Silent film star Lon Chaney did his own make-up, creating a panoply of monsters and bizarre figures that paved the way for later actors in horror films to try and keep up with.
One of those landmark films was the original "Phantom of the Opera" from 1925. Seeing it late one night in a empty house waiting for my parents to return from some social event, I was about ten years old at the time, and had only seen the silent films of Charlie Chaplin, which gave me the impression that silent films were not the province of horror.
I didn't reckon on "The Man of a Thousand Faces".
Other than the German version of the "Dracula"story by Bram Stoker, "Nosfuatu" (1922) , no film of the silent era kept me awake like that ever again!
Long years playing roles in theater had given Chaney the chance to perfect his skills as a master of make-up techniques. Many of the roles he played-a character without legs, or arms, the famous hunchback of Medieval Paris, et al, --called for such physical demands on him that one wonders if he had a penchant for some sort of self-punishment. From Wikipedia:
"Following the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923, Chaney was once again given the freedom to create his own make-up as the Phantom, a habit which became almost as famous as the films he starred in. Chaney painted his eye sockets black, giving a skull-like impression to them. He also pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it in place with wire, enlarged his nostrils with black paint, and put a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth to complete the ghastly deformed look of the Phantom. When audiences first saw The Phantom of the Opera, they were said to have screamed or fainted at the scene where Christine pulls the concealing mask away, revealing his skull-like features to the audience.
"Chaney's appearance as the Phantom in the film has been the most accurate depiction of the title character, based on the description given in the novel, where Erik the Phantom is described as having a skull-like face with a few wisps of black hair on top of his head. As in the novel, Chaney's Phantom has been deformed since birth, rather than having been disfigured by acid or fire, as in later adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera."
Chaney was a major star in the 1920's and his films the one pictured above--the famous unmasking scene-- I considered quite shocking due to the frightening make-up he employed and the sense of gothic menace created by big studio cinematographers.
Lon Chaney, the father of future Universal horror star Lon Chaney Junior--whose most memorable role was in several "Wolf Man" films--played a rich variety of roles. A tough no-nonsense Marine in "Tell It To The Marines" (1927), a bone-tired and cynical detective in "While The City Sleeps" (1929) and a carnival hustler turned crook in "The Unholy Three" (1924). That persona, of a tough guy who could also be noble, was similar to the star persona that Humphrey Bogart carried off two decades later.
But it was in his grotesque, expressionistic parts that he established his star power, a legend that was cut short near the end of the Silent Era with his death from lung cancer at age 46. He also played a Scotland Yard investigator posing as a vampire to trap a killer in the now-lost "London After Midnight" (1927), perhaps the most sought-after missing feature of the late silent era. (A photo of the character he played is to the left.)
The senior Chaney made it a point to be as invisible as possible to the public between his roles on the screen. He must have thought the less he spoke of himself, the more power his persona in whatever part he choose to play. In a rare bit or relveation, he wrote of his work in a film magazine.
"I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice," Chaney wrote in Movie magazine. "The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since The Hunchback, such as The Phantom of the Opera, He Who Gets Slapped, The Unholy Three, etc., have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do."
Chaney's parents were both deaf and so the pantomime acting required for silent films came to him very easy--he had been communicating with gestures and facial expressions all of his young life.
It's conceded by most film historians I've read that Chaney would have likely starred in both the original "Dracula" film as the Count and as the Monster in "Frankenstein", both made at his original studio, Universal. "Dracula" was directed by his freguent collaborator, Todd Browning.
Instead those films made stars of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Thanks to television revivals, they became stars, and Karloff's career was as successful as Chaney's. But for that vacuum of the loss of "The Man of A Thousand Faces", they might never have become household names in their own lifetimes.
But thanks to DVD releases and repackaging of silent films by The Criterion Collection and Kino Video, this elder master of horror is getting some of his due back these days. The movie viewers are the better I think for seeing what scared us then...and might chill us still...