Lon Chaney stands out among the sea of innovators of the silent era of film. Chaney’s legacy is his unique style of physical character design and ability to portray captivating villains, protagonists, and antiheroes. He was in a league of his own when it came to character acting and he built the foundation for those that followed.
Lon Chaney was born in Colorado Springs on April 1, 1883 to two deaf parents, Frank Chaney and Emma Kennedy. Even though Chaney was a child of deaf parents (adults), a “Coda”, he was not deaf himself. Their affliction resulted in the development of Chaney’s pantomime skills at an early age. In 1902, a nineteen year old Chaney began traveling in a vaudeville act. Three years later he would meet and marry his first wife, sixteen year old Cleva Creighton. Creighton Tull Chaney, a.k.a Lon Chaney Jr., was born a year later in 1906.
Their marriage was full of strife and Cleva attempted suicide in 1913. They divorced the same year. Both Cleva and Lon’s careers suffered from the scandal, pushing Lon to exit the theater and pursue film. Two years later he would marry Hazel Hastings, a fellow actress from his vaudeville group with Cleva.
Introduction to Film
Chaney began his film career with Universal Film Manufacturing Company (later Universal Pictures), in1913. Chaney’s first credited film is Poor Jake’s Demise. He plays Willy Mollycoddle, a man caught by Jake in a compromising position with Jake’s wife. The one reel film is now lost, but a small segment was discovered and restored in 2006. Although, I was not able to find a copy online.
His next film, The Sea Urchin, would become his first character acting credit. His role was Barnacle Bill, a hunchback fisherman, who finds a young woman tied to a mast of a shipwrecked boat. He raises her in hopes that they will marry when she reaches adulthood. She instead falls in love with another. The three fight until Barnacle Bill relents and lets the young couple go without him. Unfortunately, there was no footage of this film that I could find. It would have been interesting to see how his costume and makeup work evolved from the beginning.
Defining the character actor
His work for Universal lasted until 1918 when he tried to get a raise. Universal rejected the request and Chaney left Universal, even though he had made many films with the studio and was a prominent actor in the ranks. Paramount Pictures quickly picked Chaney up the same year. Paramount was willing to pay him what Universal would not and the move proved to be the right one for Chaney. The first role was in a William Hart film, Riddle Gawne, as the villain. Unfortunately, this film is lost like most of Chaney’s films.
The Miracle Man (1919)
The next noteworthy film that I came across was The Miracle Man. The story follows a band of con artists as they set out to scam a small town outside Boston that has a Patriarch with the power to heal people. Lon Chaney plays The Frog, a contortionist. His role within the plot was to portray a crippled man that is miraculously saved to help increase the patriarch’s notoriety. Although, it turns out that the Patriarch does have the power to heal and the gang of con artists slowly disband. The entire film is lost, except for a short excerpt that luckily includes the scene where Chaney pretends to be healed by the Patriarch only to see a cripple boy actually healed.
The success from Miracle Man cemented Chaney as a premiere character actor and helped reinforce the nickname, The Man of a Thousand Faces.
The Penalty (1920)
In 1920, Lon Chaney starred in the Wallace Worsley film The Penalty. Chaney plays a crime boss, named Blizzard, that had both legs amputated when he was a child. A setup that is reminiscent of Chaney’s role later in life as Alonzo the armless in The Unknown. In order to bring the character to life, Chaney had to tie his legs up so that it appeared that he was legless from the knee down.
Outside the Law (1920)
Chaney’s second film with Tod Browning was Outside the Law. In it, he played two characters, the villainous “Black Mike” Sylva, and the heroic Chinese man, Ah Wing. It is labelled as a psychological gangster film, due to the way Tod Browning’s characters develop throughout the film.
The main character, “Silky Moll, played by Priscilla Dean, teeters back and forth between her gangster lifestyle and a law abiding citizen. Lon Chaney’s characters stay on their respective paths of good and evil. The two ultimately meet at the climax of the movie in a shootout, where Lon Chaney kills Lon Chaney.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
Long before The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a Disney vehicle, it was adapted for Chaney. Victor Hugo’s classic story had been adapted several times before, and after, Chaney. Although, Chaney was destined for the part. It was common knowledge at the time that Chaney sought after the part and even considered producing it himself. He had even gone as far as to secure the rights to the film in 1921. He was given his chance in 1923 along side Patsy Ruth Miller, as Esmeralda, Norman Kerry, as Phoebus de Chateaupers, and Brandon Hurst, as Jehan.
Chaney was afforded artistic flexibility due to his ownership of the rights. This allowed him to work in a less stifling manner than would typically be seen for an actor; especially when the film was being produced by Irving Thalberg. Thalberg was usually a stickler for staying within the budget, look at Erich von Stroheim, but had a soft spot in his heart for this particular picture.
He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
When watching these old films, it is easy to see when something unusual comes up. I knew I was going to be in for something atypical when it was a Lon Chaney picture and I was even more intrigued when it was directed by Victor Sjöström from Sweden. Another noteworthy accolade is that He Who Gets Slapped was the first film produced by the newly established Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM).
The film is a psychological thriller that follows Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney), later HE, a scientist that has his research and wife, played by Ruth King, stolen by Baron Regnard, played by Marc McDermott. Distraught and deemed insane, Beaumont joins the circus where he becomes a clown that can endure dozens of slaps nightly.
John Gilbert plays a horseback riding stuntman, named Bezano, that has his own act in the show. Soon, a young woman, Consuelo, played by Norma Shearer, joins the act with Bezano and catches the eye of Beaumont. Beaumont knows he is a broken man, but attempts to put himself out there for Consuelo. It is not until the Baron enters the grandstands and begins to be interested in Consuelo, that things get really interesting.
Consuelo’s father, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall), is confronted by the Baron to make a deal for his daughter. The count is desperate for money and agrees to marry his daughter for the right price. In the meantime, Consuelo and Bezano are falling in love. Beaumont see’s the Baron in the crowd and see’s that he is interested in Consuelo. Beaumont attempts to warn Consuelo, but ends up taking matters into his own hands and stages the lion cage outside the door of the baron. Once the Baron realizes that ‘HE’, the clown that gets slapped, is actually Beaumont, he begins to fight. The Baron successfully fights off Beaumont, but ends up walking into Beaumont’s trap and unleashes the lion on himself and the Count. After the gruesome destruction of the Count and the Baron, Beaumont takes the stage for his final show, only to get slapped to death. The ending reminded me of the finale to Gladiator, where the final character is unfairly wounded in a way that leads to his death. In this case though, Beaumont is not the hero.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Chaney’s role in The Phantom of the Opera is perhaps one of his most famous. Lon Chaney portrayed Erik, the phantom, in Carl Laemmle’s rendition of the 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux. The phantom influences the theater above him in order to win the love of the star of the show, by any means necessary.
The film is noteworthy for the makeup and acting work done by Chaney, as well as leaving a lasting legacy on the horror genre. The Phantom of the Opera has a darker, more grim, atmosphere than other contemporary horror films. Erik’s unrelenting ways, ultimately leading to being beaten to death, is a major factor in the haunting aura that he emits.
The Unknown (1927)
The Unknown is one of his best films, if not my favorite. Chaney plays an armless man that has mastered knife throwing with his feet as part of a traveling circus. He falls in love with his partner in his act, who happens to be the ringleader’s daughter.
However, it turns out that he is a fugitive on the run who actually has functioning arms. Not only are his arms functional, but he has six fingers. Making him even more identifiable.
Director Tod Browning takes this story on a roller coaster ride, in his typical fashion, and the result is a film that stands the test of time.
London After Midnight (1927)
London After Midnight was one of the last films that Chaney made with Tod Browning and their highest grossing collaboration. The film is currently a “lost” film as the last known copy was burned in a fire in the 1960’s. The closest you can get to watching it is to watch a reconstruction of production stills.
Chaney’s character was Burke, a Scotland yard inspector that disguises himself and has the ability to hypnotize people. The legacy of this film is the surviving stills depicting Chaney’s character, with sharpened false teeth and widened eyes, an unnerving look.
The Unholy Three (1925 & 1930)
1925 Version – Silent
Tod Browning directed the silent version of The Unholy Three in 1925. The film follows three sideshow performers, Professor Echo (Lon Chaney), the ventriloquist, Tweedledee (Harry Earles), the little person, and Hercules (Victor McLagen), the strong man. The three of them go on the lamb after Tweedledee assaults a young heckler. Their plan is to disguise themselves as pet shop owners that rob their wealthy clients. Echo’s alter ego is an old woman named O’Grady, Tweedledee plays the grandchild, Hercules is a employee of the shop, and Echo’s girlfriend, Rosie (Mae Busch) plays the grand daughter.
The Unholy Three eventually get caught after a victim is murdered by Hercules. The three pin it on their employee that is oblivious to their crimes and run away. Rosie, then confesses her love for Hector resulting in Echo testifying to save Hector. Meanwhile Hercules tries to run off with Rosie and the stolen goods. When Tweedledee overhears Hercules’ offer to Rosie, he releases Echo’s pet chimpanzee. Hercules then kils TweedleDee just before the “ape” kills Hercules. In the end, Rosie and Hector go off together to live an honest life and Echo goes back to the sideshow to continue his ventriloquist act.
Again we see a grim and violent ending to a Lon Chaney film. Tod Browning was able to use trick photography to make the chimpanzee look much taller than its three foot stature. Some of his tricks included, Harry Earles doubling for Lon Chaney in the scene where the chimpanzee is released from the cage and creating a smaller set built for their cabin hideout. The forced perspective was effective, but not the first time it was used. By this time it had already been around for decades, and even one year earlier in Douglas Fairbanks‘ The Thief of Bagdad.
The film was a big success for Chaney and Tod Browning and a great start to their run at MGM.
1930 Version – Talkie
The Unholy Three was remade in 1930 after the advent of sound. The film was recast with the exception of Lon Chaney and Harry Earles, who both reprised their roles from 1925. There were some slight changes to the story, like Hercules (Ivan Linow) played the grandfather instead of an employee of the pet shop and the ape was played by an actor instead of a chimpanzee, but most everything else was the same.
This film also marked the first, and only, time that Lon Chaney would be be in a sound picture. At least we were able to see this in a role where he played two characters. Thus, allowing us to see a piece of his range and style. Unfortunately, Lon Chaney died a month after the release of The Unholy Three.
Legacy & Death
Chaney was diagnosed with Lung Cancer towards the end of 1929 and died on August 26, 1930. It is tragic that he was not able to continue to make films into the sound era. Who knows what kinds of characters he could have brought to life.
Over the course of his career, Lon Chaney made 77 short films between 1913 and 1917 and 80 feature length films between 1915 and 1930. Chaney made ten films with Tod Browning. The first was in 1919, The Wicked Darling. The other eight were The Unholy Three, The Blackbird, The Road to Mandalay, The Unknown, London After Midnight, The Big City, West of Zanzibar, and Where East is East. Unfortunately, many of these films are lost. On top of that, Chaney’s untimely death in 1930 stopped him from being able to star in Tod Browning’s later films, like Dracula.
Chaney’s ability to transform his face and body with makeup and costumes was legendary. He did not use full latex masks, but instead went to great lengths to carefully apply the minimum amount of makeup needed to obtain the desired look. He would deform his face with metal wire, false teeth, precise shading, etc.. This allowed him to present a deformed or unusual face while still being able to use the muscles in his face to emote. Chaney was also a great actor, dedicated and hardworking towards his craft. His ability to blend his acting and makeup skills combined with his professionalism in his craft is what made him a legendary actor. Thus, cementing himself as one of the first, and greatest, character actors of film.
His moniker, The Man with a Thousand Faces would live on long after his death. In 1957, James Cagney starred as Lon Chaney in a film of his life, Man of a Thousand Faces. The story was embellished for dramatic effect, as you would expect, but was well received at the time. There is no doubt that Chaney’s skills in bringing a thousand faces to life influenced future filmmaking, especially in the horror and thriller genre.