Every film Lon Chaney starred in was a Lon Chaney film. It didn’t matter if he was the lead or in support, it was a Lon Chaney film. This is often the case with big-name stars, a Tyrone Power movie is a Tyrone Power movie and a Barbara Stanwyck movie is a Barbara Stanwyck movie. But Chaney was never the typical movie star or lead. He was older, often starred in grotesque and bizarre outings, and wasn’t ugly, but often made himself look disfigured and gruff through make-up. This kind of thing is always expected from a top-notch character actor, but the film’s star? One of Chaney’s trademarks was that he could contort his body different ways and used make-up to disguise himself as other characters, something that Paul Muni would also later be famous for. Another one of his modern trademarks is that he is referred to as a figure in the horror genre. In truth, Chaney made only a few films that would be certainly classified as horrors as his films were unusual and sometimes unsettling, but not necessarily horrors. His son, Lon Chaney, Jr., made flat-out horror flicks like the Universal monster movies, but Chaney, Sr.’s work was more in sentimental dramas that had a flair for the strange and unique.
Having worked in films since 1913, what survives of Chaney’s early film career is work as villains in such silent features as The Wicked Darling (1919) and Victory (1919). Only a small fraction of his star-making film The Miracle Man (1919) exists, but it’s the part everyone remembers. He plays a man working for a fake spiritualist who twists his body to make him look handicapped and manages to pretend to be healed by the con-artist. The way he was able to contour his body shocked audiences and immediately gave him the distinction of being an unusual presence. What is missing, however, is that Chaney’s character, like the rest of the con-artists, later goes through redemption and finds happiness. Instead, what people remember is this thief turning his body into all kinds of positions to fool the unassuming public.
In his starring vehicle The Penalty (1920), he makes himself appear peg legged, in Ace of Hearts (1921) he’s in a suicide pact, in Oliver Twist (1922), he’s the man that uses children to steal, etc. When Irving Thalberg made Chaney a star at Universal (and later MGM) with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), his specialty in heavy disguises was further used to play the titular deformed bell ringer. One of the trademarks of a Chaney film is that he is always in love with a girl, but he never gets her because he loses out to someone more handsome and “normal”. He yearned for Norma Shearer, Patsy Ruth Miller, Eleanor Boardman, Joan Crawford, Barbara Bedford, Anita Page, Loretta Young, etc. and lost them to more strapping young men like John Gilbert and Nils Asther. Chaney actually had a reputation off-screen for being nice and helpful to young actresses, hence why so many worked with him and had nothing but nice things to say. Several times we actually wanted him to get the girl instead, like in The Light in the Dark (1922) where he seemed too good for Hope Hampton even if he played a crook. Like many of his type, his association with playing corrupted on-screen characters influenced how people perceived him off and they were always shocked by how kind and soft-spoken he was.
The best work of Lon Chaney wasn’t his ability to transform, but his use of pathos and emotion that made him sympathetic, even as wicked characters. For instance, that little sewn heart he toys with in He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and how cruel it seems that he has lost his wife and now must go through unrequited love again is heartbreaking. It’s moments like those that show that Chaney was one of the master actors of his time as it doesn’t rely on spectacle, but instead is subtle and keeps the film from being too melodramatic. No doubt with the popularity of the horror genre in the ‘30s, Chaney would have cemented his image more so in horror than he did in the silent era. His go-to director Tod Browning would have certainly used him for his horror pictures at the beginning of the decade if he hadn’t died in 1930 with one talkie made. For instance, he was considered for Dracula (1931). In the ‘30s, the movie monsters and “freaks” were shown in a kinder light as victims of circumstance and Chaney would have fit that personality like a glove. Instead we’re left with a Master of Horror, who made few horrors and is more correctly known as, The Man of a Thousand Faces.
Three Recommended Lesser Seen Films:
The Ace of Hearts (1921)
I became a fan of Lon Chaney’s immediately after seeing him for the first time. How could one not? Chaney was as charismatic as they come, completely commanding the screen he occupied, and always leaving you wanting more. All his performances had an identity to them even if it was just to be off-the-walls nuts. While Chaney became a star during the silent screen days when either good-looking leads or comedically talented people became household names, Chaney became a star through a different means. He was mainly a horror actor and played character roles on-the-screen. He was one of the first character actors to become rightfully famous as they tended to just be left in support. This was likely because Chaney was so good, how could he possibly go through life as an actor in 1920’s Hollywood and not become a big star? He was one-of-a-kind at the time and he led the way to many great horror leads following in his footsteps including Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, and (naturally) his own son Lon Chaney Jr. Chaney is the precursor to all the horror stars that rose during the talkie era and he remains one of the very best of his kind (if not the best).
With both of his parents’ deaf-mutes, Chaney learned how to communicate without the use of dialogue and words. This made him a perfect fit for the silent film screen where many actors had to learn how to properly emote enough for the audience to understand them without going too far into hammy territory. Chaney hit the ground running with The Wicked Darling (1919), what survives of The Miracle Man (1919), and Victory (1919) among others. Already Chaney controls the screen and steals the spotlight from his fellow actors. While it would have been normal to leave him in supporting character roles, luckily studios knew what a good investment Chaney could be, and he started playing leads.
One of Chaney’s most praised early works is in The Penalty (1920). In the role of a sadistic amputee with a backstory attached that makes the audience sympathize with him, Chaney proved just how far he was willing to go for a role. Both of his legs were tied to the back of his knees and he had to walk on his kneecaps which made the pain intolerable leading Chaney to only be able to do the stunt for a few minutes at a time. He sustained permanent damage, but he made a mark on viewers. This led to Chaney becoming a lead actor with his name above the title. He also got more juicy roles in such films as The Ace of Hearts (1921) and Oliver Twist (1922) where he was perfectly cast as Fagin. While usually playing main characters, Chaney’s roles and his movies were always quite bizarre. Naturally, it was this bizarre nature that helped make them so watchable and different at the time as well as today.
Outside of usually being required to play characters that were demented or physically unusual in some way, Chaney was also known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” as he was frequently under heavy make-up in his films. One of the strongest examples of Chaney’s ability to not only blend into a role but also completely change his appearance came with one of Chaney’s most notable films, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). While overall, the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the better movie, Chaney (along with some massive sets) makes the silent version required viewing. Chaney’s version of the monster in Hunchback was still sympathetic like many of his roles before it which made his monstrous role in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) even more of a stand-out. Chaney’s version of Erik aka the Phantom is probably still the screen’s scariest version of the role. His make-up transformation has also never been better with a justifiably famous unmasking scene. Audiences were not shown what Chaney’s face looked like before the unmasking scene of the film (it was even hidden on the film’s posters), so when the scene happened it caused shock waves to many audience members. One of Gregory Peck’s movie-going memories was being terrified of Chaney’s Phantom as a child.
Chaney got more chances to show-off his versatility in horror and other genres when he went to MGM. Under the leadership of Irving Thalberg, Chaney was given a series of films that perfectly suited his screen persona and acting style. It started with He Who Gets Slapped (1924) which contains some of Chaney’s most heartbreaking scenes on film where he plays a clown in a circus. He then got to play a mad doctor in The Monster (1925), a ventriloquist con-artist in The Unholy Three (1925), a deformed thief in The Blackbird (1926), a strict sergeant (sans make-up) in Tell It to the Marines (1926), a vengeful Chinese man in Mr. Wu (1927), an armless knife-thrower in the especially creepy The Unknown (1927), a Russian peasant in Mockery (1927), another clown role that is arguably even more heartbreaking than his take on He in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), and as a paralyzed magician in West of Zanzibar (1928). Often Chaney’s tortured characters were so sympathetic that he was easy to root for and perhaps we could root for him too much. Of course, this is except when he crosses the line such as in The Unknown, but most times we wanted him to win in the end even though we knew tragedy was inevitable for his characters.
Chaney’s only talkie was in a remake of The Unholy Three (1930) where he played the same character as in his silent film version. This is extra unfortunate as Chaney has the exact type of speaking voice you’d picture him having and his transition to sound had no issues in terms of performance and speaking. He sadly died in 1930 before he could play Dracula for common director Tod Browning in the 1931 film version. Chaney would go on to be played by James Cagney in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) which works better than it would sound as I’m sure most people would imagine another horror actor portraying Chaney such as a Peter Cushing-type, but Cagney is charismatic and never dull himself which is basically the essence of Chaney’s film persona. This form of persona was passed on to his son, Creighton, who films renamed Lon Chaney Jr. While his son had a similar style, there was no other star quite like Chaney Sr. To quote what Chaney said to Boris Karloff, “The secret of success in movies lies in being different from anyone else.” Chaney proved that was so true.
Three Recommended Lesser-Seen Films:
Oliver Twist (1922)
The Unholy Three (1930)