BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA
As the late Ray Bradbury so insightfully put it in the Turner Classics Movie documentary "Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces":
"The history of Lon Chaney is the history of a sequence of unrequited loves in film after film after film."
This perfectly describes Chaney's predicament in "Mockery," the August 1927 Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer film directed by Benjamin Christensen.
In it Chaney plays a "simple-minded peasant" in war-torn Siberia during the Russian Revolution -- the New York Times reviewer said Chaney's character, Sergei, looked like a "greasy, long-haired rural derelict with a hare-lip" -- who, while in the forest, comes upon a woman who pleads with him to pretend he is her husband.
Inevitably, Sergei takes the woman up on her offer, gets her past some guards to an abandoned hut where he proceeds to fall in love with the mystery woman.
After gently washing her pretty little doll-like feet, getting an assurance that they'd always be friends and tucking her into a cot for rest, armed revolutionaries burst into their hiding place and demand to know who they are.
Sergei gets a brutal whipping -- really, a very viscerally brutal, mad-glee filled torment which makes contemporary movie tortures seem tame by comparison -- but he sticks to his story that he's her husband.
That pretty lady turns out to be a rich countess, Tatiana (played by Barbara Bedford) who gets them both back to safety and eventually deposits Chaney in the care of the corpulent, greasy and despicable kitchen helper Ivan (Charles Puffy).
And those promises of lifelong friendship? They've disappeared, of course, and Tatiana tries to manage Sergei's omnipresence even as she falls deeper and deeper in love with the tall, dark and handsome Dimitri (Ricardo Cortez).
That's pretty much all you need to know about this film in addition to the obvious fact that Chaney was brave, emotive, love-struck, angst-ridden and horrifying in all his usual splendid and masterful ways.
But true to its bad reviews at the time and its equally bad reputation -- the Lon Chaney website film entry calls it a dreary dud -- "Mockery" is really more of a case study in the ability of a beloved actor to wholly transform himself into a difficult-to-like character.
The political overtones, for instance, are farcical: class warfare and peasant revolts against the caricatured rich, hateful Mr. and Mrs. Gaidaroff who are described as war profiteers.
In one particularly despicable scene, the piggish Mr. Gaidaroff (Mack Swain) -- holed up in a dining salon in his palatial home with daughter Tatiana and Mrs. Gaidaroff (Emily Fitzroy) -- attempts to eat up a whole cake lest the servants should burst in and take it for themselves.
Lots of eye-rolling here and at many other points in the film, especially when Dimitri is on-screen in his crisp uniform being gallant, generous and princely at all the right key moments.
In the end, (SPOILER ALERT, sort of) Lon Chaney does not get the girl. But at least he doesn't get her in his clutches and rape her, which seems like a disturbing possibility at more than one point in the movie.
It's not often we see Chaney embody a character with few redeeming values or even a small spark of likeability but here it is in Sergei. And we, Lon Chaney's most obsessed and devoted fans, are none the better for it.
Do watch "Mockery" if you can -- not because it's especially good or even especially bad, but just so you can say you saw it.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group, the founder and CEO of the marketing and communications firm EeJayCee, Inc and a passionately devoted fan of Lon Chaney Sr.