Lon Chaney (1993-1930), nicknamed "The Man of a Thousand Faces," appeared in 157 films between 1913 and 1930. He is remembered for his inventive use of makeup and his portrayal of grotesque characters. Chaney's most famous starring roles were in film productions of The Hunchback of Notre Dameand The Phantom of the Opera.
Alonzo "Lon" Chaney was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on April 1, 1883. He was one of four children born to speech and hearing impaired parents. Chaney's father worked as a barber. When young Lon was still a child, his mother became seriously ill and was bedridden for the rest of her life. He left school and spent much of his time caring for her and his siblings, and entertaining them with pantomimed stories. Chaney later recalled his childhood as a happy time, with a tightly knit family that spent much time together at home.
Chaney's older brother, John, was the manager of a theater. When Chaney was barely a teenager he started to work there, handling and then making props. He often watched the performances and became an apprentice stage hand. In later years, he still proudly displayed his membership card in the local stage hands' union. His father, however, thought that one member of the family in the theater was enough. Chaney moved to Denver where he worked during the next several years as a carpet layer, wallpaperer, interior decorator, and guide on trail rides to Pike's Peak.
When Chaney was in his late teens, he was invited to join his brother's production of a comic opera. Chaney immediately left his job as a decorator. The company was soon bought by Charles Holmes, who took it on a three-year tour across the West. The repertoire was mostly comic operas, and Chaney began to imagine a career as a comic actor. He also began to learn about stage design and choreography. Chaney did some work as a producer, and during these travels also started to develop the makeup skills that he would employ in his film career. In 1905, he married Cleva Creighton, a member of the company. Their son Creighton was born the following year.
Headed to California and Film Career
After several years of traveling performances, Chaney joined a vaudeville team in San Francisco and began to think about trying his luck at films. His wife was working as a nightclub singer and reportedly became an alcoholic. Although the reasons are not totally clear, she made an unsuccessful suicide attempt. The poison she drank destroyed her singing voice. Chaney divorced her and prevented her from having any contact with their son Creighton. He married Hazel Bennett Hastings, a union that lasted until his death. Chaney remained an intensely private person throughout his career. Rather than attend film openings, he preferred to go trout fishing. He rarely gave interviews. His own face without makeup was so seldom seen in photographs that Chaney was often unrecognized in public. Like his father, Chaney discouraged his son from becoming an actor.
In 1912, Chaney attempted to find work at Universal Studios in Hollywood. At that time, the studio was a converted corral with a single building where filming took place. Chaney was hired as an extra, which meant that he did everything from occasional bit parts to moving scenery. His first film appearance was in the 1913 film, Poor Jake's Demise. During the next few years he played small parts in about 70 short films and a few feature films at Universal Studios. Notable among these was 1919's The Wicked Darling-not for the quality of his performance, but because it marked his first recorded film appearance with director Tod Browning, with whom Chaney would make ten films.
Chaney remained with Universal Studios for six years, and recalled later how he fought to get his salary raised above one hundred dollars per week. He left that studio (although he later returned to it several times to star in feature films), and soon made his "breakthrough" in 1919's The Miracle Man. In this film he played a beggar who could dislocate his limbs at will. Although the director wanted to hire a contortionist, Chaney won the part at his audition. As he told Movie Magazine in 1925, "I flopped down, rolled my eyes up in my head like a blind man, and started dragging my body along the ground."
Career Peaked in Two Famous Films
After The Miracle Man, Chaney was in demand for roles that highlighted both his talents as a character actor and his ability to endure sometimes extreme physical pain to portray a maimed or deformed character. Michael Blake, who has written a trio of biographies of Chaney, described just a handful of the roles played by Chaney: "a Russian peasant, a tough Marine sergeant, a century-old mandarin and his grandson, a tragic clown, a shrewd police detective, a crippled magician, a legless criminal, five different Chinese roles, a deformed bell ringer, a mysterious phantom, a Swedish farmer who becomes senile, a blind pirate, a deranged surgeon and his botched experiment (a half man/ half ape), a scheming country lawyer, a veteran train engineer.… "To take on these roles, Chaney developed exceptional skills as a makeup artist, so much so that he was asked to write an entry on makeup for the 1923 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Chaney became one of Hollywood's most popular actors during the silent film era, eventually accumulating a total of 157 recorded film appearances between 1913 and 1930. In 1923, he starred in what would become one of his best-known films, a silent version of Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. To play this role, Chaney endured incredible physical discomfort and often agonizing pain. He described the experience to Movie Magazine: "My body was strapped into a harness, which gave it the appearance of being stunted and deformed. I could work only a few hours a day, it hurt me so. I wore false teeth, which made it almost impossible for me to speak. Over one eye was a heavy lump of putty." The harness weighed 72 pounds; and the putty over his eye caused permanent blurring of his vision. In 1925, Chaney starred in a silent version of The Phantom of the Opera, once again playing a physically grotesque character at great cost to his own comfort. To play the title character (whose face was a "living death's-head," according to Michael Dempsey in Film Comment), Chaney reportedly inserted wires into his nostrils to make them point upward.
Even though he is best remembered for these portrayals of characters with a horrible physical appearance, Chaney did not see them as monsters. As he told reporter Louella Parsons in one of his few interviews (in the New York Morning Telegraph,), "I want always to create sympathy and in the end to win redemption. There would be no purpose in playing so hideous a character if in the end we could not feel the man had a soul and that he had been saved from utter degradation."
Died at Dawn of "Talkies"
As the 1920s came to a close, a revolution occurred in filmmaking: the birth of the "talkie." Many silent film stars were unable to make the transition to the talking film, either because their voices were unsuitable or they could not adapt their acting styles to the new format. Chaney decided to take the chance and starred in a talking film, a remake of his popular 1925 silent film, The Unholy Three. In this film Chaney (playing a criminal ventriloquist, Professor Echo) showed his adaptability by using several different voices, including the voice of an old woman.
Chaney's career was suddenly cut short just as he was negotiating with his favorite director, Tod Browning, for the lead role in a sound version of Dracula, which could have been his greatest performance. On August 26, 1930, at the age of only 47, Chaney died in Los Angeles as the result of a throat hemorrhage from bronchial cancer, probably brought on by his heavy smoking habit. His final film, The Unholy Three, was released several weeks before his death. The role of Dracula went to the relatively unknown Bela Lugosi, who became a star. In future years Chaney's son Creighton (who changed his name to Lon Chaney, Jr.) also became an actor, appearing in almost 150 films. He often played monsters in horror films, including the Wolf Man, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, and Dracula.
Many of Chaney's best film performances no longer can be seen. The nitrate film used in the early days of filmmaking deteriorated, and only about 25 hours of Chaney on film are known to exist, out of his 157 film appearances. Many of his roles are only captured now in publicity photographs and posters. Chaney's life story was told in the 1957 film, Man of a Thousand Faces, starring James Cagney.
Further Reading on Lon Chaney
Blake, Michael F. The Films of Lon Chaney, Vestal Press, 1998
——Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces, Vestal Press, 1993.
——, A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney's Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures, Vestal Press, 1995.
Entertainment Weekly, Fall 1996 (Special Collector's Issue); September 12, 1997.
Film Comment, May-June 1995.
Insight on the News, February 19, 1996.
Movie Magazine, September 1925 [reproduced in The Silents Majority: On-line Journal of Silent Film, http://www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms/FeaturedStar/star8.htm (March 17, 1999)].
New York Morning Telegraph, September 2, 1923 [reproduced in The Silents Majority: On-line Journal of Silent Film, http://www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms/FeaturedStar/star8.htm (March 17, 1999)].
The Silents Majority: On-line Journal of Silent Film, http://www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms/FeaturedStar/star8.htm (March 17, 1999).