Starring in over 150 films, boasting just as many diverse roles, a writer, director and expert make-up artist. But eclipsed by so many of the other stars of the time. But his impact and legacy are indisputable. But who was Lon Chaney and why has he become subdued in our modern perspective of early cinema?
He was born as ‘Leonidas Chaney’, to parents that both where deaf. Many people credit this as instrumental in building his skills. From this homelife he refined his talent for wordless communication. Sign language, pantomime and a unique understanding of the importance of facial expression. From the very start there was seemingly no other career that Chaney desired other than that of entertainment and stage. He possessed a natural talent for entertainment. When he was a child he spent a bulk of his time at the theatre that his elder brother managed working as a stage hand and prop boy. However, this was one of a handful of jobs, as his father encouraged him to have a safety net. Acting after all had, still has, a reputation for being fickle. But he could not be kept away, in adulthood he joined a traveling theatre group, becoming emerged in a whole new nomadic culture with many ranges of talent. This engagement with his fellow performers furthered his development of multiple skills. His transition to Hollywood was not that of glamour. It came from trying to save his career in the wake of a scandal. His strained relationship with his wife came to a head in 1913, when she attempted to poison herself in the theatre that Chaney was preforming in that night. She survived but it left his reputation in the Californian theatre he had settled in ruined. After separating form his wife and gaining custody of their son he moved on. Desperately trying to salvage his career. He found himself working as a extra at Universal studios, essentially starting from step one. Not to mention what a blow this could have been to his ego. Working in the still uncertain world of film, as only an extra despite his repertoire, many saw it as an embarrassment.
Luckily, he found himself excelling quickly, becoming a veteran of a great number of features. Yet was still payed less then $100 a week for his work. In 1917 he asked managers for a raise. He was denied, leading to him to become free-lance. His will to take a risk payed off, he was popular based on his work at universal. However, it did take nearly a year for him to get his true start. He gained full recognition for his role as the lead antagonist in ‘Riddle Gawne’ in 1918.
Chaney was extremely talented and adaptable. As we can see from his seamless ability to revive his career from place to place, taking in knowledge and experience as he moved. He carved his niche as a character actor. This is more significant than it sounds on face value. Today we might be taking character acting (acting in early cinema at all) for granted. Think of it in this simple way; actors in this period of cinema where already robbed of their voice. They had to rely on their ability to emote from mime and expression. Often leading to under or over acting. This was an issue that was more pressing when acting as a ‘character’ because of the handicap that came from difficult or obscuring costumes or playing a role so vastly different to their own life experience.
Chaney not only found this balance he mastered it. He had the ability to make his characters likable, honest and real. He gained a following for his ability to dive deep into his role. Earning himself the nickname of ‘The man with a thousand faces’ to reference his vast catalogue of roles as well as his make up abilities. Make up is one of the key factors Chaney is remembered for. He spent hours upon hours testing his make up skills on himself, carrying his supplies in an old toolbox he seldom parted from. He was ahead of his time in his practices, noting the importance of the role that camera angles and lighting played in costume. He would borrow camera’s and studio lots to test the practicality of his designs. Often the will to make himself believable was taken at a physical cost. In his role as Erik in ‘The Phantom of the opera’, he achieved the upturned nose effect by body modification. Using a combination of concealed wire, adessive glue and a translucent material. Hours in this make up would result in nose bleeds. In another notable role he played a legless criminal (The Penalty,1920). To achieve this, he bound his legs so tightly that he had to regularly massage his legs between takes as the circulation became so poor. This was against the advice of his doctors, showing his seer commitment to character. Another role that earned him great acclaim was “Tell it to the Marines (1926)”. In which he played a love lorn Sargent. It was the second highest grossing film of the year and was so beloved by the US Marines that they made him an honorary member. There was a running theme was that of a sympathetic character and unrequited love, from monster to military man he was able to humanise his characters and connect to his audience.
Chaney was also a talented director and writer. He was creatively involved in most of his projects, weather invited to do so or not. Phantom of the Opera was one such film, Chaney and his director (Rupert Julian) came to blows frequently. To such an extent they needed a third party to pass on messages between them. Charles Van Enger recalled that “Julian would explain to me what he wanted Lon to do. I would go over to Lon and tell him what Julian wanted. Lon would tell me to tell Julian to Go to Hell”. Being a jack of all trades was of course this was not uncommon in the early industry, many had to have the ability to do more than just act. The young industry was poor, and projects could be a solo affair. It was not uncommon for an individual to act, write and direct on the same project. But as many learned it was a fast track way to make a name for yourself if you could handle as much creative control as possible.
Whilst Chaney is beloved by those who work in the industry or have looked to him for inspiration within their career and is by no means a unknown star he is not as widely noted as many others. If you are pressed to name a star of early Cinema its likely that you’d name other greats such as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Chaney is known, but likely a name that would have to be prompted. Perhaps the very thing that made Chaney unique made him become obscured in the present day, he had so many beloved faces that it blurred him into a figure that was lost in his own characters. He is memorialised for his iconic roles. He’d instantly recognised as ‘Erik’ from his role in ‘Phantom of the Opera’(1925)or ‘Quasimodo’ in ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’(1923). Maybe its best exemplified, albeit somewhat unintentionally, by his segment in the variety film ‘1929 Hollywood revue’. Well; lack maybe it’s more accurate to say ‘lack thereof’. Chaney declined making an appearance in the production. Most likely due to the fact he was secretly battling lung cancer. However, his presence is there in the form of a musical number celebrating his characters. In the segment a group of young women rest in their beds only to be cautioned by Gus Edwards that ‘Lon Chaney’s going to get you if you don’t watch out. The song depicts him as a hidden figure able to disguise himself as he wishes and hide in any location. It continues to have a collection of extras enter dressed in monstrous stage make up and dance with the young girls. This number may have lacked the man himself it presented him for his most iconic- most profitable aspect- a horror character. This memory persists in the modern awareness, he is marketed as a horror icon as they were among his most profitable roles.
Another important factor in his life is the lack of personal branding. He loathed the idea of having any traces of his personal life in the public eye. Unlike many others around him he refused to engage in a cult of personality or early celebrity culture. While others talked about their relationships, personal affairs and made themselves seen in the right places, Chaney was critical of this behaviour. He seldom appeared to outside of his productions, even then it was somewhat selective. This furthered the publics idea of him as a character rather than a celebrity figure, greatly loved but only existing in the capsule of film. When pressed for personal details the actor responded, “Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney”. He therefore has not maintained the same mythos as Chaplin and other figures achieved.
This is not to say he was a recluse in every regard. He was notable personable on set and not just in a professional compacity. He was known for helping other cast members and extras with everything from industry advice to costume help. One such actor was a young Boris Karloff who he told “find something other actors can’t or won’t do. If you succeed, you’ll never be forgotten.” He had a charitable heart to go alongside this, having spent most of his career paying into deaf/Blind charities and on one occasion, paying for the surgery that a fellow cast members mother needed but could not afford.
Although Lon Chaney has endured as a horror icon, there is a partial sadness in that. There was far more to the man then his make up and handful of movie monsters. In a sense, type casting him post mortem. Our general image dose the disservice of limiting a man who was without limits, the last thing he appeared to want in his career as its obvious he strived for each vastly different role.
However, there is an interesting aspect to consider when we think of Chaney’s own perspective on his work and name that challenges the idea of how we remember icons. His funeral was a large affair as can be expected when he was an industry giant with many personal ties. He was buried with a marine’s honour and was payed respect by all studios holding a moments silence in his name. But in symbolic gesture his tomb remained unmarked. No official reason is given, although I like to perceive it as an echo to his contempt of making himself a public figure. I believe he did not want a tomb to serve as a grim memorial for those who enjoyed his work, Wanting the films to serve as a memory to outlive him and entertain beyond him.