"Don't step on that spider - it might be Lon Chaney!"
popular expression in the 1920's
Lon Chaney was a real genious when it came to transforming himself for a screen role, only by the use of makeup. His innovative makeup skills, picked up from his time at the theatre, and his talant as an actor made him successful as a character actor.
Through his career he managed perfectly to nail a wide range of parts, from sad clowns, a legless professor, a Russian peasant, a marine officer, an old Chinese man and a crusty railroad engineer to legendary charcters like the phantom of the opera, Fagin in Oliver Twist and the hunchback of Notre Dame. His characters were often sad, misunderstood, outcast or mentally screwed. Let me introduce a few of his charcterizations for you.
Blizzard in The Penalty (1920)
Lon Chaney playes Blizzard, a double amputee underworld criminal who lost his legs as a child by the work of an incompetent doctor.
For the role Chaney devised a leather harness with stumps, binding the calves of his legs with his thighs, that allowed him to walk on his knees. This was however very painful for him, and he couldn't have his legs in that position for more than ten to fifteen minutes before h
e needed a break. A great example of how Chaney poured his soul into his characters.
Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
For the role of Quasimodo Chaney really used his makeup skills to the full. He studied Victor Hugo's novel and the descriptions he gave of the hunchback, and formed his character as faithfully as he could (later being accused ov overdoing the makeup). His ma
keup included a 7o lbs (!) hump attached to a large breastplate and pads similar to those worn by football players, making him unable to stand erect, which was his intention. Over this he wore a skin-tight flesh coloured rubber suit covered with animal hair.
The heat inside the costume was nearly unbearable, causing Chaney to perspire in floods.
Paul Beaumont in He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
Directed by Swedish film pioneer Victor Sjöström, Chaney plays the role of an inventor who, after suffering betrayal in life, makes a career of it by becoming a clown who's act consists of being slapped by the other clowns. He falls in love with fellow circus performer Norma Shearer, but fails to be taken seriously.
In the first, silent version of the film Chaney plays a ventriloquist, who later masks up with two other sideshow performers (Chaney as an old lady) in an effort to steal some jewels.
In the talkie version, Chaney's only sound film, he signed a sworn statement that he would do five of the voices in the film (the ventriloquist's, the dummy's, the old lady's, a girl's and a parrot's voice), which named him "the man of a hundred voices". For the voice of Granny O'Grady he succeeded by only softening his voice a little.
Erik the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
As Chaney did with the character of Quasimodo two years earlier, he studied Gaston Leroux's novel to be able to match the original descriptions of the phantom as close as possible. Leroux describes the phantom as looking like a naked skull, and so Chaney managed to make his character look. Chaney inserted a device in his nostrils making them wider, and taped up the top of his nose to make it look like a cranium. On top of this he used false teeth to which were attached small prongs to draw back the corner of his lips.
Chaney convinced the advertising department to remove his face on the film posters, to make the unmasking of the phantom in the film more dramatic. And that it was
- people were reported to have fainted in the theatres!
"The success of the makeup relied more on the placements of highlights and shadows, some not in the most obvious areas of the face."
Alonzo the Armless in The Unknown (1927)
Chaney plays the armless knifethrower Alonzo the Armless. He has a crush on his colleague Nanon Zanzi (Joan Crawford), a woman that has a fobia for men's hands.
It was during the filming of this movie that Chaney realized that he had taken damage of his passion for over-the-top makeup - this role aqcuired a strain jacket that strapped his armes so tight that his spine was damaged.
"I can't play these crippled roles any more. That trouble with my spine is worse every time I do one, and it's beginning to worry me."
I thought I could end this post with another little tribute video (recommended by Christopher), with the wonderfully disturbing soundtrack by my favourite composer Mike Oldfield. Many of Chaney's characters are displayed in this video.