Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Lon Chaney: The Greatest Horror Actor That Never Was.


As Michael F. Blake points out in his Lon Chaney biography, A Thousand Faces, “Lon Chaney was never a horror actor.”  This long-held misconception is due to the fact that only a handful of Chaney’s films survive, the most notable being The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and number of macabre films that he made with director Todd Browning. However Chaney’s films cover a wide variety of genres including Westerns comedies and melodramas. Few of which survive today.

Chaney’s ground breaking makeup techniques that he developed earned him the nickname "The Man of a Thousand Faces." Although he is often cited as America’s first horror star, he never acted in what could technically be described as a horror film; the vast majority of his films had nothing to do with the supernatural. In fact  The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and London After Midnight (1927) three of his most popular “horror “ films could be more accurately  described as  melodramas than horror films.

Lon Chaney (Leonidas Frank Chaney) was born on April 01, 1886 in Colorado Springs Colorado.  He was the second of four children, three boys and a girl. His father Frank Chaney, a barber, had not been born deaf but lost his hearing at about the age of two due to a childhood illness. Chaney’s mother, Emma Alice Chaney, was born deaf and taught at a school for deaf children before marrying. The fact that both of Chaney’s parents were hearing and speech impaired has been attributed to the reason that he became such an expert pantomimist, which made him the perfect actor for the silent films he would later star in. 

Chaney’s mother  was diagnosed with inflammatory rheumatism when he was young. His formal education came to an end during his fourth grade year so that he could tend to his mother. Chaney took  care of his mother for the next three years as well as many of the household chores. During this time Chaney would sit with his mother and draw sketches to entertain her and would act out of events taking place in the city or around the world and by mimicking his friends and neighbors.

When he was old enough Chaney took a job as a guide at Pikes Peak to help out with the household expenses. It was during this time he began his lifelong love of trout fishing. It was also around that same time that he began to work in the local opera house. His brother John helped Chaney secure a position as a prop boy. It was there that Chaney began his long and illustrious career in show business.

Chaney began his career as a performer in 1902 traveling with popular Vaudeville and theater acts. In 1905 he met and married a 16-year-old singer Cleva Cleveland, and in 1906 their only child, Creighton Chaney (future horror star known as Lon Chaney, Jr.) was born. The family of three settled in California in 1910.

Marital troubles soon developed and Cleva went to the Majestic Theater in downtown Los Angeles in April 1913, where Chaney was working, and attempted suicide by swallowing mercuric chloride a chemical compound of mercury and chlorine. The suicide attempt failed but ruined her voice as well as her singing career. Chaney divorced Cleva and the scandal brought an end to Chaney’s theatrical career. It was been reported that Lon Jr. (Creighton) was told that his mother Cleva had died while he was a boy, and later found that she had in fact lived sometime after Lon Chaney Sr.'s death.  True or not, Lon Chaney Jr. had stated numerous times that he had a rough childhood living in various homes and boarding houses until 1916 when  Lon Chaney married Hazel Hastings. 

From 1912 to 1917, Chaney worked under contract for Universal Studios doing mostly character and bit  parts. His makeup skills soon  gained him numerous small parts in several films. During this time, Chaney met and became friends with Joe De Grasse and Ida May Park, the husband-wife director team. They cast Chaney in a number of roles in their films and encouraged him to play macabre characters. The relationship would land Chaney one of his first leading roles in the drama The Piper's Price  (1917).

It was The Miracle Man (1919) based on a 1914 play by George M. Cohan, which in turn is based on the novel of the same title by Frank L. Packard that put Chaney on the radar as a character actor. This Paramount Pictures release was directed, produced, and written by George Loane Tucker, and also stars Thomas Meighan and Betty Compson. This film in which Chaney plays “The Frog" a  phony cripple, not only allowed  Chaney to showcase but his abilities as a makeup artist but as a contortionist as well. Approximately three minutes of The Miracle Man (1919)  survives today but it is enough to demonstrate Chaney’s talent. Chaney was paid $150 a week, a fraction of what he would be earning by the end of the next decade.

Some of Chaney’s best known works came from his collaboration with director Tod Browning. All together Chaney would appear in 10 films directed by  Browning, often portraying macabre and/or mutilated characters, such Alonzo the Armless, the  carnival knife-thrower in The Unknown (1927) co-starring Joan Crawford. Crawford later stated that she had learned more about acting  watching Chaney work than from anything else in her career. "It was then," she said, "I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera and acting.

Chaney was noted for being a demanding actor insisting that his costars memorize their dialogue despite the fact that they were acting in silent films. Chaney believed that speaking the actual dialogue made the scenes more realistic. Is a matter of historical fact that Chaney went to great strides to bring his characters to life sometimes at the risk of his personal safety and health. For The Penalty (1920), in which he played a legless hoodlum, he wore painful leg harnesses that enabled him to walk on his knees with the aid of a pair of shorten crutches. He wore the device long enough to inhibit the circulation in his legs and reportedly collapsed on the set several times.

To prepare himself for the role of Quasimodo in the film The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)  Lon Chaney interviewed  people who suffered from various physical deformities. His make-up, which he developed himself,  for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) was unparalleled for its time, consisting of a  knotted wig, nose putty on the cheeks, false teeth, eye make-up, and made 15lb a plaster hump which, contrary to popular myth did not cause Chaney any back problems.



As with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Chaney was granted the freedom to develop his own make-up for The Phantom of the Opera (1925).  The makeup has been noted for being the most accurate depiction of the Phantom, based on the description given in  Gaston Leroux’s novel. To create the skull-like appearance of the Phantom,  Chaney painted his eye sockets black, pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it in place with wire and enlarged his nostrils with black paint. Chaney went to great strides to keep the appearance of the Phantom one of the closest guarded Hollywood secrets. He would not allow any photographs of the makeup to be published before the film’s release. It has been reported that when audiences first saw The Phantom of the Opera (1925), they screamed or fainted at the scene where Christine pulls the mask away, revealing the Phantom’s ghastly face.

 In 1927 Chaney once again teamed up with Tod Browning to make what would become one of the most famous and sought of all lost films, London After Midnight (1927). The last known copy of the film was destroyed in the 1967 MGM Vault fire. London After Midnight (1927) was just as bizarre and macabre as the other Chaney and Browning collaborations. In this film Chaney plays dual roles of  Inspector Edward C. Burke and The Man in the Beaver Hat. It was the character “The Man in the Beaver Hat” a supposed vampire that put Lon Chaney at the top of Universal’s short list for actors for the leading role in Dracula which was at that time in preproduction. The film would gross almost $500,000 at the box office making it the most successful collaborative film between Chaney and Browning.

Even with his success as an actor and the financial awards that went with it Lon Chaney never seemed quite comfortable with his newfound stardom. As Lon Chaney Jr. once related:

“His ideal someone to look up to was the head teller of the bank. He wanted me to become someone like that. Dad never seemed like a star or actor to me. He had a curious suspicion of his newfound success. He always doubted it, always fearing it would end. He kept up his membership in the stagehands union to his dying day, just in case. He was so unassuming that when he died I suddenly realized I didn’t have a single picture of him, didn’t own a single clipping of him or his work. He wouldn’t leave any of the publicity stuff around. Somehow he always feared it.”

The Unholy Three (1930) would be Chaney’s last film and first and only talkie. This film, directed by Jack Conway, was  a remake of the 1925 film of the same name which had been directed by Tod Browning.  Chaney appears as Professor Echo / Mrs. O'Grady and used different voices for the ventriloquist, the old woman, a parrot, the dummy, and the girl. Chaney signed a legal affidavit declaring all the voices he performed in The Unholy Three (1930) were actually his own.

During the filming of Thunder (1929) a particle of artificial snow, made out of cornflakes, lodged in his throat and caused a very serious infection. Chaney soon developed pneumonia and later that same year he was diagnosed with bronchial lung cancer.  The actor’s condition gradually worsened and despite aggressive treatment he died on August 26, 1930, just seven weeks after the release of his final film The Unholy Three (1930).

Despite his association with the horror genre and crime dramas Chaney often stated that of all of his films Tell It to the Marines (1926) was his favorite. Chaney refused to wear any film makeup for this film, because - he reportedly reasoned –“ to have done so would have detracted from the documentary reality and integrity of the picture.” For his role in the film, Chaney became the first actor to become an honorary member of the United States Marines. When Chaney died, Gen. Smedley Darlington Butler, who he befriended during the making of Tell It to the Marines (1926), arranged for a military chaplain and honor guard to participate at Chaney's funeral.  Thousands turned out to attend the actor’s funeral and all the major studios in Hollywood shut down for five minutes to pay homage to the great actor.

Following his death, Chaney's widow donated his makeup case to the Los Angeles County Museum, where it is sometimes displayed for the public. Makeup artist and Chaney biographer, Michael Blake asserts that Chaney's makeup case is one of the most important artifacts in the history of movie makeup.

Few silent film actors ever achieved the fame that Lon Chaney had.  Most are now forgotten; their names are now merely a footnote in the pages of cinema history. Yet nearly 100 years after his image first flickered onto the silver screen, Lon Chaney is still a household name and will forever be remembered as one of the greatest actors in cinema history.

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