John H Foote continues his journey through time, to tell us the story of cinema and its stalwarts.
LON CHANEY — THE FIRST GREAT SCREEN ACTOR
Lon Chaney was born for the silent screen. For acting, for creating. Synonymous with horror, his name instantly recognizable as being a horror movie star it is shocking how few of his films are truly horror films. I have been fascinated with Chaney since I was a boy, since seeing his silent films on the old Elwy Yost Saturday Night at the Movies show, which always came with a documentary or interview with someone who had written a book on Chaney or better knew him. His gift was creating something heartbreaking out of something ugly. Born to deaf-mute parents, he spent his early life with them communicating with his hands, signing, and expression. He became an expert at facial expression and body language, and when he left Vaudeville for the silent screen, who would know within seven years he would be the first major actor to emerge from the new art form?
Forced to leave the stage when his wife, riddled with depression swallowed bleach on stage, forever damaging her voice, ruining her career and Chaney’s within the stage community, he moved into films thinking he could find work as an extra or small part player. Back then films were made side by side, often on stages no more than twenty by twenty. The sound was not an issue so some of the studios at that time would be making five films at a time side by side. Chaney would check the daily call list see that they needed perhaps a construction worker, go back to the parking lot and make himself up as just that, later in the day being an Indian in a western or a pirate for such a film. He earned a growing reputation as the man of a thousand faces for his skill with makeup. Soon his make up kit went everywhere he did.
No one with this kind of talent can remain hidden for very long and Chaney stunned critics and audiences with his performances in ‘Oliver Twist’ (1922) as Fagin and more so as The Frog in ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919) in which he contorted his body into a twisted mess of humanity, unwinding it for a fake healing minister. Both performances attracted the interest of Universal executives, who made it a point to chase Chaney and see if he would be interested in some major films they were working on.
Indeed he was.
In the years to follow he appeared as the legless criminal in ‘The Penalty’ (1920), again thrilling audiences with his gifts before moving on to his two most famous roles. As Quasimodo, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923) Chaney was magnificent. Creating his own makeup for the part, he put himself through physical hell to create the character. He explained in Movie, a magazine of the times why he went to so much trouble creating these characters.
“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”
Universal spared no expense on the creation of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923) recreating Paris on their backlot and the massive cathedrals. The film teemed with extras, but all the focus in the movie went on Chaney who created Quasimodo and made him a sympathetic character throughout the film, despite his ugliness.
Though he portrayed two of the most grotesquely deformed characters in the history of the cinema, he sought to find a beating heart, their souls within. He brought a poignancy and pathos to each performance, allowing audiences to see the potential for goodness under the monstrous creation. Quasimodo may be hideous, but he is gentle and kind to Esmerelda when he rescues her and sacrifices his life for her. She publicly humiliates the people of Paris by giving the poor creature water after he is whipped for all to see. He never forgets the kindness.
Chaney is truly stunning in the role, in fact, it is a credit to his performance and gifts that no one has ever portrayed the role so well as he. Charles Laughton, Anthony Quinn and Anthony Hopkins all tried the part and were very good, but could not touch what Chaney brought to the character. Beyond his make up was his physicality, his nimble, light on his feet performance, filled with acrobatic wonder as he leaps from the bells, bounces about the gargoyles high about the earth, watching the life below he knows he can never truly be a part of.
Two years later, he portrayed Erik in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925), once again giving a chilling performance as a man horribly disfigured yet possessed by a deep love for music and an attraction for talent. The famous unmasking sequence is among the cinema’s greatest moments of horror, the double whammy scare. As she edges over closer to him as he plays the organ, we know her goal, to snatch his mask off his face. She finally does and the audience sees him first in all his horrible glory. And then he turns to her and she sees it, reacting as audiences of the time did, in absolute horror.
The face was like a living skull, with the skin pulled tight over it. The nose was all but gone, the mouth partially opened exposing terrible teeth, and the eyes, so aware of what he was, yet so ashamed too that she has to see it. More than any character he ever portrayed Erik was a true monster, yet again Chaney found something heartbreaking about the character and brought that forth. Once again many great actors have attempted the role, Claude Rains, Herbert Lom, William Finley, and onstage Michael Crawford being Gerard Butler did it again for the movie musical ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (2005), but no one came close to what Chaney had accomplished.
He continued working at a furious pace, ‘London After Midnight’ (1927) one of the greatest “lost” films of the time, only a few minutes of footage actually exist. He became a hero to the Marine Corps for his performance as a tough drill instructor in ‘Tell It to the Marines’ (1926) a role he loved playing. Joan Crawford stated she learned about screen acting watching him at work in ‘The Unknown’ (1927) as an armless knife thrower. As sound came to cinema he watched as his friends lost work, not able to make the transition to sound films. But he had worked on the stage, it came easily to him. Had he lived he might have been called the man of a thousand voice, for he had a knack for altering his voice to suit the character. His only sound film he places a thief masquerading as a kindly old lady, and he is sensational.
Chaney had already auditioned for the role of Dracula in the upcoming Todd Browning film when he learned he was dying of advanced lung cancer. Death came swiftly to the great, he died in 1930. Had he lived, it seems doubtful Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff would have had careers as Chaney would have been given the starring roles in the major Universal horror films of the thirties.
Sadly many of the 157 films he made through his career are now lost.
In 1957 James Cagney portrayed Chaney in a biography entitled ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’ (1957). Though it dove into his past, the film was heavily romanticized, especially the end. Chaney wanted his son to have nothing to do with acting or Hollywood, yet at the end of the film, he scrawls Jr. beside his name on his makeup kit before dying. His son Lon would go on to fame as ‘The Wolfman’ (1941) and enjoy a long career as well, though he fought alcoholism all his life. Those close to him say the drinking was brought about by the knowledge he would never step out of his father’s shadow.
To be continued…