Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Original Nightmare Star: Lon Chaney Sr.

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 OperaHe Who Gets SlappedThe 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...



  1. Ah, this harks back to a simpler time when scaring us in the cinema was a lot easier. Now its all wham-bam special effects.

  2. That's a good point Jeff. Much of what was menacing in these horror films was a sense of menace--letting the imagination come into play. Now, for better or worse, its all done for us, and for me (at least) all too graphically.

  3. Some films today are good because they take advantage of light and shadow like the classics did to build up an atmosphere of suspense and fear. The "monster" is rarely seen. "Them" was a terrific science fiction flick because a lot of scientific explanation went into it along with giant ant damage and sounds before the creatures were seen. This actually built up suspense. "The Haunting" is a fairly recently made British film where you don't discover half the actors are ghosts till the end. Really had me going. Not like the stupid Zombie flicks which leave little to the imagination and are indeed too graphic. I thought the original "Thing" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" better than the remakes as well.

  4. It is hard to imagine he was scary compared to some of the tv shows that air today

  5. He may have been a man of a thousand faces, but I doubt that he'd want that top one on as his passport photo. It is a genuinely horrific visage without the benefit of modern day make-up techniques and special effects. (Though black and white films really suit horror, the contrasting black of the darkness, the white of the ghostly face. Where's the good if all is bad?).

    Nosferatu was amazing. The human personification of a virus, a virus being a fair take on the vampire infection after all.

    He died aged 46? He never looked younger than 70 at best, in his films, hehe!

    It is truly amazing when we see so many lame productions in series and film form these days, that people like Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi had to take their cue from real life, due to the virginal nature of the moving image. There was little to ape in those earliest days.
    Now it seems like everything is "aped". How little charisma is left-over when the money-makers have made their choices.
    (Though I did enjoy a film with Robert Downey Junior in the night before last. And if Lon Chaney Junior is anything to go by, Robert Downey senior must be some performer).

  6. Yes,I agree about "The Haunting" and "Them", Stephen, as was the early M Night Shyamalan films like "The Sixth Sense" which kept audiences in suspense. There sure is a need for athosphere since the "slasher" genre, evolved around 1975 by "B" movie filmmakers looking for a young and undiscriminating audience--dominated horror films for so long that it did damage to them as a serious cinena genre.

    "The Thing" and "Invasion.." represent two of the best films of the 1950's. It's tough to remake films that were so good to begin with, part of it I believe is that paralells to Cold War fears of the time couldn't quite be replicated.

  7. Yes, Fred, part of the value of these films is historical. Chaney's costumes and gestures of menace likely had a greater impact in part when so many people in the 20'sa watched these films in a darkened theater on a big screen and (in bigger theaters) with a live orchestra. Television cuts everything down to size and seeing "The Phantom" in a living room "entertainment center" just isn't the same as a giant screen experience.

    I watched several silent film features and shorts years ago at a couple theaters in San Francisco. lt's remarkable how good a silent comedy film, for instance, can "come to life" with it's intended environment--a theater audience.

    I think that less older films like HItchcock's masterpiece "Rear Window" (1954) and "The Birds" (1963) have their greatest impact on big screens with an audience. Major scenes in "The Birds" on the big screen was a whole different experience in my estimation than I got at home.

  8. LOL Oakie. I agree there is something about good black-and-white photography, and the absense of sound, that give films like Chaney's horror films an other-worldly quality.

    The original "Nosferatu" was scarier to me than any "Dracula" film I ever saw as a young person.

    I think Chaney had a rough early life--doing small-time theatrical touring in early 20th Century America was not a secure life-- and he was a heavy smoker, hence his craggy and aged "natural" face.

    That's so true I think about visual cues from real life. There was a interesting documentary on Jack Clayton, the great British cinematographer/director. He made just such a compliant--that modern directors take too much from past films. He studied the painting and natural light to get the effects he wanted in the films. Chaney,Lugosi and other actors had to relearn a technique of acting devoid of the gestures that theatrical actors could get away with. They had to be their own Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness ,et al.

    I wonder which Robert Downey film you saw. He seems to always be the best actor in so many films.

  9. Yes, the lack of sound. A bit Silence of the Lambs, eh?

    When at the beginning of a new art form, the people involved have to be geniuses, or it will never take off. Those early film people invented an entirely new culture. It must have been incredibly stimulating to be part of it all, though, as you say, very precarious. The only modern-day equivalent that I can think of is the revolutionary countries of Eastern Europe and the Middle-East stepping into a whole new Western-style world that they have little solid experience. Starting off with a slim idea or philosophy and building, literally from scratch in some cases, a whole new society. The leaders of the new societies will have to draw on their own life experience and improvise constantly. It's the Russian Revolution or South Africa happening over and over. I think that to be part of such great innovations must be extraordinary, as it must have been with the infant film industry.

    The Downey film was Due Date, which was virtually a remake of Trains, Plains and Automobiles. Though the earlier film was much better. Downey Junior gave a strong performance. If a lesser actor had played his role I probably wouldn't have enjoyed the film to be honest.

  10. Quite so. Good example.

    Yes, Oakie, I think it is true that genius has to take hold soneone like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton had to com,e forward to make comedy truly come alive in those days. Before Chaplin, at least in America, people were just running about in comedies throwing pies at one another and getting into silly situations with the Keystone Cops, etc. He saw there was more to the medium ,things that could be brought from the theater and literature and ultimately created a real art form. Many others were part of that, including Lon Chaney in horror and directors like FW Murnau and Fritz Lang, but, yes one has to see what works in a medium. You don't just start off in film comedy with Shakespeare or Aristrophenes, as the critic Walter Kerr pointed out. The art has to be reborn, rediscovered in a sense.

    Yes, I think "Due Date" was strongly helped by Downey's appearence. I can think of many other actors who wouldn't have made that sketchy character so real.