The Golden Age of Hollywood

The Man of a Thousand Faces: "Don’t step on it, it might be Lon Chaney!"

on October 31, 2012

“I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity have within them the capacity for extreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals.” (Lon Chaney)

“He someone who acted out our psyche. He somehow got inside the shadows inside our bodies. He was able to nail some of our secret fears and put them on the screen. The history of Lon Chaney is the history of unrequited loves. He brings that part of you into the open, because you fear that you are not loved, you fear that you never will be loved, you fear there is some part of you that is grotesque, that the world will turn away from you.” (Ray Bradbury)

Lon Chaney with his makeup kit

When I took some kids to shop for their Halloween makeup, I couldn’t help but think of the original master of disguise, Lon Chaney. His THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) was the first silent film I ever saw, and I was scared out of my pants! Later, I gaped open-mouthed at his Quasimodo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923), unable to believe that there was actually perfectly healthy actor in that elaborate costume. Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker has a great deal of respect for Lon Chaney and his generation of makeup-masters:

“A lot of the old makeup guys didn’t have the tools that we have now, and that’s part of the reason their efforts worked so well. They worked within specific limitations. There was a certain reality to their work. It was closer to what you could really believe.” (Monsters in the Movies, 182)

Leonidas Frank Chaney was born on April Fool’s Day in 1883 to deaf-mute parents. He began touring in Vaudeville at an early age and eventually married 16-year-old singer Cleva Creighton in 1905. The marriage produced one child, Lon Chaney, Jr., but ended in divorce in 1913 after Cleva attempted suicide. The scandal ruined Chaney’s stage career, so he signed a contract with Universal Studios and began making moving pictures. Chaney left Universal after a few years to find success as a freelance character actor. However, while working at Universal, Chaney met and married Hazel Hastings. The couple gained custody of his son and would remain happily married until Chaney’s premature death in 1930. The Chaney’s lived a discrete private life, separate from the vibrant social scene of Hollywood at the time. Chaney himself once claimed, “Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney.” 

“No one ever knew what he really looked like because in one movie he might be a vampire with a row of sharp white fangs, and then in another he might be a hunchback, or a Chinese grandfather, or a little old lady, or a legless criminal.” (The Boy of A Thousand Faces, 11)

“It was not simply ugly faces Chaney portrayed, but tortured souls that transcended the makeup, drawing upon an advanced gift for pantomime and body language that was a genuine asset for silent film.” (Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror, 38)

 THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923)
  • Chaney’s makeup included a knotted wig, a fake eye, nose plaster for his cheeks, and false teeth
  • The makeup used to show a growth over one eye permanently damaged his eyesight
  • the heavy  plaster hump (10-15 pounds) and the constrictive harness worn to disfigure his posture understandably caused Chaney severe back pain
  • Chaney interviewed various individuals with physical deformities while preparing for this part:

“His parents’ condition gave him an early understanding of what it is like to be different and an outsider. And it gave him a lifelong sympathy for the outsider that would illuminate his greatest roles.” (Grandson Ron Chaney in Reel Terror: The Scary, Bloody, Gory, Hundred-Year History of Classic Horror Films, 12)

 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)
Not having seen his makeup yet, Mary Philbin‘s shock in the unmasking scene is genuine.
  • Chaney used translucent fish skin and spirit gum to pull back his nose and give his face a distinctly skull-like appearance
  • Chaney’s nose bled when wires were used to disfigure his face
  • egg membrane was used to give the phantom’s eyes a cloudy look
  • Chaney used cotton a collodion to stuff his cheeks
  • to test the effect of his makeup, Chaney invited cinematographer Charles Van Enger to his dressing room: “I almost wet my pants! I fell back over a stool and landed flat on my back.” Chaney removed his false teeth and replied, “Never mind, Charlie. You already told me what I wanted to know.”

 

LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927)
  • Chaney wore false animal teeth made of hard, rubber-like, gutta-percha, which hurt his gums so much that he could only wear them a few minutes at a time
  • the wire loops used to enlarge Chaney’s eyes also contributed to his impaired eyesight
  • the original film was destroyed in an MGM fire sometime in the 1960s and is known as one of the most famous “lost films,” but the version aired this morning (6:30 am EST) on Turner Classic Movies was reconstructed by Rick Schmidlin through “original art titles and still photographs” (according to TCM).

Lon Chaney made only one sound film, a remake of his THE UNHOLY THREE (1925, 1930), for which he had to sign an affidavit declaring that all the voices her performed were in fact his. He had a rich baritone, and if he had lived longer, it might be possible that we would remember Lon Chaney as “The Man of a Thousand Voices.” Those who were closest to him, or had seen him perform in Vaudeville, also claim that he was an adept comedian and dancer. His co-star in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, Patsy Ruth Miller, remembers Chaney as a “very sweet and pleasant man to work with. I was very young, and he was very protective of me” (Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Film Stars, 201). Although Chaney was known for his horror films, he brought a real sense of pathos to each of his roles. Like Chaplin, Chaney developed the humanity in each of his characters, giving them depth and meaning.

“I hope I shall never be accused of striving merely for horrible effects.”

“The parts I play point out a moral. They show individuals who might have been different, if they had been given a different chance.” 

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4 responses to “The Man of a Thousand Faces: "Don’t step on it, it might be Lon Chaney!"

  1. Great tribute and a superb collection of photos. Chaney really was amazing – it's incredible to think about the lengths he would go to for realistic effects.

  2. I know! Sort of reminds me of all the crazy stunts Buster Keaton would do. Thanks for commenting!

  3. says:

    I became to know Lon Chaney through the biopic Man of a Thousand Faces, starred by my all-tim favorite James Cagney. I was so moved by the scene of the crippled man being miraculously healed! And Chaney's life was also amazing.Now I'm downloading He who Gets Slapped, and I can't wait to watch this Chaney movie!Kisses!

  4. Th biopic isn't 100% accurate, but it's still an amazing story about an amazing man. Thanks for reading!

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