Lon Chaney Jr.
Lon Chaney had not wanted his son to follow him into the film business. When asked about it in 1928, when Creighton Chaney was twenty-two years old, he said, "He's six feet two inches tall. That's too tall. He would always have had to have parts built around him. He couldn't build himself for the part. Besides, he's happy in business and he's got a great wife." At the time of his father's death Lon Chaney Jr. was enjoying moderate success in the plumbing trade, but the Depression soon changed all that. He went against his better judgment and tried to get film work.
His first film was a 1932 comedy called Girl Crazy in which he played a chorus dancer. From 1932 to 1935 he appeared as an extra or a stuntman in scores of thrillers, Westerns and serials. "I worked under five names," said Chaney, "I did extras under one name, stunts under another name, bits under another and leads under my own name (Creighton Chaney). Chaney had had a stock-acting contract with RKO, but after it expired in 1935 he went through a difficult period when he found it almost impossible to get work.
Then his luck changed when he landed a role in the West Coast production of Of Mice and Men. He played the part of the shambling, moronic Lennie and was so impressive he was cast in the film version made the following year (directed by Lewis Milestone). RKO had planned to star him in a remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1939 but that fell through (Charles Laughton got the part). His next film part after Of Mice and Men was Hal Roach's production One Million Years BC (1940) in which he played the disfigured and crippled tribal patriach. Then Universal--his father's old studio--offered him a long-term contract. They had decided that the time was right for a new cycle of horror films, and who better to star in them than the son of the great Lon Chaney. With that Chaney's fate was sealed.
He was originally promised Phantom of the Opera by Universal but Claude Rains got that role; Chaney had to settle for Man Made Monster (George Waggner, 1941) which was about a circus performer who is turned into an electrical freak. It wasn't a hit with audiences but another film he made soon afterwards was: The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941). Apart from Lennie this was to be the role that Chaney Jr. became most associated with, and one which suited him better than the other traditional horror characters he was later to portray. "Of course I believe that The Wolf Man is the best of my horror films--because he is mine!" said Chaney in 1971. (Henry Hull had played a wolf man in the 1935 film Werewolf of London, directed by Stuart Walker, but Chaney's was the definitive version). In fact, he would reprise the role for Universal four more times, in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Son of Dracula (Robert Siodmak) followed in 1942 with Dracula turning up in Louisiana be turn of the last century. The film wasn't as bad as some have made it out to be, and the film contained a number of fine atmospheric moments--one such being when Dracula's coffin, bearing the vampire, emerged from the middle of a mist-shrouded swamp and glided silently across it to the water's edge. In the same year he played the Frankenstein monster in Ghost Of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton). Not having Boris Karloff's lean, expressive face his monster was the inferior of the two, though Chaney obviously tried hard and managed to invest the role with a few of his "Lennie" characteristics. In The Mummy's Ghost (Reginald le Borg, 1944) Chaney again followed in Karloff's footsteps, but while Karloff, in The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932), only appeared in his bandages briefly, Chaney was obliged to shuffle fully wrapped through the whole film.
His relations with Universal rapidly soured. Despite his relative popularity in the horror roles the studio insisted that he should perform routine parts in their most dismal productions. His contract expired in 1946 and was not renewed. After that Chaney battled on with various stage and film parts with other studios. Good roles such as that in High Noon (Fred Zinneman, 1952) where he played the elderly ex-marshall who rejects Gary Cooper's plea for help were rare. More typical werefilms like Bride of the Gorilla (Curt Siodmak, 1951) in which he played a native policeman, and The Black Castle (Nathan Juran, 1952) which had him doing his Lennie role again. In the mid-1950s he appeared in a series of television films (some of which were theatrically released) based on the novel Last of the Mohicans in which he played the Indian with the jaw-breaking name of Chingachgook.
In 1955 Chaney sold his father's life story to none other than Universal Studios. It should not have surprised him that there were problems, but apparently it did. He claimed later, with bitterness, that the day after he sold the story the studio put five writers on to the job rewriting it. The result was Man of a Thousand Faces (Joseph Pevney, 1956) starring James Cagney. Chaney didn't consider the film to be an accurate account of his father's life and career but he was pleased with Cagney's portrayal of Chaney Sr. (handsome Roger Smith, who later starred in the 77 Sunset Strip TV series, played Chaney Jr. in an odd piece of miscasting).
Chaney worked more frequently in the second half of the decade when a new cycle of horror films began (a whole new generation had discovered Dracula, Frankenstein and friends when the old films were shown on late-night television). A number of producers quickly jumped on the bandwagon by turning out cheap new variations of the old themes. The first of these that Chaney appeared in was The Indestructible Man (Jack Pollexfen, 1956). He played an executed killer brought back to life by a mad scientist to commit more murders, a story similar to that of an old Boris Karloff film The Walking Dead (Michael Curtiz, 1936). One bright spot was his appearance in Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958) when he gave a fine performance as Old Sam, a former convict met by escapees Tony Curtis and Sydney Poitier during their run for freedom.
Television was Chaney's mainstay during the 1960s though he still made films. Most of them, apart from exceptions like Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace (1963), were rather terrible. A few of them, such as House of the Black Death (1965) and Night of the Beast (1966), never even got a theatrical screening. In 1969 made one of his last films A Time to Run (Al Adamson--released as The Female Bunch in 1971) in which he was cruelly billed as Lon Chaney Jr.--for the first time in twenty-five years.
It wouldn't be surprising to learn that Chaney, especially in his later years, held a great bitterness towards the acting profession and Hollywood in particular. But Forrest J. Ackerman, editor of a magazine devoted to horror films and their stars, who knew Chaney slightly, doesn't think he did. He was even planning to make a big come-back in a new horror film. "Ironically," said Ackerman, "just like his father, he died of cancer of the throat. He had absolutely clung to at least half a voice. He should have had all his vocal cords removed, but they just went halfway. I was told privately that the cobalt treatments were killing him faster than the cancer. He didn't know he had terminal cancer and he was preparing to go 3,000 miles back east to appear live on the stage in a revival of Arsenic and Old Lace. Two weeks later he was dead [13 July 1973]."
--JOHN BROSNAN, from
The Horror People.
A selection of Lon Chaney Jr. films.
Find Lon Chaney Jr. on eBay.com
A selection of Lon Chaney Jr. in books.
A History of Horror
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