I wanted to attempt to pay tribute to cinema legend Lon Chaney. This man was a major, central figure in the development of early cinema and one of the most important actors and artists in classical horror history!
Bold statement? Check out the following Lon Chaney biography…
Born Leonidas Frank “Lon” Chaney on April 1st, 1883 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Both of his parents were actually deaf and had met each other at a school for the deaf founded by Jonathan Ralston Kennedy (Chaney’s grandfather). Growing up in this environment must have been instrumental in encouraging Chaney’s skill at pantomime (theatrical entertainment).
Along with the use of sign language and body language, he became a master of using facial expression as a way to fully convey the broad spectrum of emotion.
When he was nine, the young Leonidas dropped out of school to look after his mother who’d become bed-ridden with Rheumatism. Without the use of her hands, the only communication between Chaney and his poor mother was done with the eyes. This must also have been a source of “training” for the future artist.
In 1902, young Lon joined his older brother as a stage hand at the local opera house. He had his first taste of stage performance in a play which he co-wrote with his brother. “The Little Tycoon” was a successful musical comedy. “Best Amateur Production Ever Given in the City” said the newspaper headline… “Members of the Company Covered Themselves With Glory!”
…And regarding young Chaney’s performance, one reviewer said, “As a comedian, he is irresistible!” His dancing was also highly praised.
This encouraging success led to travelling around with the popular Vaudeville (variety entertainment) acts of the day. In 1905 at the age of 22, he met and married 16 year old singer, Cleva Creighton and had a son together, Creighton Chaney. This young man would go on to become the legendary Wolf Man!- Lon Chaney Jr.
A Turbulent Love
At first things appeared fine. The couple toured together and Chaney taught his young wife how to dance on stage. Moving to Los Angeles, Cleva took a singing job at a local Cabaret company where she became very popular, even more so than Chaney. Being part of a Cabaret club required the young starlet to “flirt” with many of the male patrons in the audience. This would lead to marital problems for the couple with jealousy the main problem. Lon also had to dance and perform with the female actresses, which would have been hard for Cleva to endure.
On top of this, their age differences would no doubt have led to many misunderstandings as well.
By this time Chaney was not only acting but working as choreographer, wardrobe supervisor and stage manager whenever he could get work.
It was while managing the Kolb and Dill show at the Majestic Theatre in L.A. that the troubled marriage would reach it’s end – the couple having tried to reconcile it unsuccessfully.
It began over an enormous argument over who was going to look after young Creighton. Cleva refused! After one of her shows, a highly depressed Cleva, who had also become susceptible to anxiety medication and alcohol, walked over to the Majestic Theatre where Lon was working and while standing in the wings of the stage, attempted suicide by drinking mercuric chloride.
It did not kill her… It did however, ruin her singing career.
A very sad, almost tragic event which caused the couple to divorce. It also brought enough of a scandal for Chaney to leave the stage, for work in the new industry of film.
A New Venture and a New Love
Between the years 1912 and 1917, Chaney worked for Universal Studios as an extra in innumerable films. His earliest films were with the first studio to open in Hollywood. Nestor Studio’s (under Universal). Chaney was able to secure so many competitive roles, with his expanding skill as a makeup artist. He would have photographs taken of his many makeup designs to decide what would or wouldn’t work on film.
During this time Chaney became good friends with husband and wife director team, Joe De Grasse and Ida May Park. De Grasse encouraged Lon’s ability to play bizarre, macabre characters, which would have definitely added to the coarse of his career. Together they made more than sixty pictures!
A former colleague from his days with the Kolb and Dill company, Hazel Hastings came back into Chaney’s life and the couple were married. Together, they gained custody of ten year old Creighton, who’d stayed in numerous homes and boarding schools since his parents’ divorce in 1913.
Enter Todd Browning
After being refused a raise and a five year contract, Chaney quit Universal Studios (then Universal City). Studio Executive William Sistrom told him, “You’ll never be worth more than one hundred dollars a week”. Chaney struggled to find work until he was offered an important role in a now lost film called Riddle Gawne 1918. He began to gain notice as a character actor and find work, even working for Universal again with director Todd Browning…
Browning was one of the most unique directors of the silent era. A former carnival announcer with a genuine care for the unfortunate sideshow acts with physical abnormalities which he befriended. He had an obsession for the tragic, the morbid and the bizarre.
The big break came in 1919, with the film The Miracle Man. Here, Chaney played the part of a con-man who pretended to be cripple. It was an unbelievable performance. The director initially sought out real contortionists to play the role, however out of all those he found, none could act. It is then that Chaney did a test so convincing that it made the director shake!
While not being offered any leading man parts, character roles were coming in fast. And with nearly every role, he used his artistry with makeup and physical transformation to bring his characters to life and truly make them effective.
For 1920’s, The Penalty, He underwent considerable physical hardship for the sake of his role. This would become normal for Lon. Here he played an amputee gangster with both legs in leather “stumps”. To do this, Chaney strapped both legs up behind his back and placed his knees in the leather cases or stumps. With a wide overcoat worn over the top, the illusion was complete. An amazing effort. One which could only be endured for around ten to twenty minutes at a time.
Take a look at this excerpt…
Around this time Lon Chaney developed a fascination for the criminal mind, going so far as to visit places controlled by the underworld to observe their characters. He also wrote pieces on prison reform and seemed to sympathize with the criminal’s plight.
In Outside the Law (1921), Chaney played another vicious and villainous gangster type role for director Todd Browning and gave his character many subtle traits which gave unique depth to this type of character. He’d no doubt picked up these traits through first-hand study.
For Shadows (1922) he played a Chinese cook named Yen Sin and made himself up
to look remarkably genuine. But again, it wasn’t entirely due to his makeup. The way he hunched himself over and gave off an aura of humility spoke volumes. The character is among the survivors of a ship wreck off the coast of a small town and finding himself an outcaste, is forced to live in a small boat in the towns harbor. Chaney manages to elicit deep sympathy for his character at a time when the Chinese were still being persecuted.
A reviewer at the time asked, “What else can this guy do..?”
He next won the role of Fagin in Oliver Twist (1922). Child actor, Jackie Coogan said they needed a guy, “Who could play anything and look like anything”… so they chose Chaney.
It was for The Trap (1922) that Lon would be given his now famous title, with the movie’s poster declaring, “The Man of a Thousand Faces is Coming!”
Becoming a Household Name
Next up was the film for which he became even more famous for. Playing the title role in the film, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923). It’s only recently been discovered just how much input Chaney had into the production of this masterpiece. On top of searching for the means to finance the picture, he selected who would write, who would direct and who would play Esmeralda.
For the appearance of Quasimodo, Chaney modelled himself after an illustrated depiction in the book by Victor Hugo. It called for his most elaborate makeup yet. His whole body structure would have to be altered. Wearing a prosthetic hump, then tying rope from the shoulder straps to his waist-belt brought his body into a stooped, hunched over position and kept him in place that way.
Walking always with bent knees and splayed feet accentuated the whole look.
A great deal of discomfort would no doubt have been felt and his co-star, Patsy Ruth Miller felt that he almost relished the pain, presuming that it put him in the necessary emotional state to play the part. However despite this kind of thinking, Chaney was not a masochist. He believed an actor should not have to feel the emotion enough to cry real tears, as in, the philosophy of the school of acting. His/her job was to make the audience feel what they were meant to feel.
“It didn’t matter if you were tearing yourself up inside…if you did not tear the audience up inside, you were not playing the part well”, he said.
With huge sets and a crowds of extras, it was a immensely lavish film. What really struck audiences of the day though was the sympathy felt for the tragic bell ringer, the deformed and tormented Quasimodo. Chaney had captured the public’s hearts in a way which hadn’t been seen before. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a highly successful film. One of the best movies of the year.
Although pressed for interviews and asked by the studios to do publicity assignments, Chaney avoided it. Because of this, he was regarded as a man of mystery. He once said, “Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney…”
Two years after “Hunchback”, Lon Chaney brought another one of his famous roles to life in The Phantom of the Opera (1925). For this role, he would play another terribly disfigured tragic character and completely alarm audiences with the iconic makeup which he achieved.
Based on the classic novel by French writer Gaston Leroux, Phantom told of a mysterious figure rumored to be haunting the Paris Opera House, living within the labyrinth of catacombs beneath. He becomes obsessed with one of the young singers who perform onstage and begins to manipulate events from behind the scenes in order to further her career.
No pictures of Chaney’s makeup as The Phantom were shown before the movie. This was done to achieve maximum shock during the famous “unmasking scene” toward the end of the movie. Did it work? Absolutely! People were utterly terrified by it and there were even reports of people fainting. Mary Philbin’s reaction to taking off his mask was genuine as she had not seen how it would look until that moment.
The design of the “skull face” was done with a strip of fish skin which is a thin, see-
through material. This was glued to the tip of the nose and pulled back, running up along the nose and up under a skull-cap. Wire and rubber was also used at times, the wire cutting into the nose and causing bleeding. Chaney built his cheeks up with cotton and collodion. Collodion was a material used either to keep material in place (flexible type) or wrinkle the skin when dried, causing an aged look (non-flexible). Chaney also wore fake teeth, stuck his ears back and painted his face with greasepaint.
Of coarse, the whole thing was conceived and executed by one person and one person only…
The same year saw The Unholy Three where Chaney plays a ventriloquist. It was another classic directed by Todd Browning, and would be re-made in 1930, in sound.
Again that year, Chaney wrote a piece for Movie magazine where he stated, “I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals”.
His next film, Tell it to the Marines (1926) was a military piece where he would not make use of his mastery of makeup effects. Instead he played a hardcore drill instructor and did it so well that it earned him enormous praise from the United States Marine Corps. They made Lon their first honorary member from the motion picture industry. Tell it to the Marines (one of his favorite movies) was a huge success and proved that Lon didn’t need his famous disguises to play a role.
Another incredible feat of endurance and dedication to rival his work in The Penalty came in 1927. This time, his character was an armless circus performer. A knife-thrower of all things! This was done entirely with the feet! The film was called The Unknown (1927), was directed by Todd Browning and also starred Joan Crawford.
A Lost Classic…
London after Midnight (1927) is tragically now a lost film, the original print having being destroyed by fire in 1967. Fans of early horror and Chaney aficionado’s express deep disappointment over this loss. Even though it’s gone now, the appearance of the vampire-type ghoul character Chaney conjured has become immediately recognizable. A recreation of the movie was made using stills from the original and many have found it very well done.
1928 saw The Big City, Laugh Clown Laugh and West of Zanzibar, in which he played a magician who’s been left paralyzed from the waist down following a brawl with his wife’s lover. He seeks to get revenge on those who have wronged him…
In Laugh Clown Laugh he played what he described as his all-time favorite role…the clown.., in love with the girl.., in love with someone else.
Chaney had an incredible sense of identifying with the tragic.
Author Ray Bradbury said of Chaney, “He was someone who acted out our psyches. He somehow got into the shadows inside our bodies; he was able to nail down some of our secret fears and put them on screen. The history of Lon Chaney is the history of unrequited (unreturned) loves. He brings that part of you out into the open because you feel that you are not loved, you feel that you never will be loved, you feel there’s some part of you that’s grotesque, that the world will turn away from you”.
Joan Crawford stated that she learned more about acting from watching Chaney work than from anyone else in her career.
During the making of Thunder in 1929, filming moved from sunny California to freezing cold and snowing Wisconsin. Chaney caught a small cold through which he kept on working. It wasn’t long before it turned into full pneumonia. Shortly after, he was sadly diagnosed with bronchial lung cancer…Making things worse, fake snow (made using cornflakes!) became lodged in his throat and caused serious infection.
Chaney underwent aggressive treatment but the condition worsened.
By this time sound had arrived, and while not being popular at first would soon become the norm. Lon Chaney was one of many actors who shied away from this new technique. He didn’t want to talk, “because it would destroy the mystery” he said.
At this time Universal Studio’s were eyeing Lon Chaney to star as “Dracula”, which was to be the first horror film with sound.
…One wonders what it would have been like and how the character would have looked?
Sadly, the first film Chaney shot with sound was also his last.
…A Legend is Lost
The Unholy Three 1930, a remake of the 1925 film again had Chaney play a ventriloquist. This time though he was asked to sign a statement stating that all five voices he contributes to the film were all his own! Apparently, his talents extended beyond mere appearances. He threw his voice to act as the ventriloquist dummy, he voiced the part of Mrs. O’Grady and he even supplied the voice of a parrot(!) which was central to the plot.
Struggling to get through the filming Chaney was seriously ill now. In true Chaney style, those around him were not told just how bad he was feeling.
Seven weeks after the release of The Unholy Three, “The Man of 1000 Faces”, who was now also known as, “The Man with 1000 Voices”, died from a throat hemorrhage on August 26, 1930.
He was only 47 years old.
People remember the day he died as feeling like the end of the world. If a man like Chaney who could overcome any obstacle, was larger than life and “represented all of the people in the world”, could die so young, what hope did others have?
All studio’s in Hollywood halted work during Lon’s funeral. This to me shows just how highly regarded and respected the star was. The Marine Corps provided a chaplain and Honor Guard for the funerary proceedings.
His poor wife Hazel was in a state of collapse during the ceremony. They’d had such a strong, personal, private union between them.
His remains were interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, California. For unknown reasons, there is no inscription on his crypt. The tomb remains faceless.
“Lon Chaney achieves immortality”, a film magazine said at the time. “No man in pictures, nor woman either has won the wide space in the popular heart that Chaney could call his own. There never was an actor in who’s every gesture carried more feeling, more eloquence than Chaney. He will be missed not only by the producers but by the millions who took him into their hearts”.
…For a fantastic video presentation of some of this man’s most memorable work, take a look at this;
– Thanks for checking out this Lon Chaney biography. Please let me know your thoughts below.