Note: You can view the film in its entirety below, as I do discuss the plot liberally feel free to view it prior to reading.
In order to be able to participate in another wonderful blogathon hosted by Movie Silently and the Last Drive-In, I volunteered to discuss By the Sun’s Rays. This is an 11-minute short film from 1914 released in Universal’s infancy that features Lon Chaney as a villain.
The reason this was a preferable selection for me is because I didn’t manage to squeeze in a Chaney title during my last theme 61 Days of Halloween (though I wanted to) and my current theme Thankful for World Cinema features films produced abroad. Therefore, the fact that this was presented as an option allowed me to buck my theme slightly to discuss it and I’m glad I could.
Here’s a fairly succinct synopsis of the film from an IMDb user:
Frank Lawler, a clerk for a mining company, colludes with a bandit gang about the timing of gold shipments with a mirror signal system and has designs on Doris Davis, the daughter of the local branch manager. The company’s main office dispatches their top detective John Murdock, who goes undercover to expose the scheme and rescue the Doris from the unwanted advances of the dastardly Lawler.
Chaney plays Lawler, and there are a few interesting things about the film. First, the appropriately florid description of the nature of Chaney’s character may paint the picture in a reader’s mind of a dastardly, handlebar-mustache twirling lothario if they’ve not seen the film. What’s refreshing, and what makes the film work in my estimation, is the fact that Lawler’s villainy, thanks to Chaney’s portrayal, is fairly subdued. In the segment of the film where Dora (Agnes Vernon) is distracting him from his intended rounds with her feminine wiles you can, even in a fairly wide shot, read the inner-monologue of Chaney’s struggle. It’s not over-the-top but is present and convincing enough that you understand the struggle he faces.
Similarly he lurks in the background in a few frames eavesdropping and plotting, awaiting his moment. To take his reactions and manifestations of character too far would render the film far too comedic for its intended western/action tone. Therefore, even here nearly one hundred years ago a few acting styles removed from what is considered modern and acceptable practice you have here similar truths about applicable acting styles for genres.
It has also been noted that this is Chaney’s earliest extant film and that is of significance too as it is the earliest indicator, in a small dose, of his ability, and is valuable and worth examining from that perspective as well. Enjoy!