In today's market of slock horror and remade Japanese films it would seem that the mention of Lon Chaney's name would not mean much to most. Yet, it would be a disgrace for any horror affectionate to not know of Chaney's contribution to the genre. Although many film historians would say that Chaney was unfairly cast in the annals of film as a horror star that he was actually a versatile actor with a wide range of characters that graced the genres of comedy, drama as well as horror. All being said, it still remains that his contribution to the genre is not only undisputed, but also was critical to its evolution. Without Chaney, Universal undoubtedly would have missed the Silver Age of Classic Monsters. His rendition of Eric from the "Phantom of the Opera", Quasimoto from the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" and the vampire for the lost film "London After Midnight" are all hailed as the seeds of horror that would later follow.
In the inventory of movies that Lon Chaney starred in, less than half did he use his own face. In those that he did use his own visage, he still was able to earn the praise of critics for his acting skill and even that of the United States Marine Corp for his performance of a drill sergeant in "Tell It to the Marines." In fact the role earned him a honorary status among the Corp. So not only was Chaney a master of make-up, earning him the title of a man of a thousand faces, but also that of an exceptional actor with a range of emotions that could flash across his face that would later inspire the likes of Burt Lancaster to state "one of the most compelling and emotionally exhausting scenes I have ever seen an actor do." Lancaster was referring to the scene from "the Unknown" in which Chaney portrayed an armless knife thrower in love with a young Joan Crawford. In this film an armless Chaney throws knives with his feet and light cigarettes though in some scenes Chaney was aided by a double off the camera frame to perform some of the more elaborate "foot" stunts, his performance is quite hypnotic and the plot of the film so macabre that it is a cult classic. The main character pretends to be armless due to a deformity on one of his hands that could get him recognize for a murder he had committed. He then falls in love with a young Joan Crawford who cannot stand to be touched. To seal their love the obsessed Chaney has his arms surgically removed that leads to a rather ironic ending that reveals not everything you do for love leads to pleasant consequences.
Born of deaf parents, pantomime was something common as a means of communication in the Chaney household and obviously gave him an edge on the silent era, but Chaney did not begin his acting career on film, but on stage. In is in this arena that he developed his skill as a make up artist as well as learning the craft of stage manager. In fact, Chaney appears to have a very versatile, multitalented individual. Later he would even take a hand at directing, scripting as well as starring in film. Though the later endeavors as a director would be stifled and not come to fruition as he would have liked, it speaks of his dedication and love of the craft.
You cannot study Chaney without studying the body of his work, as Chaney would later say,"between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney." Chaney was his work. He epitomized the creative spirit that often is associated with artists. He was all about developing his craft as an actor and as a makeup artist. He was simply without peer in the art of makeup in his day. He also wrote an article of the subject for the 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Chaney became anything from an elderly Chinese immigrant to a deformed hunchback that haunted Notre Dame. There was a saying in Hollywood during the time, "don't step on it, it might be Lon Chaney."
Yet, it would be hard to say that makeup was his "gimmick", it was more of an extension of the man and the actor. For Chaney didn't limit himself to just one area, physically he performed acts that would later bring him a place in film history such as the con artist that fakes being crippled to be healed by a charlatan in the "Miracle Man." The scene had people swearing that Chaney was a contortionist or double jointed, when in fact it is more a credit to his acting skills. Also in the "Penalty", he actually had a harness that he wore to bind his legs behind him and tucked into leather stubs. The pain allowed him only to wear the harness for fifteen minutes at a shoot, but Chaney insisted no trick photography be used. In "The Unknown", that I referred to before he had his arms bound up in a rig giving a convincing portrayal of an armless man.
Chaney also took the hard choices in roles. From the afore mentioned legless man in the then controversial "The Penalty" to playing a humble Chinese immigrant Yen Sin in "Shadows". But in the film, "Mr Wu", he portrayed not only an elderly Mandarin but the character's son as well. It is in "Mr. Wu" that Chaney's art of makeup excells and can be only topped perhaps by his later endeavors as Eric in "Phantom of the Opera." Chaney at best was a risk taker. You only have to look at his early life to see just how determined he was and what lengths he would travel to achieve his goals. There were times early in his career that he was penniless and homeless. Yet, he not only rose above his destitution but became one of Hollywood's most cherished and sought after stars. His story is indeed a rag to riches tale of a self made man.
Instead of these early hard times making him bitter, it seemed to make Chaney more compassionate. He was always a champion of his coworkers on the set. When making the revenge drama, "Laugh Clown, Laugh", the director was brutal on a young, Loretta Young. Chaney heard of this, he stayed on the set because he knew his presence caused the director to leave Miss Young alone. Young would later say that it was actually Chaney who directed her in the film and actually gave her the best insight to acting she received from anyone. He simply told her it wasn't enough to have the emotions come up inside her, but instead have the emotions affect the audience. Something that perhaps today's modern method actors would cringe at. Young wasn't the only star Chaney would help. It was a young depressed actor named Boris Karloff that was having a difficult time finding work that Chaney once offered a ride home to. He told the young Karloff, "find something no one else does, and do it better than anyone else." Karloff until his dying day spoke affectionately of Chaney and his advice.
It is here that the embryo that would later become the Universal stable for horror began. Through Chaney's association with Tod Browning and the love for the morbid and macabre that the foundation for later horror would be lain. It has always been said that if Chaney had lived he would have played a dual role, much like he did in the lost film, "London After Midnight" in Tod Browning's "Dracula." But his untimely death made Browning look for an alternative and then the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi donned the cloak of the count. It would also be important to note here that Chaney's son, Lon Chaney Jr. would later become Universal's "Wolf Man", as for Karloff, well it is obvious.
Lon Chaney died at the age of 47. It is ironic that his last movie was a "talkie", a remake of the silent classic "The Unholy Three" in which he did more than one voice. That of an old woman, a parrot and a ventriloquist. He proved to audiences that he was more than capable of transcending silent to sound.
At his death production was stopped at Hollywood to observe a moment of silence, the Marine Corp flew their flag at half staff. Wallace Berry flew over his funeral and dropped wreaths of flowers. He said, "Lon Chaney was the one man I knew who could walk with kings and not lose the common touch,"