Directed By: Lambert Hillyer
Starring: Lon Chaney, Virginia Valli, Jack Mower
Line from the film: "Life without hope would be unbearable"
Trivia: The working title of the film was Bittersweet
1923’s The Shock provided star Lon Chaney with yet another chance to play a character searching for love and redemption, and as he’d done many times throughout his career, the actor made the most of the opportunity.
Wilse Dilling (Chaney), a crippled thief and safecracker, resides in an area of Chinatown controlled by a vindictive overlord named Queen Ann (Christine Mayo), who on occasion calls upon Dilling to perform a task for her. So, when Queen Ann tells him to pose as a telegraph operator in the small town of Fallbrook and await further instructions, Dilling doesn’t question why; he simply hops on a train and does what he’s told. During the weeks he spends in Fallbrook, however, Dilling’s outlook on life begins to change, due in part to his friendship with Gertrude (Virginia Valli), the daughter of the town’s banker, Micha Hadley (William Welsh). One of the few people able to look past Dilling’s handicap (his legs a jumbled mess, Dilling can only get around on crutches, and is mostly wheelchair-bound), Gertrude talks with him for hours on end, and at one point even lends him her bible, a prized possession because it was left to her by her late mother.
Over time, Dilling falls in love with Gertrude, and is heartbroken to learn she’s engaged to be married to young entrepreneur Jack Cooper (Jack Moyer). To make matters worse, Queen Ann gets in touch with Dilling, and tells him to gather information that can be used to send Gertrude’s father to jail! Torn between his loyalty to Queen Ann and his love for Gertrude, Dilling wrestles with his conscience before finally deciding what to do.
Along with Chaney’s dramatic skills (nobody could conjure up a look of heartbreak as clearly and effectively), The Shock also gives the actor ample opportunity to show off his unique physical abilities (spending most of the movie hobbling around on crutches couldn’t have been easy, yet in practically every scene, we believe we’re watching someone suffering from a debilitating handicap). And while the story itself is nothing new, director Hillyer throws in a few “big” scenes to enhance the drama of it all (an explosion that occurs at the film’s halfway point takes the story in a decidedly different direction, yet even this pales in comparison to the climactic sequence).
Those familiar with Lon Chaney’s career will likely have already seen a dozen movies like The Shock (a crook turning over a new leaf for love was also a primary component of 1927’s The Unknown), but at the same time will likely relish the chance to see the great actor once again doing what he did best.