Lon Chaney Sr. was the granddaddy of the Character Actor-Star in American films, and in many ways he single-handedly created the horror film genre. Lon is remembered mainly for two films where he played the grotesques of the title: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). In fact, almost all his other films were melodramas, bizarre to be sure, but not exactly horror films. Reclusive by nature, the studios publicized him as the “man of mystery.” Chaney worked in silent films before makeup artists entered the field and developed his own makeup so skillfully and could appear so different from film to film that he was eventually dubbed “The Man of A Thousand Faces.”
Lon labored in the vineyards of film-making from 1914 on playing in support of some well-remembered stars such as William S. Hart and many forgotten ones. Many of these early works are now lost including his breakthrough film, THE MIRACLE MAN (1919), where he played a phoney paralytic. Here is Chaney as himself (more or less) and in character:
In 1922, Lon appeared in a photo spread displaying his craft in conjunction with the film A BLIND BARGAIN (another lost one). Here he displays his makeup case that can be seen today at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History:
Lon tries out some fangs in planning the appearance of his “apeman” character in the film. Enlarging this photo shows the time on Chaney’s wrist watch as 2:50:
Lon combs out his apeman wig (the time is now almost 2:55):
Lon’s Asian characterizations are remarkable. This portrait, scanned directly from a negative, is from OUTSIDE THE LAW (1923), a film that not only survives but is available on dvd. This photo is striking in black & white but if color film were available, the photographer might have attempted a lantern-light effect such as this:
At a time when movie villains were typically handsome and well-dressed, Chaney displayed evil in characters usually portrayed sympathetically such as the disabled. Another photo scanned directly from a negative, here Lon plays a malevolent cripple in THE SHOCK (1923), another film available on dvd:
Chaney waits between camera setups in perhaps the most famous scene in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923). Note the two reflectors on the right used to redirect the sunlight to brighten up shadows on the buildings across the plaza:
A fine study of Quasimodo from THE HUNCHBACK. In the film Chaney seems unrecognizable under his makeup, but here you can almost see Lon’s face:
Circa 1923, Lon poses for some “mug shots” to demonstrate how he arranges his features and uses dental appliances to suggest a character:
Lon would apply adhesives to pull his skin taut but here he demonstrates how he developed his characterizations more informally:
Both photos above are scanned directly from negatives.
Lon wrings out his sleeve after emerging from the underground lagoon beneath the Paris Opera House in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). Chaney’s makeup design for Erik the Phantom was arduous enough but now it also had to be waterproof:
The Unused Ending – preview audiences rejected this finale where Erik dies of a broken heart and the film went back into production to create a new ending:
Lon frequently teamed up with director Tod Browning to create a number of macabre masterpieces. One of their best collaborations is THE UNKNOWN (1927) where Chaney portrays a murderer posing as a bogus armless circus performer. To escape detection and impress a woman, he has his arms amputated!
In this publicity photo for THE UNKNOWN, Chaney demonstrates his “skill” at writing with his foot for actress Claire Windsor. Actually, Chaney was doubled in the film where he uses his feet as hands:
Lon plays three generations of an Asian family in Mr. Wu (1927). Here he takes a break from filming by conducting a student orchestra visiting the MGM studio:
Perhaps the most famous “lost” American film, LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) where Lon plays a vampire but only as a ruse (no harm giving away the ending since the film is lost) to expose a murderer:
Another direct negative scan, this is one of Lon’s lesser known Thousand Faces from the opening scene in WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928):
Yet another restored lobby card from 1929, Lon’s next-to-last silent film is the final collaboration between Chaney and director Tod Browning, and featured Lupe Velez and Lloyd Hughes:
A fanciful shot of Chaney as he might have looked in his 60s from his last silent film, a railroad drama titled THUNDER (1929). Alas, only a few minutes survive:
Lon Chaney made only one talkie, the very successful THE UNHOLY THREE (1930), which was a remake of his 1925 hit. Filmed during April 1930, the Man of a Thousand Faces spoke in five different voices, including as an old lady, a parrot, and a ventriloquist’s dummy pictured here in what turned out to be Lon’s final photo session:
Chaney’s death from lung cancer on August 26, 1930, shocked the world. He was only 47. The old story of how Universal wanted Lon for DRACULA (1931) has been discredited but then Universal didn’t want Bela Lugosi either. But that’s another story to be told in our next post (in anticipation of Halloween), On the Set with Bela Lugosi.