By John H. Foote
Lon Chaney was born for the silent screen. For acting, for creating. Synonymous with horror, his name instantly recognizable as being a horror movie star it is shocking how few of his films are truly horror films. I have been fascinated with Chaney since I was a boy, since seeing his silent films on the old Elwy Yost Saturday Night at the Movies show, which always came with a documentary or interview with someone who had written a book on Chaney or better knew him.
His gift was creating something heartbreaking out of something ugly, finding the humanity where most would not think it existed. Long before method acting came to America, Chaney sought honesty, the truth in his work, and in doing so created wonders on the screen.
Sadly of the one hundred and fifty-seven films in which he appeared only a dozen remain in their entirety, the rest are lost or we have clips and snippets of what he created on the screen. Most of the films were lost when the studios mined the film stock for their precious silver, while others just rotted away in the cans they were stored in. It is a shameful way to treat the history of the cinema.
Born to deaf-mute parents, he spent his early life with them communicating with his hands, signing, and expression. In doing so he became an expert at facial expression and body language, and when he left vaudeville for the silent screen, who would know within seven years he would be the first major actor to emerge from the new art form?
Forced to leave the stage when his wife, riddled with anxieties and severe depression swallowed bleach on stage, forever damaging her voice, ruining her career and Chaney’s within the stage community, he moved into films thinking he could find work as an extra or small part player. He divorced her and remarried, remaining in a happy marriage for the rest of his days.
Back then films were made side by side, often on stages no more than twenty by twenty. Sound was not an issue, so some of the studios at that time would be making five films at a time side by side. Chaney would check the daily call list see that they needed perhaps a construction worker, go back to the parking lot and make himself up as just that, later in the day being an Indian in a western or a pirate for such a film. In doing this he could work on as many as five t six films a day. He earned a growing reputation as the man of a thousand faces for his skill with makeup. Soon his make up kit went everywhere he did. There were no makeup unions or guilds to contend with, so he was free to create his own for each film he made and each character he created.
No one with this kind of talent can remain hidden for very long and Chaney stunned critics and audiences with his performances in The Miracle Man (1919) as The Frog, a con artist who contorts his body into a virtual pretzel and unwinds it in front of an audience gathered to watch a faith healer. The body language he exhibited in the film was remarkable, and the look on his face as he unwound his body was astonishing to behold. Audiences of the time were held spellbound by the actor. As the legless man in The Penalty (1920) he went through excruciating pain to create his character, strapping his legs up behind him, walking on his knees to bring the character to life. It again was a remarkable feat of acting, free of makeup, but again required Chaney to put his body to use as the character, seemingly bending it at will. Only those on set knew he was in great pain making the film and could work only ten to fifteen minutes at a time in the straps. Even on his knees, his movements were like those of a dancer, lithe, beautiful, smooth.
When the studio decided to make a film version of Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1922), Chaney was invited to portray Fagin, the aging pickpocket who has assembled an army of street urchins to do his bidding. He made the character both entertaining and yet frightening, which he was considering what he did. Both performances attracted the interest of Universal executives, who made it a point to chase Chaney and see if he would be interested in some major films they were working on. It would mean a great deal more money to Chaney, and he was promised the freedom to create his characters free from interference, not that he had encountered much thus far.
As Quasimodo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) Chaney was magnificent. Creating his own makeup for the part, he put himself through physical hell to create the character. He explained in Movie, a magazine of the times why he went to so much trouble creating these characters. HIstory has exaggerated much of the makeup and torment he put himself through, and though the hump he wore did not weigh eighty pounds as often suggested, (twenty was more like it) he did go through a personal hell to create the hunchback.
“I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals”, he explained to the magazine in the twenties.
Universal spared no expense on the creation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) recreating Paris on their backlot and the massive cathedrals, using miniatures for some of the long shots. It was something extraordinary for audiences of the time to be swept back to Paris of the time, centuries ago, literally in front of them as though they were watching the event unfold in front of them. Directors and actors had discovered the magic and endless possibilities of cinema. The film teemed with extras, but all the focus in the movie went on Chaney who created Quasimodo and made him a sympathetic character throughout the film, despite his ugliness. To this day it is considered a horror film, Chaney a monster, but I do not understand why, as the film instead should be seen as a glowing adaptation of a classic novel.
Though he portrayed two of the most grotesquely deformed characters in the history of the cinema, he sought to find a beating heart, their souls within. He brought a poignancy and pathos to each performance, allowing audiences to see the potential for goodness under the monstrous creation. Quasimodo may be hideous, but he is gentle and kind to Esmerelda when he rescues her and sacrifices his life for her. She publicly humiliates the people of Paris by giving the poor creature water after he is whipped for all to see. He never forgets the kindness.
The first time we see him he is high above the Paris streets, sitting with gargoyles that look down near the bell tower. Making faces at the people, he teases them knowing they cannot reach or get to him at such great height. Walking along the narrow parts of the tower, flinging himself about the bells, there is a strange joy to his movements, as away from the streets he seems uninhibited to be completely himself. He does not see himself as others do, only when he is among those below is he made aware of his ugliness and wretched deformity. The first close up we see of him, even today is electrifying, to see the degree of deformity upon his poor face. His single eye glares out, daring us to look at him, daring us to say something, only to droop in shame, to look at the ground when in the presence of the beautiful Esmerelda.
Chaney is truly stunning in the role, in fact, it is a credit to his performance and gifts that no one has ever portrayed the role so well as he. Had there been an Academy Awards ceremony at this time, I doubt anyone could have bested the performance he gives in the film as the Hunchback. Charles Laughton, Anthony Quinn, and Anthony Hopkins all tried the part and were very good, but could not touch what Chaney brought to the character. Beyond his make up was his physicality, his nimble, light on his feet performance, filled with graceful, acrobatic wonder as he leaps from the bells, bounces about the gargoyles high about the earth, watching the life below he knows he can never truly be a part of yet celebrating the life he has. For one so wretched, he seemed filled with a life force. Watch the joy on him, in his movements when he rescues Esmerelda and roars “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” from the church towers where he knows they cannot touch her.
Two years later he portrayed Erik, The Phantom of the Opera (1925) once again giving a chilling performance as a man horribly disfigured yet possessed by a deep love for music and an attraction for talent. Living in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House, he kidnaps a young sing singer to help her train, though he has been watching her and is in love with her. Wearing a mask to hide his deformity, we know from the first moment she sees him, at some point, she will see what lies beneath that mask.
The famous unmasking sequence is among the cinema’s greatest moments of horror, the double whammy scare, superbly directed and edited. As she edges over closer to him as he plays the organ, we know her goal, to snatch his mask off his face. She finally does and the audience sees him first in all his horrible glory. HIs eyes blaze wide with the horror and rage of what she has done, his mouth open in a silent scream. And then he turns to her and she sees it, reacting as audiences of the time did, in absolute horror. The face was like a living skull, with the skin pulled tight over it as though battery acid had been casually tossed on him and permitted to do its damage. The nose was all but gone, the mouth partially opened exposing terrible teeth, and the eyes, so aware of what he was, yet so ashamed too that she has to see it. More than any character he ever portrayed Erik was a true monster, yet again Chaney found something heartbreaking about the character and brought that forth. Once again many great actors have attempted the role, Claude Rains, Herbert Lom, William Finley, and onstage Michael Crawford in the musical, leading to Gerard Butler doing it again for the movie musical The Phantom of the Opera (2005), but again, no one came close to what Chaney had accomplished. Unlike any of the actors mentioned, he found the humanity lurking beneath the monster, and he did it without the benefit of sound!
He continued working at a furious pace, London After Midnight (1927) one of the greatest “lost” films of the time, only a few minutes of footage and stills actually exist. He became a hero to the Marine Corps for his performance as a tough drill instructor in Tell It to the Marines (1926) a role he loves playing. Joan Crawford stated she learned about screen acting watching him at work in The Unknown (1927) as an armless knife thrower saying she understood dedication and sacrifice through what she saw in Chaney.
As sound came to cinema he watched as his friends lost work, not able to make the transition to sound films. But he had worked on the stage, it came easily to him.
Had he lived he might have been called the man of a thousand voice, for he had a knack for altering his voice to suit the character. His only sound film he plays a thief masquerading as a kindly old lady, and he is sensational. Watching it is sad, as it offers a glimpse of what might have been.
Chaney had already been cast and had wardrobe tests for the role of Count Dracula in the upcoming Todd Browning film, Dracula (1931) when he learned he was dying of advanced lung cancer. Death came swiftly to the great, he died in 1930, less than a year after diagnosis. Had he lived it seems doubtful Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff would have had careers as Chaney would have been given the starring roles in the major Universal horror films of the thirties.
In 1957 James Cagney portrayed Chaney in a biography entitled The Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). Though it dove into his past, the film was heavily romanticized, especially the end. Chaney wanted his son to have nothing to do with acting or Hollywood, yet at the end of the film, he scrawls Jr. beside his name on his makeup kit before dying. Baloney!! Nothing but cheap Hollywood sentimentality. Chaney did not want his boy in the world of acting, he fought it all his life. His son Lon would go on to fame as The Wolfman (1941) and enjoy a long career as well, though he fought alcoholism all his life. Those close to him say the drinking was brought about by the knowledge he would never step out of his father’s shadow.
Nicolas Cage has for years had a script about Chaney that he has tried to produce to no avail. Too bad, in his own way he was a superhero of the silent cinema but close-minded studio executives cannot spot a good story. It is my hope his work continues to be discovered and celebrated for the performance art it remains. As Norma Desmond so astutely stated, “We did not need words, we had faces then!” Chaney had a thousand of them.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.
Beautiful, John. Great article – lots of interesting facts about a fascinating man. Luckily the Revue Cinema often plays Chaney films – it’s amazing to see the great actor on the big screen.