The story of Lon Chaney, the first real horror star, has all the elements of a classic tragedy; a humble beginning as the son of deaf mutes, years of hard struggle followed by fame and success, and then, at the peak of it all--illness and death. To many people Chaney was as bizarre a figure as any of the grotesque characters he portrayed on the screen. Studio publicity was partly to blame but he was, and remains to this day, something of a mystery man. He was born on April Fool's Day, 1883, in Colorado Springs, the second of four children.
According to the publicity stories he refused, out of sympathy with his deaf and dumb parents, to utter a word until he was eight years old--which sounds unlikely. But he was taken out of school, when he was in the fourth grade, to care for his mother who had become bedridden with inflammatory rheumatism. In his efforts to communicate with her more effectively during this period he became skilled in the use of pantomime, a talent which was to prove useful in later years.
He was nineteen years old when the next major event in his life occurred--his marriage to a young singer named Cleva Creighton whom he met in Oklahoma City. This was in 1905 and in the following year a son was born. He was christened Creighton but he was later to become known as Lon Chaney Jr. From Chicago the Chaneys moved to Los Angeles, fulfilling their long-held ambition to live on the West Coast. Lon got a job as a song-and-dance comedian and then later joined a couple of German comedians, playing a season with them in San Francisco. His marriage had been steadily deteriorating for some time and in San Francisco the situation became intolerable. There Cleva enjoyed great success as a singer and was much in demand, completely eclipsing her husband's minor fame. She began to drink too much and he accused her not only of neglecting their son but also of being unfaithful to him. He finally divorced her in 1914.
Out of a job in 1912, Chaney went to Universal Studios where he was helped by his friend Lee Moran who got him some film work. He appeared mostly in slapstick comedies and in 1915 became a regular member of Universal's stock company. In a television interview in 1969 Chaney Jr. described his father's working life in those early days: "He used to sit in the bullpen at Universal and an assistant director would come out and say, 'Anybody here that can play a college boy?' Dad would say, 'Yeah, I can play a college boy.' Then he'd come back and they'd come out and say, 'Anybody here who can play a Chinaman?' Well this went on a few times and there wasn't anybody who could. So my Dad, being a natural artist from the word go, got his make-up kit and his own stuff together and took it to Universal. And when they asked, 'Anybody play a Chinaman?' he'd say, 'Yeah, I can play a Chinaman.' He'd make himself up as a Chinaman, go and work for ten minutes, come back, then go out and play a Greek. And this way make three or four pictures a day."
In 1918 he was still earning only $5 a day at Universal. So he sought out the studio manager, William Sistrom, and asked for more money--$125 a week and a five-year contract. According to Chaney, Sistrom told him that he knew a good actor when he saw one but that looking directly at Chaney he saw only a wash-out. So Chaney walked off the lot. As the weeks of job-hunting became months he was beginning to think Sistrom wasn't such an idiot, but before things really became desperate he was saved by the Western star William S. Hart. Hart had seen Chaney in some of his earlier Universal films, and offered him a part as a villain in one of his Westerns called Riddle Gwane. Chaney enjoyed working with Hart who, unlike many other stars of the period, expected his co-actors to act instead of holding back and letting him reap all the glory.
After that, things improved for Chaney. More parts followed and he even started working for Universal again. Then came the assignment that changed his whole career, and it is to Chaney's credit that he was fully aware of its potential. Director George Leone Tucker had asked him to play in a film called The Miracle Man (1919). Tucker described to Chaney the various roles in the film, including that of the cripple who played such an important part in the story. Chaney immediately decided that his whole future rested on getting it.
The Miracle Man proved a success and Chaney and Tucker became close friends, They planned many projects together (Chaney had even intended to direct one of Tucker's productions) and Tucker's sudden death was an event that greatly upset Chaney. Chaney's next film was The Penalty (1920) in which he was cast as a legless criminal. The director, Wallace Worsley, wanted to use trick camera angles; but Chaney designed a leather harness which bound the calves of his legs against his thighs and he walked on his knees. This was the first of the many roles for which he underwent excruciating self-torture in order to achieve a desired effect, and which resulted in his reputation as something of a masochist.
For his role in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley, 1923) he followed Victor Hugo's description of the creature very closely--and was later accused of overdoing the make-up. It entailed wearing a rubber hump, weighing 70 lbs, attached to a leather harness which connected a large breastplate and pads similar to those worn by football players in such a way that he was unable to stand erect. Over all this he wore a skin-tight, flesh-coloured rubber suit covered with animal hair. The heat inside the costume was almost unbearable and he was perpetually drenched with perspiration. His make-up in The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925) was another exercise in self-torture. For the scene where the girl (Mary Philbin) creeps up behind the phantom and removes his mask--one of the great moments in horror films--Chaney inserted a device in his nose that spread the nostrils and lifted the tip to produce the appearance of a naked skull. He emphasized this effect with protruding false teeth to which were attached small prongs that drew back the corners of his lips. Celluloid discs in his mouth were used to distort his cheekbones most effectively.
Was there something unhealthy behind his apparent need to cause himself pain while performing? It seems doubtful. After all, he wasn't obliged to suffer every time he played a character in make-up, it's just that the publicists of the time tended to emphasize that aspect of his work. And as far as he was concerned, the real Chaney appeared in Tell It to the Marines (George W. Hill, 1927) in which he played a tough sergeant--without make-up. There is no doubt that Chaney's more gruelling performances affected his health. The primitive contact lenses he used to simulate blindness resulted in his having to wear glasses, and the various rigs he wore to contort his body affected his spine. He kept this a secret until after appearing in The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927) in which he played an armless wonder who could throw knives with his toes. For this Chaney wore a straitjacket which bound his arms to his sides so tightly that the illusion was effective even when he appeared dressed in silk tights. He said later, "I can't play these crippled roles any more. That trouble with my spine is worse every time I do one, and it's beginning to worry me."
In 1929 Chaney began to have trouble with his throat. While filming Thunder (William Nigh), a railroad story set in the snowbound Northwest of America, a piece of artificial snow lodged in his throat and worsened the condition. Chaney went into hospital and his tonsils were removed, but his throat continued to trouble him. Nevertheless in 1930 he filmed his first talkie The Unholy Three (Tod Browning) which was a remake of the 1925 silent version. Chaney feared the talkies, not only because they had ended the careers of other silent stars whose voices had disappointed the public, but also because they meant the end of his speciality--pantomime. As it turned out, audiences and critics were just as impressed by Chaney's versatility with his voice as they had been with that of his body. During the film Chaney imitated the voice of an old woman, a ventriloquist and his dummy, a girl, and even a parrot. To prove it he had to sign an affidavit which was reproduced in the publicity material sent out with the film.
When the film was completed Chaney journeyed east to New York where he consulted throat specialists. They discovered that he had bronchial cancer, though they didn't tell him this. Chaney returned to his mountain cabin in California where he hoped that a long rest would improve his health but was then struck down with pneumonia. He rapidly deteriorated after that and died in hospital on 6 August 1930, at the age of 47, as the result of a throat haemorrhage. A grim, ironic touch was added to his final hours--he lost his voice and was forced to revert to the sign language that he had used as a child to communicate with his parents.
Unfortunately, many of Chaney's films from all periods of his career--London After Midnight (1927) for example--are regrettably lost, though there is hope they may eventually turn up somewhere in the world. As for the films that do survive, especially his MGM work, many languish in the vaults and remain unrestored, unscored, unaired or unreleased on video. This is surprising, given Chaney's emmense popularity. Had Chaney lived, he would have starred, and was indeed slated for the role, in the first sound version of Dracula (Universal, 1931), directed by Tod Browning. That film ultimately starred Bela Lugosi. One can only imagine the excitement that might have been generated by Chaney's interpretation. Perhaps "The Man of a Thousand Faces" might have added a thousand voices to an already distinguished acting career.
--JOHN BROSNAN, from
The Horror People.
A selection of Lon Chaney films.
Find Lon Chaney on eBay.com
A selection of Lon Chaney in books.
A History of Horror
THE SILENT ERA
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