Lon Chaney….Lon Chaney….Lon Chaney
Seventy-nine years after his death just the name Lon Chaney conjures up vivid images.
The Phantom Of the Opera
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
London After Midnight
Millions of people who NEVER SAW A SINGLE LON CHANEY FILM know him as The Man of 100 Faces! How can a silent film actor, most of his films lost forever, have created such and indelible image? What is it about Chaney that eclipses even his own son , Lon (Creighton) Chaney Jr. who essayed the iconic Wolfman for Universal Studios? What are the myths and what are the facts surrounding one of the most important figures in film history?
Myth #1 – Chaney was a “horror” actor. In fact Lon never made a horror film. His two most famous films (Hunchback and Phantom) were period romantic thrillers. He was closer to Hitchcock than Roger Corman. In The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Lon plays the deformed but very human and HUMANE Quasimodo. In Phantom he portrays a very similar, if less humane character, in Erik a disfigured musical genius who is driven by unrequited love. Even in the lost London After Midnight, Chaney plays a character PLAYING a vampire in a detective story. Lon was in fact the premier character star of his era. He has been compared to Humphrey Bogart and this is an insightful observation. Chaney made a great many gritty crime films such as The Penalty and While The City Sleeps. He played character heroes such as O’Hara, in perhaps his finest performance in “Tell It To The Marines”. Like Bogart, Chaney was a marvelously nuanced actor with great emotional range. His acting style was far more realistic and modern than most of his contemporaries.
Myth #2 – Chaney was a “makeup” artist first and an actor second. Again untrue. Chaney was indeed a master of film make up techniques and truly The Man Of A Thousand Faces. However in a great many of his films Lon used no make up at all. In the afore mentioned Tell it To The Marines and While the City Sleeps Chaney goes sans makeup. In “The Unholy Three” plays both in AND out of make up. For Lon, makeup was never used to create a character, it was used to ENHANCE a character. If it was not needed, he eschewed it’s use.
Myth #3 – Chaney was a masochist. Stories abound about how Lon used makeup appliances that caused him great pain and that he even sought out that pain to enhance performance. This is also untrue. Legend has it that in Hunchback, Lon wore a 50lb rubber hump that caused him agonizing pain. In fact he wore a 5-15lb PLASTER hump that was very easy to work in. Stories exist about he deformed his nose with pins for Phantom, when in fact he exposed his nostrils for the Skull faced Erik merely by using theatrical fish skin. It makes no sense that Lon would risk injuring himself, and putting himself out of work, to create an effect for a film. Chaney was an actor’s actor and a complete professional. As a professional he would never risk himself at the expense of the production.
Here are some truth’s about Chaney
Truth #1 – Lon Chaney was an important figure in Silent Film. Absolutely. At the height of his career, Lon was one of the two or three biggest stars of his era. Second, only to Chaplin himself. Lon essayed roles in many of the biggest box office films of his day including Phantom, The Hunchback, The Miracle Man, Tell it To The Marines, West Of Zanzabar and The Unholy Three. His popularity in his time was as great or greater than stars like Valentino and Fairbanks. And even in his time he was thought of as the preeminent ACTOR in the industry.
Truth #2 – Chaney was an advocate for the crews that worked on his films. Chaney in fact went out of his way to look after his fellow actors and the crews that worked on his movies. He made sure that his crews were paid top dollar and when he found that the director of Laugh Clown Laugh was unfairly cruel to the 15 year old Loretta Young, Lon took her under his wing and the abuse stopped. Lon was in fact a good friend and devoted husband to his wife Hazel.
Truth #3 – The Man of A Thousand Faces was also a man of many VOICES. Unlike many silent film stars there is every reason to believe Lon would have been an even bigger star in talkies. Chaney died in 1930, at the age of 47, after having made only one sound film. It was a remake of the Unholy Three. In that film he uses no less than THREE voices. One for the old woman he portrays within the film as a cover for his crime gang, the other as professor Echo and the third as the DUMMY. Chaney had a good, solid speaking voice and recorded very well on the primitive VitaPhone device used in early talking films.
My first exposure to Chaney was in the form of grainy photographs in Famous Monsters Of Filmland and an equally grainy print of The Phantom Of The Opera shown on WNET back in the late 1960s. I was and remain hooked on the films of the great Chaney. Happily, with the advent of digital film restoration, many of his greatest films are now available in extremely nice prints at the original frame rates. These films are gems of the silent era and well worth your consideration.