Monday, November 5, 2012

Boardwalk Empire and Richard Harrow


I am blown away by the complexity of effects available now to storytellers. Effects can be a boring mess, or in the hands of talented writers can make anything in the creative mind a "reality."

I am addicted currently to Boardwalk Empire. The writing is top notch and the characters are incredibly compelling. My favorite character is a minor one, Richard Harrow played by Jack Huston.

He is a WWI vet with a disfiguring injury to one side of his face. This character led me to recall the research I did to write the San Francisco Silent Film Festival program essay for the Lon Chaney film The Penalty.

"Blizzard is driven by the loss of his legs. Chaney displays all the emotional and physical awkwardness that challenge and enrage Blizzard. Playing the part of the outcast, as he frequently did, afforded Chaney a unique challenge. His skills produced horrifying characters that repelled audiences. Chaney would then use those same skills to win over audiences and change their repulsion into sympathy, and a more profound understanding of his characters...In recent years, some critics and historians have condemned Chaney’s portrayals as perpetuating negative stereotypes of the disabled. In fact, Chaney’s great gift was his ability to reveal the humanity within even the most disturbed and damaged character."

During researching that essay I came across an amazing paper written by Karen Randell in the film journal Screen, issue 44:2 Summer 2003. Her essay was about the huge numbers of injured vets returning from WWI and the impact on society reflected in film, specifically in the films of actor Lon Chaney. Medical technology had advanced and was able to save many lives, but there was a impact on the vets and society in that many of those surviving had the kinds of injuries never before seen on a living, breathing person.

She writes, "Although the war does not figure explicitly in Chaney's films, I shall argue that the neurotic repetition of deformity provides a contextual reference to the war maimed...war trauma is what remains after the terrors of war have been lived through and rationalized."

At its most superficial, physical disfigurement is used to visually show the evil and corruption of a character. At its most profound, it is used to show the artifacts of a traumatic experience and its lingering damage to a character.


  1. I am currently working on my Master's thesis, where I deal with trauma in specific television series. Thank you for posting this! I am adding Randell's article to my Preliminary Bibliography. Also, excellent blog.

    1. Hoping you are alerted to this reply as I'd love to read your thesis when it's completed. Thanks!