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Lon Chaney, Silent 'Horror' Star
He played mishapen men rather than monsters, but his work helped inspire the horror films that followed in his wake.
By Frederick C. Szebin
October 26, 2000
It may be a bit misleading to say that silent film actor Lon Chaney was cinema's first horror star, but his work did pave the way for the American horror films that emerged in the early sound era shortly after his death. Chaney, you see, didn't make horror films, per se; more often, he appeared in dark mystery-thrillers or crime melodramas, usually featuring some twisted soul afflicted with physical deformity. Still, his two most famous surviving films, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
(1923) and The Phantom of the Opera
(1925), both for Universal Pictures, were the progenitors of that studio's first wave of classic horror films in the 1930s. Creepy as they are, these films are, respectively, a historical drama and a melodramatic mystery, rather than outright horror stories, but their titular characters have become part of the gallery of classic movie monsters, thanks to having their visages appear on numerous covers of that wondrous publication, Famous Monsters of Filmland
Chaney was a cinematic original at a time that seemed vigorously exciting in Hollywood history, the Silent Era. He was a consummate actor who used his face and hands to express the most ghastly elements of the human psyche, then could turn around with the very same character and express the pathos, sadness, madness and heartrending loneliness within us all. He created his own make ups, using whatever materials were available at the time. Most of his makeup work is as startling and impressive today as it was during his film career, which ran from 1913 to when he died in 1930 from lung cancer, just shy of getting to play Dracula on film,.
Colorado-born Chaney was the hearing son of a deaf family. His parents opened a school for the hearing impaired in the 1910s that still stands. His first show business experience came, as it did for many at that time, on stage with a dance act. It's a shame that there is only one film sequence existing today that shows him dancing. You get hints at his grace even in The Phantom of the Opera
a silent film in which, ironically, the actor's most expressive instrument, his face, remains masked for more than half the running time. Despite this, Erik (a.k.a., The Phantom) emerges as a memorable character thanks to Chaney's command of mime and movement: he stalks the Opera with the lithe movements of a lifelong dancer.
Chaney's first wife, Creighton, also wanted to be a dancer. Chaney tried to teach her, but to little avail. She did, however, start to become more successful with her dancing than Lon was around 1910-1912, which was a bit of a thorn in their marriage, but it was her drinking and bizarre behavior that finally broke the link between them. One night as Lon performed on the stage, Creighton stood in the wings and very dramatically drank a vial of bichloride of mercury, which damaged her vocal chords, killing not only her marriage, but any singing career she might have had.
With son Creighton to taker care of (who would later have to change his name to Lon Chaney Jr. in order to work in the business), Chaney began to make a name for himself on the musical comedy stage, but the circulating news accounts of his ex-wife's suicide attempt got him fired from the stage business, so he started picking up extra work in the burgeoning film industry. By 1915, Lon was learning the business at Carl Laemmle's Universal Pictures, playing bit and character parts. A man named Edward S. Felch, a well-known stage actor in musical comedies in the early 1900s, had taught Chaney makeup when they worked together on the stage show circuit, and Lon soaked up every bit of knowledge he could to become a better actor. By 1918, after leaving Universal over a wage dispute, Chaney was on his way to becoming a star thanks to a remarkable performance as a fake cripple in The Miracle Man
(1919). A slew of various character roles followed, demonstrating Chaney's incredible penchant for creating vivid makeups. In a precursor to the Method style of acting made popular in the 1940s and 1950s, Chaney showed his great talent for taking on and keeping the character traits of the multitude of characters audiences would gasp at.The Hunchback of Notre Dame
startled and touched audiences of 1923, as The Phantom of the Opera
would shock and horrify two years later. But the man was so much more than a gimmick performer with a box of tricks. He portrayed pirates (Treasure Island
1920), detectives (While the City Sleeps
, 1928), two generations of Chinese for Mr. Wu
(1927), a no-legged hustler (The Penalty
, 1920, for which he devised a system that kept his legs strapped behind him and hidden in a special coat, creating pain so intense that he could stay in the contraption for only 10-20 minutes at a time), a doomed clown (Laugh Clown Laugh
, 1928) and a tough as nails drill sergeant (Tell it to the Marines
, 1926, which so impressed the USM, that they made Chaney an honorary member of the Corps.).
But all this is a dalliance with the man's ultimate accomplishments. There are so many more that author Michael F. Blake has written three books on the man and his career, and now Turner Classic Movies is honoring Lon Chaney with his very own film festival on that cable network. TCM's on-going restoration efforts have made it possible for us to view some of Chaney's best work. Several non-genre titles aired on October 24th, including The Ace of Hearts
(1921), Tell It To The Marines
, and the 1930 sound remake of Chaney's 1925 silent classic, The Unholy Three
, which Chaney's only talking picture. This Halloween, on Tuesday the 31st, TCM will air The Phantom of the Opera
(8:00pm); a repeat of the documentary Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces
(10:00pm); Mr. Wu
(11:30 PM) with an original score by Maria Newman; The Hunchback of Notre Dame
(1:00am); and The Unknown
(3:00 am), which will feature an original score by the Alloy Orchestra, the festival. The later is generally considered one of the best collaborations between Chaney and director Tod Browning, who would later guide Bela Lugosi through Dracula
Sure, they're showing some of these movies in the wee hours of the morning, but set the VCR so that you can go back later, turn out the lights, and watch an artist work. Although the films may be dated, Lon Chaney's ultimate talentthat of consummate performance with face, hands and bodyremains impressive to this day. It would be a shame to miss your chance to enjoy those images now.