Lon Chaney and Leatrice Joy are members of a secret society that likes to blow people to tiny little pieces. It’s all well and good until she gets married to another member and discovers that she’d rather give peace a chance. Yes, Lon’s heart gets broken. Yes, again.
Literally blown to atoms
Lon Chaney fans know a little secret about the horror actor famous for his monstrous makeup: horror and monster roles actually made up a pretty small part of his filmography. Just as Cecil B. DeMille is famed for religious epics but actually made tons more westerns, Lon Chaney was more at home in the macabre than in what modern viewers would define as proper horror.
By 1921, Lon Chaney’s career was heating up. He had made quite an impression in The Miracle Man, a lost 1919 film in which he played a con man who contorted his body to feign disability, and The Penalty (1920), a gloriously mad crime film in which he played a criminal mastermind and double amputee. (My review of The Penalty goes deep into the structure of the film and where it departs from the original novel.)
The latter film had been produced by Goldwyn, directed by Wallace Worsley and based on a novel by Gouverneur Morris. The same team was assembled for The Ace of Hearts, a thriller than played on the then-hot topic of anarchists, assassinations and terrorism.
Lon Chaney plays Farallone, a member of a secret society that identifies a target (called the Man Who Has Lived Too Long) and then assassinates the unfortunate person. The society chooses the assassin from their ranks by dealing out a deck of cards, the person who receives the ace of hearts is the chosen killer. In this case, the deck is dealt by the lone woman in the group, Lilith (Leatrice Joy), and the ace of hearts lands in the hands of Forrest (John Bowers, more famous today for his suicide than his performances but quite popular at this point).
Naturally, both Farallone and Forrest are in love with Lilith but she is consumed by the cause of the society. However, she agrees to marry Forrest on the eve of the assassination in order to give him strength to carry out his mission. This pleases Farallone not at all and he spends the night watching the new couple’s apartment and later hugging a stray dog.
The morning of the assassination, Forrest and Lilith find themselves transformed by love and less enthused about the cause. Lilith wants Forrest to give the thing up entirely but he packs his little bomb and heads to the restaurant where he knows the Man Who Has Lived Too Long will be breakfasting. The assassination method is an all-but-certain suicide bombing.
In a panic, Lilith tells Farallone about her love for Forrest and he promises that he will protect her husband from the society if he fails on his mission. However, if Forrest dies in the attempt, Lilith must marry Farallone.
Pretty typical Chaney stuff, in other words. Will Lon win her heart? Um, I think we all know the answer but getting there is all the fun.
Before going on, we should step back and look at the context of the film. The revolution in Russia, the economic slump, the nationalism of a post-war nation and fears of organized labor all combined into a perfect storm of paranoia that resulted in the Red Scare of 1919-1920 in America.
It should also be noted that, while the Red Scare did result in major violations of civil liberties, the panic was not wholly without cause. Throughout 1919, mail bombs were sent to such prominent figures as Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, mayors, senators, congressmen, businessmen and others. Can you imagine mass assassination attempts against such important people today? That is the context in which The Ace of Hearts, released just two years later, operates: torn from fresh headlines. It is the equivalent of making a film about hijacked planes being used as weapons in 2003.
(The infamous Palmer Raids were a direct result of these bombings and they were pretty terrifying. I won’t go too deeply into the topic here but it’s well worth researching.)
The Los Angeles area was not immune to attacks. In 1910, pro-unionization radicals bombed the Los Angeles Times headquarters, destroying the building, killing two workers and wounding dozens more. Call me crazy but I don’t think that’s a very pro-labor act. This would also likely be on the minds of the Los Angeles-based filmmakers as they shot The Ace of Hearts.
The most significant feature of this film, in my opinion, is how it seals us away from anything or anyone resembling normal circa 1921. From the very start, we are embedded inside an anarchist organization with strange rituals and we are only briefly let out for air during the restaurant scene. For the rest of the film, we are given little exposition, less explanation and no frame of reference in dealing with these strange people.
This is both a blessing and a curse. The reason for playing Button, Button with the audience was likely due to censorship concerns, according to Chaney historian Michael F. Blake, as the studios wished to avoid political controversy. While the political sympathies of both the secret society and the Man Who Has Lived Too Long are hinted at by their dress (goatees and long hair for the communists, fancy suit for the capitalist), a viewer without knowledge of the time period could be forgiven for missing them entirely.
Motion Picture News backs up the idea that the filmmakers had to tread carefully in its review: “Yet Morris for the sake of adding the romantic note, and giving his story some appeal, has robbed it of its reality. And probably, fear of the censors, that they might condemn the tale as unwholesome, compelled the author to watch his step.”
By not explaining the political views of the conspirators and their target, the film pays its audience a compliment. We don’t need everything explained to us, we can be dunked into the deep end of the pool and still understand. I like that. (In our world of prequels, tie-ins and three-hour blockbusters, it’s so refreshing not to have everything explained in excruciating detail.)
However, this also renders the film a bit unmoored. Is the Man Who Has Lived Too Long really bad or does he simply hold views contrary to those of the secret society? While there’s something to be said for ambiguity, this lack of concrete information feels more wishy-washy than bold. After all, the censors can’t cut what they can’t see.
Further, it’s difficult for us to grasp the thought process of Lilith and Forrest as they experience their changes of heart. If the society was communist and their target a slum lord, that will create very different feelings than if the society is vigilante and their target burned down an orphanage with the kids inside for the insurance.
Thinking about it, I believe this picture would make a nice double bill with The Volga Boatman, which deals with the Russian Revolution but fails to mention communism and indicates that the whole mess was caused by both sides wanting to swap dates. The Ace of Hearts seems to believe that terrorism can be ended by a nice little wedding. This was simplistic in 1921 and it’s simplistic today.
This is generally weaker sauce than The Penalty, though it should be noted that in that case, the film was masterfully adapted by Charles Kenyon and Philip Lonergan. They did a wonderful job of pruning down Morris’s over-the-top story into just the right level of bonkers. I was unable to obtain a copy of The Purple Mask, upon which The Ace of Hearts is based, but the two main issues with the film (flat women, unsatisfying happy ending) were both issues in the original novel version of The Penalty. I’ll make an educated guess that the fault was with Morris.
In the end, the film survives on its direction, its atmosphere and Lon Chaney. Wallace Worsley isn’t terribly flashy, though he displays the love for moody lighting shared by so many directors who began their careers in the 1910s. (Don Short is the credited cinematographer.) Worsley’s main gift is keeping the madness of the story somewhat grounded and the suspense building. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
We’re also treated to wind and rain and generally inclement weather as befits the violent characters of the film. (One promotion idea for the film involved dressing a man in a Chaney-esque costume and drenching him with water. A small dog would walk with him and wear a sweater advertising the film. Okey-dokey then.) The weather analogy is a bit overplayed when love overtakes our leads and the sunshine returns to their lives but it’s not too bad.
The Ace of Hearts also has a can’t-put-your-finger-on-it air of weirdness. Nothing as overt as The Penalty (which immediately showed us an amputation gone wrong and a drug fiend knifing a woman) but definitely odd. This is mostly due to the lack of normal characters, as mentioned before, but it is also thanks to voyeuristic shots: the overhead view of the cards being dealt, the silhouettes of the honeymooning anarchists, the young couple playing footsie.
Of course, I dare say that almost everyone who sees this picture has come for Chaney and he should please his fans with his performance. He does carry on a bit with much wide-eyed madness and dramatic gestures but he also basically carries the film. John Bowers was never much of a screen presence, at least in my opinion, and Leatrice Joy displays none of the pep she showed for Maurice Tourneur or Cecil B. DeMille. Perhaps their characters are just too flat.
Chaney doesn’t have much to work with either but he plays it for all it’s worth. He’s required to hug a dog in the rain all night, for heaven’s sake, but he throws his all in. And (spoiler, I guess, kinda) the grand finale when he realizes that he has a way of saving Lilith is absolutely splendid, one of Chaney’s top ten meltdowns and that’s saying a lot. He has set up a suicide bomb and is waiting for it to go off, smugly watching as the cards are dealt. He gets the ace of hearts, of course, which causes him to dissolve into laughter. Over the top? Sure but it’s also great fun.
(Spoilers) The film does kind of forget that both Lillith and Forrest were apparently longtime members of the secret society and that it is hinted that the assassination in the film was not their first. So the happy ending of the film involves two terrorists living happily ever after in the greater Los Angeles area? Oh my! (I should also note that the ending was reshot as it was deemed ridiculous. The original ending apparently showed the climactic bombing in flashback, which would have been a terrible idea. Flashbacks suck suspense from scenes and to do so in the finale is the height of bad storytelling. Good call, Goldwyn!)
Chaney does take big whacking bites out of the scenery and one wishes that he had been reined in a little but he remains the best thing about the picture.
The Ace of Hearts is a little mad, a little odd and not quite on par with Chaney’s other work from this period but it is a good showcase for his talents. It’s not a masterpiece exactly but it is a great period piece and an entertaining oddity.
Where can I see it?
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