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Lon Chaney Sr. – Classic Film Legend
Lon Chaney Sr. – Classic Film Legend
Except in the minds of a few film buffs, with long memories, the film "London After Midnight" is lost forever. The last copy of the 1927 silent film starring Lon Chaney (as both an inspector and 'The Vampire') burned in a studio vault fire in 1967. It was last officially inspected by MGM in 1955 and despite its listing by the American Film Institute as one of the 10 'most wanted' films, another copy will probably never be found, but you might want to check your attic just in case!
Fantastic photos of Chaney in his vampire makeup are widely available (as well as Sideshow's three- dimensional version)! Known as 'The Man of a Thousand Faces,' Chaney plays a menacing ghoul who is a suspect in a murder. There are scripts and some production notes, but it is the images that pique the interest of modern film fans. Just his eerie grin and pointy teeth are enough to spark the imagination. The Vampire character doesn't (reportedly) appear in much of the film but his cool factor is so high, he is definitely the icon from the destroyed film's legacy.
If one lost film is a tragedy, what kind of grief is a count of over 100 lost films? The man of a thousand faces has over 150 films to his credit, but less than 50 remain in a viewable form and even a dozen or so of those are in fragments or missing sections or reels. Film buffs and historians are used to the loss of early prints but to have most of the catalog of such a renowned actor completely erased is a major blow to even a casual fan. Despite all of the loss, Chaney remains one of the biggest icons of the silent film era for both his acting and makeup work.
By 1923, Chaney was being billed as his famous "The Man of a Thousand Faces" and for his uncanny ability to transform himself. He was known for altering his appearance in films with the use of wax, grease paint, false teeth and prosthetics. His roles ranged from different races, backgrounds and ages. His gift even made him the subject of a popular one liner of the day: "Don't step on that spider! It might be Lon Chaney!" He was such a makeup expert that he even penned the makeup entry for an edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Chaney was known to be willing to undergo genuine physical pain if it would help him achieve a role. For example, in the famous vampire grin in "London After Midnight" he reportedly used fishhooks to widen the leer and showcase his pointed teeth. For "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" he donned a hump and harness weighing more than 50 pounds to help him capture the tortured nature of the character. He bound his feet to his thighs to play an amputee for his work in "The Penalty" which resulted in broken blood vessels and considerable long-term pain. "My whole career has been devoted to keeping people from knowing me," Chaney said at one time.
For his two most famous roles, Chaney transformed himself completely into the title characters, but it was his ability to act through the makeup that made him so brilliant. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), his Quasimodo was horrifying and sympathetic at the same time. In "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) Chaney's look shocked audiences with its completely different but equally scary visage and in both pictures his presence dominates the film. Phantom was felt by critics to be "too repugnant" but audiences loved it and it remains his most recognizable work. Using his tricks of the trade, Chaney created a Phantom's face - a living skull in Victor Hugo's novel - familiar even today. This image appeared as part of a series of postal stamps, and he was also on another stamp honoring past Hollywood greats. The role also helped launch Universal's classic monster films (Dracula, Frankenstein) over the years that followed.
Lon Chaney was born in 1883 in Colorado in perfect circumstances for a future silent film actor. Both of his parents - Frank and Emma - were deaf and mute. He learned from the cradle to communicate with facial expressions, gestures and pantomime and entertained his family with imitations of local citizens.
Soon he was entertaining more than his family, when at the age of 19 he co-wrote a play with his brother and went on the road with it, performing as an actor. He met his first wife Cleva Creighton as she auditioned for the show and she later became the mother of the other great horror actor in the family, Lon (Creighton) Chaney Jr. After a brief break from acting when his son was born, Chaney was back to perform in vaudeville shows around Oklahoma City and before long the family was touring with shows around the United States and Canada. When these shows failed financially the family was stuck performing as a trio on street corners to get by.
Fortunes changed in 1910 when they arrived in California and found steady employment on and around the stage scene. The couple eventually split and Lon ended up working for Universal Pictures for the booming silent motion picture industry. Universal is largely to blame for so much of Chaney's work being lost. Storing old "useless" films was expensive, and at the time studios could see little future profitability from keeping the old things around once they had played out their audience. Talking pictures, or 'talkies,' also seemed to make films of the silent era obsolete. Universal actually destroyed much of its silent library to salvage a few dollars worth of silver from each print.
Film and Chaney historian Jon C. Mirsalis records that of Chaney's roughly 110 early Universal films (which do not include Hunchback and Phantom) only nine exist in any form and only four are complete.
The list of missing titles includes his first billed appearance in 1913's "Poor Jake's Demise" and his first role in makeup "The Sea Urchin." Chaney also directed a few missing titles and another "gem" from this era makes the AFI 'most wanted' list, "The Kaiser, The Beast of Berlin". After making all those films for Universal by 1918, he asked for a raise, was refused, and left the company to work freelance. When times became tough he wondered if the decision was the right one but he got his "big break" when William S. Hart, a western movie star of the day, requested him for "Riddle Gawne," a Paramount Pictures project, and yes it's lost too.
But a healthy list of surviving titles, that are complete or nearly so, offers those interested a chance to see the master at work. They include "The Unholy Three" (1925) which was remade as a 'talkie' in 1930, the only non-silent film Chaney appears in. Like Charlie Chaplin he valued silent film and shunned the industry's transition into sound. In his only sound film, he plays a crook ventriloquist and uses five voices in the film, leaving us to wonder how much of his amazing talent still went untapped.
Two months after the release of the sound version of "The Unholy Three" Chaney died of a throat cancer before he could fill the role of Dracula for director Tod Browning which went instead to the legendary Bela Lugosi. Chaney's immortality in film however lives on, as does the acting greatness that ran in the family, with the horror work and classic films performed by his son Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man) and those things will never be lost.
Check out 'Silent Film Resources' on the web for the availability of Chaney classics: http://www.cinemaweb.com/silentfilm/.