Lon Chaney has the remarkable distinction of being a character actor who was, at the same time, a star. We are accustomed to thinking of film actors as one or the other, particularly in the regimented caste system of Hollywood’s heyday, but Chaney transcended that. He did this by being one of the finest actors of his generation.
Known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and using his talent as a makeup artist to create vivid screen monsters, Chaney was also an actor of intense charisma, capable of showing profound depth of emotion.
His ability to convey emotions deftly on the silent screen is sometimes attributed to his being the son of deaf parents, where pantomime was communication at home. He learned about the transforming magic of makeup, wardrobe, and even dance and choreography on the vaudeville circuit, and eventually made his way by 1914 to the first Hollywood studio, Nestor, on Sunset and Gower Streets (which later became Gower Gulch). He moved on to Universal where he made over 100 films, most of which are now lost. According to an American Masters documentary on PBS on Chaney, Universal simply recycled the old films for the chemicals.
By 1919, we see Mr. Chaney in “The Miracle Man” as a scam artist pretending to be crippled with a contorted body and then pretending to be cured. He plays a Chinese character in “Shadows” (1922), Fagin in “Oliver Twist” and the famous “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923). The pitiable scene where Esmeralda gives him water after he is whipped is powerful, and we see a pattern of Chaney’s playing tortured souls beneath the tortuous faces. Especially, there is a pattern of Chaney’s playing a character in love with a girl who loves someone else.
However, his characters are not always sympathetic, and never ask for pity. In “He Who Gets Slapped” (1924) his character is a man out for revenge, a twisted and somewhat grotesque soul who nevertheless has our sympathy when his declaration of love is laughed at by Norma Shearer, who honestly believes him to be kidding.
In “The Unholy Three” (1925), he plays a ventriloquist and a con-man who also pretends to be an old lady to pull off a scam. This film was remade as a sound film in 1930, and was Chaney’s last film before he died. His pinnacle was probably “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) (see blog entry April 24, 2007) which continues his characterization of figures who are grotesque, as inwardly as they are outwardly, and yet pull at our conscience and our sympathy.
One film, “Tell it to the Marines” (1927) in which he plays a Marine sergeant, is done without makeup and is a departure from his normal characters, but without the makeup we see the strength and power of his acting.
A truly grotesque story is the “The Unknown” (1927) in which he plays a circus knife thrower in love with a young Joan Crawford. He has a congenital defect, possessing double thumbs on his hands, but for his act he pretends to be armless, throwing knives with his feet. When he commits murder and realizes he can be identified by his abnormal hands, he blackmails a doctor into actually removing his arms. However, Joan Crawford still falls in love with Norman Kerry anyway, and the look on Chaney’s face when he realizes he has amputated his arms for nothing is shocking. Mr. Chaney’s frozen, icy, not-quite-a-smile suggesting, “Oh, I’m so happy for you two,” while at the same time being hit with the burden of being an armless man for the rest of his life is so stunning it is almost frightening. He does not need to have horrible makeup to convey horror to us. The characters Mr. Chaney plays are often damned, and they seem always to damn themselves.
That’s it for this week. See you Monday.
Lon Chaney Movies