“Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney.”
I have no memory of the first time I saw Lon Chaney, he was just simply always there. This is probably due to the fact that I grew up watching old movies on TV with my grandmother, who, though she claimed to have no memory for it, constantly pointed out her favorite actors or people she thought were interesting. It is easy to see how Chaney made it on to this list with his fantastical costumes and impressive, self designed make up. By the time of his early death in 1930, Chaney was beloved all over the country for his versatile acting talents. He was dubbed the “Man of a Thousand Faces” because audience were desperate to know who - or what - he would appear as next.
Leonidas Frank Chaney was born on April 1, 1883 and within a few short years began a life-long acting career that would launch him to silent film stardom and would forever change the face of movie make-up and the future of horror cinema. Perhaps part of Chaney's strength as a silent film actor is due to the fact that he was born to deaf parents and, early on, became an expert at pantomime and emoting with facial expression alone. He got his start with traveling vaudeville acts. Unlike traditional theater, vaudeville involved a mixture of unrelated acts and performers and spanned musical numbers, dance, animals acts, magic, comedy, female/male impersonators, burlesque, short plays, juggling, acrobatics, and more.
A few years later he met his wife, the young singer Cleva Creighton, and they soon had a son, Creighton Chaney (better known under his stage name, Lon Chaney, Jr.). The early years of their marriage were spent on tour until they settled in California, but they soon developed marital problems. Cleva attempted to kill herself during one of Chaney’s shows by swallowing mercuric chloride (once a syphilis treatment), which only succeeded in damaging her vocal chords and ending her career. Chaney divorced her and was forced to try his luck in the film industry because of the scandal.
He got his start during the first World War with Universal, mostly appearing as an extra or taking on bit parts. He also began appearing in the films of directorial team and married couple Joe De Grasse and Ida May Park. They gave him meatier roles and their work together attracted Universal’s attention. During this period he remarried, to chorus girl Hazel Hastings, and took custody of young Creighton. He also began an acting partnership with Dorothy Phillips, William Stowell, and Claire DuBrey. They were cast in over a dozen films together between 1917 to 1919 - most of which are unfortunately now lost - typically directed by De Grasse or Park.
Chaney’s first big break came in The Miracle Man (1919), when he took a role called “The Frog,” allowing him to prove his acting and make up skills. During the decade after this, he starred in some of his most famous roles, in films such as The Penalty (1920), which kicked off a 10-film relationship with director Tod Browning, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927), the now lost London After Midnight (1927), Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), and more. Chaney ultimately acted in over 150 films and even directed a few.
His incredibly versatile acting and make up skills took him through an enormous range of roles. He was an artist with the grotesque make up used in his horror films, but he also appeared as clowns, pirates, peasants, circus performers, amputees and handicapped characters, gangsters, an old woman, a vampire, and even portrayed a marine so faithfully that the U.S. Marine Corps made him an honorary member. Even in his only sound film, a remake of The Unholy Three, Chaney used such a wide range of voices that he had to sign a statement saying they were all created with his voice alone and accomplished without doubles or audio tricks.
He died, entirely too early at the age of 47, of lung cancer in 1930. He continued filming, almost up to his death. Chaney was nationally mourned, but particularly by the film industry. He was a champion of young, unknown, inexperienced actors and crew members alike and was missed by many. Hollywood shut down for an entire day to mourn his passing. Chaney was known for his macabre, often terrifying characters with an undeniable layer of sadness, which often manifested itself as unrequited love. Even his foulest characters were deserving of sympathy. His career is also marked with some of the most incredible transformations on film and it is unlikely contemporary cinema would be the same without him.
If you want to learn more about Chaney or see some of his amazing films, there are fortunately a lot of great resources. The Turner Classic Movies Lon Chaney Collection box set is a great place to start and includes The Ace of Hearts, The Unknown, and Laugh, Clown, Laugh, as well as a reconstructed version of London After Midnight and the excellent documentary, Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces. The Warner Archives Classics Collection includes He Who Gets Slapped, The Monster, Mr. Wu, and both versions of The Unholy Three, the second of which is the last film Chaney made before his death and his only sound film. LonChaney.org also has some great resources.
I will leave you with the words of the great Ray Bradbury, a huge Chaney fan, who had this to say about the wonderful, beloved actor: “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 loves. He brings that part of you out into the open, because you fear that you are not loved, you fear that you never will be loved, you fear there is some part of you that's grotesque, that the world will turn away from."