Cast & Crew
In Siberia at the time of the revolution, the Countess Tatiana promises Sergei, a hungry peasant, food, a job, and her friendship, if he will guide her safely to Novokursk. Sergei, although forced to undergo torture at the hands of the Bolsheviks, accomplishes his task and is awarded a menial job in the kitchen as compensation. He falls under revolutionary influences and comes to hate the countess and all her class. He runs amok when there is an uprising in the village and attacks the countess. Dimitri, an army officer in love with Tatiana, arrives with his soldiers, but she tells him that Sergei has protected her. In a second uprising, Sergei does prove his loyalty by giving his very life to defend her.
When we first see Sergei, he is scavenging for food among the bodies of soldiers who have died amid the violence of the Russian Revolution ("when the war waged by brothers against brothers had taken a merciless toll"). He encounters Tatiana (Barbara Bedford), a woman who hires him to escort her safely to the Novokursk. Along the way, they encounter suspicious Bolsheviks, and Sergei endures a whipping in order to protect Tatiana. After arriving at their destination, it is revealed that Tatiana is a wealthy countess, who is staying at the mansion of the Gaidaroffs, a pair of ill-behaved war-profiteers.
Taken on as a servant, Sergei's head is filled with revolutionary ideas, fed to him by the household's cook (Charles Puffy). When the White Army vacates the town, the wealthy Gaidaroffs face a revolt by the unruly staff, including a comically inebriated Sergei. The cook whips Sergei into such a frenzy that the once-loyal bodyguard launches a physical assault on Tatiana. She is saved by the returning soldiers, led by Tatiana's lover, Dimitri (Ricardo Cortez). Rewarding his loyalty during the journey to Novokursk, Tatiana asks that Sergei's life be spared.
Just when everything appears to have been resolved, Tatiana is left alone again with Sergei, as a band of renegade Bolsheviks carry out a surprise attack -- and the strength of Sergei's character is put to the final test.
Production on Mockery began on May 19, 1927 and continued until June 27. In keeping with his usual system of working, Chaney had his favorite violinist and keyboardist -- Jack and Sam Feinberg -- provide mood music on the set, during the filming of the more emotional scenes.
The working title of the film was Terror. Prior to that, the studio had considered calling it The Harelip, as if a Chaney film could only be sold on the value of its makeup effects. Several reviews of the film refer to Sergei's harelip, but in the film itself, a cleft palate is not evident. At most, Chaney suggests the effect by breathing almost exclusively through his mouth, with his upper lip slightly raised.
For the role of Sergei, Chaney resisted the facial prosthetics of a Quasimodo or Erik the Phantom. But he did dip into his makeup box to slightly enhance Sergei's visage. Chaney biographer and makeup artist Michael F. Blake described the process by which Sergei's face was crafted: "[Chaney] grew his own beard, pencilled in heavy brows to the bridge of his nose, and widened his nostrils with the use of cigar-holder ends. A low forehead wig completed the look. The greasy texture of the face was accomplished by applying very little powder to the heavy greasepaint base."
In his book A Thousand Faces, Blake reports that the screenplay underwent several overhauls prior to filming. One draft (by Eddie Moran) had an ill-fitting bit of comic relief during the build-up to the film's violent climax. As the wealthy Gaidaroffs scramble to escape the encroaching revolutionaries, they try to pack as many valuables as they can carry:
"His wife insists on taking tons of clothes and shoes, while he comes out with only a few suits... carrying his [favorite] painting. As Gaidaroff goes to retrieve more items, he continues to hold onto his precious artwork. At one point, he bumps into his wife with the painting and she grabs it from him and smashes it over his head. As he stretches his arms out, asking what to do, he becomes another device for holding her clothes, hat boxes, and suitcases. He leaves the room with only his toothbrush in his vest pocket, looking abjectly at his smashed painting."
While the sequence would certainly have spoiled the dramatic tension of Tatiana's plight, it would no doubt have been a comic delight. Mr. Gaidaroff was played by slapstick veteran Mack Swain (who had worked extensively with Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin), while Emily Fitzroy had made a career playing several varieties of dowager, usually in dramas rather than comedies.
Less than three months after it went into production, Mockery was released, on August 13, 1927. In its August 22 review, The New York Times was of a mixed opinion: "Mr. Chaney's individual efforts throughout this film are strikingly painstaking, and he undoubtedly looks the part of the greasy, long-haired rural derelict with a hare-lip. The fault lies, however, with Benjamin Christensen, the director, who has frequently called for action that is more surprising than logical."
Harrison's Reports was a periodical on a self-appointed mission to reform Hollywood's morals and establish a system of censorship. Its reviews are generally lacking in insight, but they provide some of the most lively and savory film criticism of the era (tending to whet one's appetite more often than spoil it). Of Mockery, it wrote, "Mr. Chaney...is presented as a peasant, filthy in body and dull in mind, and no one can feel sympathy for such a person...Not for the family circle, and particularly not for children."
Upon its initial release, Mockery grossed $751,000, against a production cost of $187,000. Even though this was a healthy return on the investment, it was well below what MGM expected of one of their top-earning stars. At this point in his career, Chaney could appear in just about anything and still bring in crowds. Of the patently unappealing characterization of Sergei, Photoplay magazine wittily observed, "The star is the only film luminary who can play dumb gents minus sex appeal and ring the gong at the box office."
But no star is failure-proof. Variety warned that a misfire such as Mockery, "lowers the star's batting average considerably." Perhaps for this reason, Mockery was the only time the actor and director worked together.
Danish director Christensen became an international sensation after the release of his 1922 docudrama Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, which is visually dynamic, controversial in its commentary on religion, and sexually frank, even by today's standards. Christensen was recruited to work in the German film industry by producer Erich Pommer. After Pommer left Germany for the USA, he summoned Christensen to the states. Mockery and the thriller Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) were the highlights of Christensen's later career, but he never topped the artistic and critical success of Haxan.
Prior to Mockery, Chaney had collaborated with director Tod Browning on The Unknown (1927). And after Mockery, it was to the reliable Browning that Chaney returned, making the vampire-themed mystery London After Midnight (1927).
Producer: Erich Pommer
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Screenplay: Bradley King; Benjamin Christensen, Stig Esbern (story); Joseph Farnham (titles)
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Alexander Toluboff
Music: Jimmy Schafer (2009)
Film Editing: John English
Cast: Lon Chaney (Sergei), Barbara Bedford (Tatiana), Ricardo Cortez (Dimitri), Mack Swain (Mr. Gaidaroff), Emily Fitzroy (Mrs. Gaidaroff), Charles Puffy (Ivan), Kai Schmidt (Butler), Johnny Mack Brown (Officer at table).
by Bret Wood
The working title of this film was Terror. According to early publicity on the film, the script was taken from an original story by Stig Esbern.