Who on Earth was Lon Chaney?

Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three (1925). Image: Giphy

We just watched the documentary, Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000), and now we’re convinced Lon Chaney was one of the greatest performers in early Hollywood.

Now, you may not be familiar with Chaney, and that’s OK. We’ll try to present our case as best we can.

First, let’s sort out some biographical data. Chaney was born in 1883 in Colorado Springs to parents who were both deaf and mute. Chaney, apparently, didn’t speak for the first few years of his life; he learned to communicate through sign language and pantomime.

“At an early age, he was familiar with what it was like to be an outsider, to be at once a part of the everyday world and simultaneously distanced from it,” says pbs.org.

Chaney became involved with theatre through his older brother who was a stagehand at the local opera house. Chaney discovered his musical comedy talents, and began touring the American midwest with a vaudeville troupe. While touring, he met and married his first wife, Frances Cleveland Creighton. (They had a son, Lon Chaney, Jr., who later became a Hollywood actor.)

The Chaneys settled in Hollywood but, by 1913, their marriage fell apart. Frances was the darling of the theatre set and the more popular entertainer. After the couple divorced, Chaney found himself elbowed out of theatre business.

His only employment option was with the growing film industry. He joined Nestor Studios which was merging with a company that later became Universal Studios.

It was here he became a Hollywood legend.

Chaney preparing for Phantom of the Opera (1925). Image: Reddit

Chaney began experimenting with film makeup techniques. According to A Thousand Faces, Chaney sent movie stills to his brother to see if his own brother could recognize him. Chaney often had to identify himself with an “X” on these photographs.

Chaney’s Big Break came with 1919’s The Miracle Man, which made him The character actor in Hollywood. In the film, he plays a man who pretends to have a disability and is “cured” by a fraudulent faith healer. It was Universal’s biggest hit of the year, and Chaney was now the Go-To Guy to play grotesque characters.

For example, in The Penalty (1920), Chaney plays a gangster who is double amputee. For this role, Chaney strapped his legs behind him and fitted his bent-up legs into leather stumps, which he could wear for only 10-20 minutes at a time.

Chaney prepares for The Penalty (1920). Image: Pinterest

According to A Thousand Faces, Chaney’s most extreme transformation was for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Chaney altered his entire body, which took about three hours each day. (Get this: The hump on his back weighed 28 lbs.)

Chaney’s co-star, Patsy Ruth Miller, says he almost relished the pain because it immersed him in the tortured character. However, he insisted this was only part of the job. “You are an actress,” Chaney told her, “and the actress’s job is to make the audience feel.”*

Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Image: Listal

Author Ray Bradbury describes Chaney’s ability to gain an audience’s sympathy by capitalizing on our primordial fears. “You fear there’s some part of you that’s grotesque, that the world will turn away from,” says Bradbury.

Emmy-winning makeup artist, Michael F. Blake, says the actor communicated with his whole body. “You can always tell it’s Chaney – no matter how much makeup he has on – by the use of his hands,” says Blake.

Blake also refers to Chaney’s makeup box as “the holy grail” for makeup artists. “Out of this small, little kit, a thousand faces emerged,” says sci-fi film expert Forrest J. Ackerman.

Chaney in London After Midnight (1927). Image: Big Think/Getty Images

So when was Chaney dubbed “The Man of a Thousand Faces”?

As far as we can tell, the phrase was first used in advertising for The Trap (1922):

Image: Wikipedia

Sadly, Chaney was not to enjoy a lengthy Hollywood career. He died of lung cancer seven weeks after the release of his first “talkie”, The Unholy Three (1930).

Hollywood studios observed a moment of silence on the day of his funeral, but perhaps the most poignant tribute was found in a movie magazine, as quoted by A Thousand Faces:

“There never was an actor whose every gesture carried more feeling, more eloquence, than Chaney. He’ll be missed, not only by the producers, but by the millions who took him into their hearts.”

Notes
  • *Quotations taken from the documentary, Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000). You can watch it HERE.
  • This post is part of the LON CHANEY: MAN OF 1000 FACES blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and yours truly.

Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces narrated by Kenneth Branagh. Directed and Edited by Kevin Brownlow. Photoplay Productions & TCM, 2000, Colour, 85 mins.

 

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23 comments

  1. A fascinating roundup — many thanks! I hadn’t realized Chaney had faded so far from public awareness — he’s a household name in this household! — but I guess you’re right. I was reading somewhere not that long ago that a lot of younger people haven’t a clue who Charlie Chaplin or the Marx Brothers were, so they’re going to be even less aware, were that possible, of Chaney.

    Whadcanyasay? The kids these days. As his mom said of his critics, “You get off my Lon.”

    I’ve always like Lon Chaney Jr too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great article! I have to b honest i am surprised there are people who DON’T know who Lon Chaney is, he’s such a legend of the movie biz, especially in horror. he was even immortalised in Warren Zevon’s classic hit “Werewolves of London”:

    “Well, I saw Lon Chaney walking with the Queen
    And they were doing the Werewolves of London”

    😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article, Ruth. This is such a good documentary that really gets to the heart of Lon Chaney. I wish there were more documentaries out there like this for other classic era stars.

    Looking forward to reading all the articles as they come in over the next two days.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lon Chaney, Sr. was one of my father’s favorite actors as a child and when I was little, he would describe Chaney’s movies to me. That made them all the more special when I saw some of them later. His favorite was probably THE UNKNOWN.

    Like

    • It appears you’ve inherited your father’s exceptional taste in film, Rick. 😉

      His ability to describe Chaney’s films shows how powerful Chaney’s performances were, – and this in the days before YouTube where a person could easily refresh their memory. I’m assuming it had been years since he had seen some of these films…?

      Like

  5. I love this documentary and have enjoyed it so many times. Lon Chaney was such an incredible talent – his ability to physically transform is akin to being a method actor! What I most enjoy about his work is his incredible ability to install raw emotion beyond the make-up and draw a powerful response from the audience. Thanks for a great article and for co-hosting a fantastic blogathon!

    Like

  6. I know what I’ll watch when I want to cry: this documentary. I mean, even reading your post made me emotional! His life was short, but I’m thankful that we have Lon Chaney’s legacy on film – and we’re still celebrating him, nearly 100 years after his big break.
    Thanks for hosting this great event!
    Kisses!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Lon Chaney definitely elevated The Unknown (1927) and Phantom of the Opera (1925) with his memorable performances. Don’t think I’ve seen any other films he starred in. From the sound of it Chaney experienced a challenging upbringing and was a pioneer in extreme transformation

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for educating me on Lon Chaney; somebody whose name sounds familiar, but not his movies. Am yet to learn a lot about stars of the Silent era!! His son, B-movie actor of the 40’s, Lon Chaney jr, am a bit more aware of.
    It’s impressive the dedication and preparation of the senior Chaney to the art of cinema; especially in movies like ‘The Penalty’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’!!! I really ought to check them out.

    Liked by 1 person

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