Monday, April 20, 2009

Lon Chaney (1883-1930)

"There's nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight."

- Lon Chaney

Lon Chaney was one of the front figures of American actors during the silent era. He's capability of playing a wide range if characters, often misfit, grotesque and misunderstood, and the ability to portray them with his master makeup skills, he was nicknamed "The Man of a Thousand Faces".

Lon Chaney was born Leonidas Frank Chaney on April 1, 1883 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His parents were both deaf mute, so from an early age Chaney learned to express himself via pantomime, sign language and facial expressions. When he was ten, his mother became bed ridden from rheumatism, and he dropped out of school to take care of his family and younger siblings. Chaney used to take walks around the town, and then come home to his mother to perform scetches of what he had seen and make impersonations of the villagers.
When his mother became so ill that she couldn't communicate with sign language, Chaney had to be even more skilled to understand her from only her eyes. This would be an enormously great experience for him later in silent films.

A tribute to Lon Chaney with many great pictures.

As a young man Chaney took a job guiding tourists in Pikes Peak, where he developed a great love for the outdoor life. He also became a very handy man by learning wallpaper, drapery and carpet trades. This gave him an opportunity to work as a porperty boy, stagehand and scene painter at the Colorado Springs Opera House. He got to witness a great deal of actors on the stage, and discovered a fascination for acting.
Said and done. When he was 19, in 1902, he went on a tour with a play he had co-written with his older brother called "The Little Tycoon". He continues to travel with popular Vaudeville and theatre acts, until he in 1906 met the girl who would be his forst wife - Cleva Creighton (born Frances Cleveland Creighton).

Lon Chaney, ca. 1911.

Cleva Creighton-Chaney, ca. 1911.

The year was 1905, and Cleva was a 16 year old beauty auditioning for a part in the show. Against her mother's wishes, she was picked up by the touring company for her lovely singing voice.
Chaney and Cleva fell in love, and the next year she became unexpectingly pregnant. They returned to Oklahoma to prepare for the birth of their son - Creighton Chaney (better known as Lon Chaney Jr). While waiting for the baby to arrive, Chaney had to go back to the furniture and carpet business to support his family, but he kept longing for the theatre.

In the wonderful Lon Chaney documentary A Thousand Faces (2000), some archive footage is shown from a 1960's interview with Lon Chaney Jr. He tells the story of his birth. Apparantly he was dead at birth, it was i early February. His father Lon had, in his desperation, taken the baby out to the lake, cracked a hole in the ice and ducked him in, bringing him back to life. Now, that's a quite a story to tell your grandchildren!

When little Creighton had arrived, the family would join barnstorming shows in the mid west and other parts of the USA and Canada. This was quite a risky job, since the tours often went broke and left the crew without food or money to get home. The family would perform on street corners for money thrown to them, and in bars shere little Creighton would collect the coins and steal sandwiches while the audience was distracted.

By the time of 1910 the family found their way to California and managed to track down some more consistent employments. Chaney found work as a stage manager, actor and choreographer, working with different stage shows in San Fransisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. Cleva was becoming popular as a headliner singer in Cabaret shows.

The marriage, however, was not equally successful. Their relation became tense due to working conditions, jealousy and inability to communicate with each other. In April, 1913, Cleva went to see Chaney at the Majestic Theatre, where he worked as a manager. There she emptied a vial of poison (mercury bichloride) in a suicide attempt. The suicide attempt failed, but did end her singing career and caused a great scandal, ruining Chaney stage career.
Cleva and Chaney filed for divorce in April, 1914, and Chaney searched for luck in the booming industry of silent film. Little Creighton was temporarily placed in a home for children of Divorce and Disaster.

Lon Chaney's brief appearance as Bertrand de la Pogne in The Oubliette (1914).

Chaney's film career between 1912-1917 is not very clear, but he worked under contract for Universal Studios doing bit or character parts. His skill for doing dramatic screen makeup was highly appreciated and helped him move up to the greater parts.
During the time at Universal, Chaney got to know the husband-wife director team Joe De Grasse and Ida May Park, who gave him substantial roles in their pictures and encourage him to take on the more grotesque and macabre parts.

Lon Chaney with his makeup kit.

In 1915 Chaney remarried. This time the woman Hazel Hastings, a former colleague. Little is known about Hazel (chaney was through his career very eager to keep his private life private - "Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney."), but the marriage was substantial, lasting till the death of Chaney, and the couple gained custody of the now ten year old Creighton.

In 1917 Chaney had become one of the most prominent stars of the studio, but his salary didn't live up to his popularity. When Chaney asked for a raise, the studio executive William Sistrom replied:
"You'll never be worth more than one hundred dollars a week."

Chaney left the studio. He had to struggle as a character actor for a year, but in 1918 he appeared in the William S. Hart western Riddle Gawn, and was for the finally recognized by the film industry as the real talent he was.

From the western film Riddle Gawn (1918). Yeah, I know that's not Lon Chaney.

Chaney's real breakthrough came with the role as "The Frog" in The Miracle Man (1919). He did not only get to show his actor skills to the full, but also his talent for makeup. The film's plot circles around a gang of crooks that avoid the police by moving their frauds to a small town. The gang leader's encounter with a spritual healer gives him the idea to use him to scam the naïve villagers of fund for a supposed chapel. But when a real miracle happens, a change comes over the gang.
The film was a critical success and cashed in over $2 000 000, making Lon Chaney considered America's foremost character actor.

Surviving footage from The Miracle Man (1919).

Soon Chaney became the pioneer of classic horror silents, playing the title roles of films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His ability to transform himself through self-invented makeup techniques soon brought him the nickname The Man With A Thousand Faces.

Lon Chaney in the Tod Browning film The Blackbird (1926).

His collaboration with director Tod Browning, who had a fascination for macabre and morbid film making, went on for a total of ten films, and challanged Chaney in both the acting and makeup area. For instance, in The Unknown (1927) he played carnival knife thrower Alonzo the Armless. Yes, the armless knife thrower. In The Unholy Three (1925) he played both Professor Echo and "Granny" O'Grady. In possibly the most famous of the lost films, the horror film London After Midnight (1927), he playes a ghoulish vampire in perhaps the most grotesque vampire makeup in cinema history. In West of Zanzibar (1928) he plays a character named Phroso "Dead-Legs", opposite Lionel Barrymore.

Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford in The Unknown (1927).

Lon Chaney with 14 year old Loretta Young in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928).

Lon Chaney in West of Zanzibar (1928).

Chaney's last film was a talkie and a re-make of the successful The Unholy Three (1930), this time directed by Jack Conway. For that film Chaney had to sign a sworn statement that five of the key-voices in the film (the ventriloquist, old woman, parrot, dummy and girl) were in fact his own.

"I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. 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."

During the last five years of Chaney's film career (1925-1930) he was under contract with MGM, and there made some his most memorable characterizations on screen. For instance in his own favourite film, Tell It to the Marines (1926) where he playes the hardened Sgt. O'Hara, whom the crew silently hates. That performance earned Chaney the affection of the US Marine Corps, who made him their first honorary member from the motion picture industry. They also provided a chaplain and Honor Guard for his funeral.

As Sgt. O'Hara in Tell It to the Marines (1926).

During the filming of Thunder (1929), another sadly lost film, Chaney became ill with pneumonia. In the late 1929 he was diagnosed with bronchial lung cancer. Even though his aggressive treatment, his condition only became worsened. Seven weeks after the premiere of the re-make of The Unholy Three in 1930, he died of a throat hemorrhage.
He was buried in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetary and, for some reason that no one knows, his crypt is unmarked.

A tribute to Lon Chaney, with footage from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). The song is called "Lon Chaney" and is sung by Garland Jeffreys.


Elizabeth said...

Did you know that during the 1920s there was a popular joke that went "Don't step on that spider! It might be Lon Chaney!"

Lovely post by the way!

Lolita said...

Haha, yes, I read that! Very funny. I thought I'd include that trivia in my upcoming "The Many Faces of Lon Chaney" post, where I go closer on the makeup-thingy!

Thanks for the encouragement!

Christopher said...

My favorite Chaney Tribute may have seen it..Great mix of images and music..

Lolita said...

Oh, no, I had missed out on that one! How happy I was when I heard that the music was by my favourite composer of all time - Mike Oldfield! The Killing Fields Soundtrack is quite disturbing even for him, though! But not lesser great, of course.

Christopher said...

I thought I heard the music before..But hadn't seen The Killing Feilds in a long time..I remember how intense and disturbing the music was in parts of that film..

Keith said...

Hey Lolita. Wow! Such an incredible post! I love it so much. I'm a big fan of his. It's great to learn more about him. Love the pictures and clips you posted. Cheers!

Lolita said...

You can't avoid Oldfield's music! It's like The Exorcist - everyone connects the film with that little Tubular Bells tune of his, even though it's not played very much in the film. It reaches you!

Oh, you're so kind! Reactions like yours really makes the time spent on the blog worth its while! Thank you!
I've been ill with a high fever for a couple of days now, so I haven't been able to write anything. I'm feeling a little bit better today (I can at least stand up now!), so I will start writing on the next Chaney post. Stay tuned!

Henry Briceno said...

There's a very good documentary about Chaney on Netflix

Anonymous said...

Lon Chaney, the most incredible character actor every to grace the screen. His life gave him so much depth to tap into for his many roles. He knew what he wanted to convey and he had a well of emotions to carry off any role he undertook. Not sharing his private life, nor being seen often in public, allowed him to re-fuel and enjoy life and nature . Not many actors are able to do this. How tragic that his life ended so early. What a lovely man.

PhilipJRiley said...

Great Blog - Well written - factual and where did you get those wonderful family pictures?