animal friends after about ten minutes of this twee business and nothing more comes of it. Oh, and the animals never talk again. Here’s to consistency!
Raoul arrives back in town just in time to interrupt the wedding of Bucky and Nanette. As it turns out, Nanette is just as crazy about the cub and pup as Raoul is and the movie spends even more time showing critter antics. Its cute at first but goes on far too long. Meanwhile, Bucky and his pal pick a fight with Raoul, who defends himself. Bucky’s buddy gets killed in the melee and Raoul is railroaded for murder and locked up.
At this point, Nanette becomes awesome. She takes up a revolver, marches through a storm and bursts in on Bucky and his dad. She forces them to free Raoul, locks them up in his place and then flees with her man. Way to go, Nanette! (Slow clap)
Not only is this a splendid bit of empowerment, I also loved that the movie did not fall into the usual Woman With Gun cliche (still used a lot, by the way). You know what I mean. Our heroine has the villains at gunpoint but then she lets them get too close and is disarmed after a brief struggle. Nanette sensibly keeps the villains at a distance and only hands her revolver over to one man: Raoul. See, Hollywood, was that so hard?
Anyway, Nanette and Raoul paused by the preacher to make things legal and then escaped into the deep woods. Bucky vows vengeance and reports Raoul to the authorities. And guess who is assigned to bring back our fugitives? Yup, O’Connor. He spends the next few years looking for them, the Mounties clearly being overstaffed and having nothing better to do.
So, will O’Connor catch up to our nature-loving pair or will Bucky find them first? Will Neewa and Brimstone continue their beautiful friendship? Can I take a villain seriously if he is named Bucky?
Lon Chaney was known for putting aside personal comfort for his roles. Supposedly, Chaney and Betty Blythe were both injured during the filming of the forest fire scene (which apparently consisted of setting numerous fake trees ablaze and hoping everything burned in the right order). If true, it is a testament to their professionalism that the finished the picture.
Speaking of the acting profession, I have a little silent film tidbit that I have been meaning to share. There seems to be a misconception that silent stars did not know what was corny and what wasn’t. On the contrary, they were keenly aware of hokum and had different ways of dealing with it.
In the case of Lon Chaney and Betty Blythe, they embrace the campy nature of the story and ham it up as if their lives depended on it. Lewis Stone, on the other hand, approaches his role with dignified gravity. Of course, it was easier for him. He wasn’t required to shriek with joy at every approaching chipmunk.
In the end, Stone emerges from the film unscathed. Betty Blythe and Lon Chaney do not give the best performances of their careers but at least they tried. Chaney in particular seems uncomfortable in his love scenes, which is understandable since he so rarely had to perform them. I think the movie would have benefited from Chaney and Stone swapping parts. That way, Stone would have been the lover (which he could do quite well) and Chaney could be the determined officer torn between duty and ethics.
However, what really kills the movie is the way the characters are written. We can’t let a single scene go by without the leads either stopping to rhapsodize over a porcupine or kiss a bear cub on the mouth. This is all very well when things are quiet but it is more than a little odd during escape scenes and disasters.
During the climactic forest fire sequence, the film’s wonky priorities really come into play. O’Connor constantly pauses to admire the baby. While, you know, a forest fire is burning behind him. Nanette and Raoul, meanwhile, race ahead with Neewa and Brimstone, leaving O’Connor far behind with the baby. Because babies… you can always make more of those.
One aspect of the film that I wish had been developed more was Nanette’s internal struggle concerning Neewa and Brimstone. (Spoiler alert for this paragraph) She had already used the animals to attack Bucky when he attempted to kidnap her. Later, when O’Connor has arrested her husband, she considers using their deadly strength once again. She could order the animals to kill O’Connor and then Raoul would be free. This is a fascinating moral dilemma, especially for a female character of this period, and really could have used some more screen time. As it is, we are merely informed of Nanette’s internal struggle via title card and are not given very many closeups of Betty Blythe after that. The thread just sort of dies out when the forest fire comes. Too bad.
Nomads of the North is based on a novel of the same title by James Oliver Curwood. I looked it over a bit for the review but did not read it. Why? The thing starts in the point of view of Neewa, that’s why. (Actual line concerning Neewa’s opinion of dogs: “Neewa’s little eyes glared. Was that ill-jointed, lop-eared offspring of the man-beast an enemy too?”) I had endured 70+ minutes of cutesy animal antics and I wasn’t about to read them in novel-length. I prefer my talking animals to be fully anthropomorphized, thank you very much. Complete with waistcoats and watches. Anyway, if you wish to read it for yourself, it is in the public domain and may be freely downloaded from archive.org.
(Curwood seemed obsessed with having dogs save women from fates worse than death. Is there a psychological term for that?)
As a film, Nomads of the North is a pretty hokey affair. It can be appreciated as a camptastic silent but is certainly not the best showcase for Chaney. Still, fans of the Man of a Thousand Faces should enjoy seeing him in such an atypical role.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
Nomads of the North was released on DVD by Image as a double feature with another Chaney title, The Shock. The movie features a cheeky score from Robert Israel, which really helps move things along.