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LON CHANEY: A THOUSAND FACES: Television Review

Documentarian Kevin Brownlow traces the life and career of the silent movie actor whose work begat the first wave of American horror films.

By Frederick C. Szebin     October 23, 2000

Kevin Brownlow is a movie buff's god. He has saved motion picture history for the world, focusing on the much overlooked Silent film era. With David Gill, he created Hollywood: The Pioneers in the 1970s, a 13-part work as insightful as it is at times heartrending. Detailed film biographies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and D.W. Griffith followed, proving Mr. Brownlow to be one of the world's experts on that time in cinema history. Now, he turns his detail-hungry eye on one of the Silent era's great stars in Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces, a long-overdue homage and history of this most original and intriguing figure in American Film, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, and airing on Turner Classic Movies on October 24 at 8:00 PM.

If Chaney is remembered at all these days, it's as one of the original movie monsters, predating Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, but that is a simplistic assessment of what he accomplished. Simply said, nobody did or does what Lon Chaney did. Best remembered as the first Quasimodo in 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and as Erik, the titular character in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Chaney was actually one of the business's most beloved character actors. Despite the grotesque make ups he created out of his own make up kit for the Hunchback and the Phantom, those films are not, strictly speaking, horror movies; rather, they are costume dramas about horribly disfigured characters. Chaney accomplished much more, which Brownlow shows through the extensive use of clips of existing films, and the only remaining pieces of some of his older work. Out of the 110 films he made for Universal Studios, only four remain, and there are various scenes left over the years, fragmented strips of decomposing nitrate stock that only hint at an impressive body of work. In the 1910's, he directed seven films for Universal, and even took a hand at writing, but none of this work survives, so even with this fine film document and numerous books of exemplary research, we still have only an incomplete view of all this man was capable of. One critic in the 1920s asked in his review, 'Is there anything this man can't do?' The silent answer seems to be, 'Only what he didn't try.'

Not only do we get a wealth of clips and photos, this wonderful documentary does a fine thing by using the single most under-used film history research tool in the world: Brownlow films surviving movie-goers from the 1920s, getting the still-fresh impressions of those who sat in silent cinemas 77 years ago, describing their movie memories from when they were children watching Chaney's remarkable work. One such kid was SF legend Ray Bradbury, who offers the following insight: '(Lon Chaney) can best be described as someone who acted out our psyche.' This, perhaps, is where the idea that Chaney was a 'horror star' comes from. Most of his movies dealt with the wicked and the twisted, with those eking out livings on the fringes of society, in the darker places, as they oozed the darker emotions.

This was particularly true of Chaney's work with director Todd Browning, who made nine films with the multi-faceted actor. In their excellent biography on Browning, Dark Carnival, David J. Skal and Elias Savada give an excellent indication of the kind of films the director and Chaney created together by titling their chapter, 'Murderous Midgets, crippled thieves, and poisonous reptiles, all sinister and deadly in a murky atmosphere of blackness and unholy doom.' That about says it all.

Some time is taken in Brownlow's film to refute certain legends of Chaney's life, of which there are many, one of the most famous being that his son Creighton (Lon Chaney Jr.) was supposedly born two months premature, blue and dead, until dad ran the baby outside in the Colorado winter and plunged the infant into the freezing water, saving his life. Not true, but Chaney Jr. tells this very tale with all seriousness in some wonderful black-and-white footage filmed, it seems, shortly before his death.

Was Chaney Sr. a masochist for wiring his face to distort his features as he did in The Phantom of the Opera and the lost London After Midnight? No, he used the tools and knowledge of the time to create his legendary characters because he didn't want to disappoint his audience. Brownlow gives us this and much more through interviews, letters and comments from such enthusiasts as writer-director Orson Welles, author and make up artist Michael F. Blake, as well as family members, and they do an admirable job in the 85 minutes of the film.

With Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces, you get to know the man as well as we can this late in the day. Brownlow once again illustrates how fragile our grasp on our cinematic past truly is, while rescuing as many snippets of it as he can before they turn to dust. Perhaps this little film about a master artist from so long ago will allow the memory of the man and the existence of his work to continue to impress and inspire future generations, as they have in the past. Having said that Chaney was not truly a horror star, one should add that, nevertheless, his legacy on the horror film was indisputable. It was the success of Hunchback and Phantom that inspired a reluctant Universal Studios to purchase the rights to a successful play, about a certain Transylvanian Count, which they hoped to turn into a vehicle for Chaney. It was another story about a grotesque character inhabiting an impressive edifice, in this case a castle instead of an opera house or a cathedral. Unfortunately, Chaney died from throat cancer before the film could go into production. Universal hired the play's star, Bela Lugosi, to reprise his role title role as Dracula, and the rest, as they say, is history.

LON CHANEY: A THOUSAND FACES airs on Turner Classic Movies on October 24 at 8:00 PM. It launches a week-long Chaney tribute, including screenings of Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

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