Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Thousand Faces

Lon Chaney The Man of A Thousand Faces More than 80 years since his last film, the name Lon Chaney still conjures up powerful images of the macabre even among fans who have never seen one of his films. Best known for his defining performances of Quasimodo in 1923’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and as Eric in the Phantom Of The Opera (1925), Chaney set a standard for film acting that has been approached, but never exceeded.
Chaney was born Leonidas Frank Chaney on April 1, 1883 and passed away at the age of 47 in 1930. Along the way he became one of the biggest stars of his era and the first actor to employ a more naturalistic (re: modern) style of film acting. He was the Bogart of his era. Both of Lon’s parents were deaf and mute. In order to communicate with his parents, Lon became skilled at the art of pantomime, a skill that would serve him well in the coming art form of Silent Film. Although remembered as a “horror” actor, Chaney was more of a character actor and his portrayals covered a huge range of subjects from classics such as Hunchback, to modern crime dramas like The Penalty (1920) and While the City Sleeps (1928). Even films like Phantom Of the Opera and Hunchback were not, strictly speaking “horror” films. In fact Chaney created characterizations that are still the template for their modern counterparts. His portrayal of 'Dan' Coghlan, the world weary and tough as nails detective in While The City Sleeps set the stage for Bogart’s Sam Spade through Telly Savalas’ Kojak. His turn as the demented crime lord “Blizzard” in the Penalty inspired every gangster protrayal from Edward G. Robinson in Little Cesar right up to Pachino’s Scarface. Tell It to the Marines is a 1926 movie starring Lon Chaney and directed by George W. Hill. The film follows a Marine recruit and the sergeant who trains him. It was the biggest box office success of Chaney's career and the second biggest moneymaker of 1926/1927. In this film Chaney plays the rough marine “Sarge” with a heart of gold. His turn as “Skeet” burns can be found in nearly every war film to come out of Hollywood in the last 85 years. This film was a special favorite of Chaney’s because of his love of the Marine Corps. In fact, his portrayal struck such a chord within the Corps, he would become the FIRST actor ever to be made an honorary Marine. A reviewer in Leatherneck Magazine wrote that "few of us who observed Chaney's portrayal of his role were not carried away to the memory of some sergeant we had known whose behavior matched that of the actor in every minute detail ... Such was the impact of Chaney the actor. In the area of the macabre, it was his pairing with legendary director Todd (Dracula) Browning that cemented Chaney’s reputation as a genre star. Lon did 10 films with browning including “The Unholy Three” and as Alonzo the armless knife thrower in “The Unknown” . Chaney did not so much play monsters as tragic, often deformed men outside of normal society. His portrayal of Pharso “dead legs” in the 1928 silent “West Of Zanzibar” is a perfect example of this “man as monster” portrayal. In the film Chaney is a cuckolded husband whose wife cannot tell him of her affair. Instead his wife’s lover, informs Phroso that he is taking Anna to Africa, shoving the distraught husband away so forcefully that he falls over a railing and is crippled, losing the use of his legs. After a year, Phroso learns that Anna has returned. He finds his wife dead in a church, with a baby beside her. He swears to avenge himself on both Crane and the child. Eighteen years later, Pharso has taken the child to a hellhole in Zanzabar where he makes her daily life a never ending torment. It is only when he chances upon his wife’s former lover that Chaney learns that the child is actually HIS daughter. Chaney’s reaction to the horror of what he himself has become is one of the most chilling moments in film history and a perfect example of Chaney the “horror” actor. Lon’s reputation as a horror actor was actually cemented by the late Forrest J. Ackerman who was the founder and editor of Famous Monsters Of Filmland Magazine which began publication in 1958. At that time silent films had largely disappeared from public view. And the generation of silent stars were mostly forgotten except by those who actually saw them. Ackerman had, like millions of other filmgoers, been deeply moved by Lon’s portrayals in Hunchback and Phantom . he published on a regular basis photos and articles about the great silent film star. He especially played on “the Man of A Thousand Faces” aspect of Chaney’s work, building a legend around the star among generations of fans who never saw his work. In fact, it was through FMF that I became fascinated with the life and work of Lon Chaney. My first exposure to Chaney came in a barely viewable, heavily edited, print of Phantom of the Opera that was aired on “The Joe Franklin Show” on WOR (Channel 9) back in the late 1960’s. Franklin had a long running TV and radio shows in the area that focused heavily on nostalgia and silent film. In fact it was just about the only venue outside of an art house where one could see any silent film. Even heavily edited and projected on modern equipment which under cranked the film, making it run at 24fps as opposed to the intended 18fps, the power of Chaney’s performance was undeniable. I was hooked. Of course in those days most of my exposure to Lon was only through Forry’s magazine and some grainy footage. There simply was not a lot of access to this locked off period of early cinema. Happily the advent of film preservation societies, DVD and digital video and TCM (Turner Classic Movies) has opened up a huge library of early film that has been remastered and can now be seen as originally intended. This includes a large cross section of Lon’s work. Today fans can see Phantom of the Opera as it was originally shot, including scenes that were filmed in an early two strip technicolor! Tell it To The Marines is available as are films like The Unknown, The Unholy Three, West Of Zanzibar and many more Chaney classics. Even the “lost” London After Midnight has been restored, after a fashion under the auspices of Turner Classic Movies. Chaney often said that “between pictures there IS no Lon Chaney”. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In his private life, Lon was a devoted husband and father. He was an avid sportsman who loved hunting and fishing. He was a wonderful dancer and loved to tinker with home movies. Lon was an all around average Joe! He also raised a son, Creighton, who would become known to the world as Lon Chaney Jr. and a film legend in his own right as The Wolfman. Lon was also a strong advocate for the men and women behind the scenes, always pushing for better pay and better hours for the cameramen, grips, and support crew that were so integral to his cinematic creations. Some years before another actor would find his own fame, Chaney gave some advice to a struggling young man who would become the great Karloff. He told him to find one thing he did better than anybody and stick to it. Obviously Karloff took that advice to heart. Lon passed away at the too young age of 47 from bronchial lung cancer in 1930. He left behind a rich legacy of film, many original characterizations that have become templates for actors to this very day, and a mystique. The mystique of “The Man Of A Thousand Faces”. Film lovers today are very lucky that they have the opportunity to experience that legacy first hand. For those of you who are going to see your very first Lon Chaney film, I envy you. Sit back, watch, and wonder. Lon Chaney…a thousand faces That’s 30! Mitch

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