Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Lon Chaney: Man of a thousand faces

Lon Chaney was born on the 1st of April 1886 in Colorado; he went on to become one of the greatest character actors the silver screen has ever seen. He was the definite Phantom of the Opera and played the hunchback Quasimodo to perfection. He did his own stage makeup and earned the nickname “The man of a thousand faces."

This is his story.

Lon Chaney was born to deaf and dumb parents and was only able to communicate with them by sign language. The other children in the neighbourhood mocked Lon’s parents and he was so distressed by his parents suffering that he refused to speak until he was 8yrs old. For the rest of his life he sympathised with the downtrodden and afflicted and he was at his best portraying misfits and outcasts. At around 10yrs old he quit school to care for his bed ridden mother and to pass the time he would do pantomime to entertain her. His ability to mimic other people stood him in good stead throughout the rest of his life.

He got a job as a tourist guide taking people around Pikes Peak a local landmark. He went on to work in a variety of others roles including decorator, draper and cowboy!

He eventually got a job in theatre albeit painting stage scenery after his older brother had pulled some strings at the Colorado Springs Opera House where he worked.
Inspired by the many acts he saw he eventually went on tour as an actor in a play he had co-written with his brother, he was 19-years-old.
Three years later he fell head over heels in love and married 16yr old Cleva Creighton a singer with the troupe. In 1906, their only child Creighton Chaney was born; he also enjoyed success in the movies in later life under the screen name Lon Chaney Jnr.
The next few years were really tough for the family and the marriage began to fall apart. It all came to a head in a dramatic fashion when Cleva attempted suicide on stage, drinking the poisonous mercury bio chloride. She survived the attempt but her vocal chords were so badly damaged that she would never sing again.

It was a terrible scandal and it ended in divorce in 1915, sadly little Creighton was taken away and put into a home “The Home for Children of Divorce & Disaster”
Lon turned away from the theatre and sought work in the fast growing world of silent movies. A friend got him a job as a bit part actor at Universal Studios and a legend was born. In those days bit part players would hang around waiting for work in a “bullpen” Assistant directors would come to these pens and ask if anybody could play a particular role. Lon quickly learned to adapt to different roles and guarantee himself more work; his legendary makeup box enabled him to change like a chameleon.

His son Lon Chaney Jnr explained how this came about “He used to sit in this bullpen and they would come and shout `Anybody here play a college boy? ` and Dad would say `Yeah I can play a college kid` sometimes they would shout `Anybody play a Chinaman?` and nobody ever could so Dad got together a makeup kit and the next time they asked for a Chinaman he would shout `Yeah I can do it` and he would use his makeup box. That way he got to appear in three or four pictures a day”

Lon also got married again in November 1915 to a chorus girl Hazel Hastings and Chaney Jnr left the children’s home to live with them. Over the next three years he appeared in over a hundred films but he was only being paid $5 a day. Eventually he approached the studio manager, William Sistrom, and asked for a raise of $125 a week and a five year contract. Sistrom looked at Chaney and said “I know a good actor when I see one but looking at you I only see a washout” Understandably upset Chaney walked off the set and the family struggled over the next few months. Chaney returned to menial jobs to make ends meet and that could have been the end of his film career but for the intervention of western actor William S. Hart who cast Chaney as a villain in one of his pictures. Chaney’s career really took off after this and in 1919 he excelled in the film “The Miracle Man” when he played a cripple. His next major success came with “The Penalty” in which Chaney played a legless criminal. It was in this film that Chaney displayed his almost masochistic approach to acting but it wouldn’t be his last. In order to portray the amputee Chaney designed a leather harness which bound his feet against his thighs and enabled him to walk on his knees. The pain was excruciating and cut circulation to his legs resulting in broken blood vessels.

Then in 1923 came the part that would propel Chaney to worldwide fame, Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” For this role Chaney wore a rubber hump weighing 70lbs. This was attached to a harness that made it impossible to stand erect. Doctors warned him not to wear the harness for more than a few minutes as it would cause irreparable damage but he often wore it for over an hour at a time. He suffered with back pain for the rest of his life. He also wore a flesh covered rubber suit covered with animal hair and the heat was almost unbearable, Chaney was again suffering for his art.

Phantom of the Opera
Arguably his greatest ever role was as the terrifying Erik in “The Phantom of the Opera”(1925) He took makeup artistry to a new level and created a monster that had women fainting in the cinema aisles. The scene where the girl (Mary Philbin) creeps up behind the phantom and removes his mask is one of the most terrifying moments in movie history. Chaney pushed hairpins up his nose to widen his nostrils, wore false teeth that cut his gums and had wires protruding to pull back his lips. He also had celluloid discs in his mouth to distort his cheekbones. His place in movie immortality was secured.

In 1927 in appeared in a film that would be the Holy Grail to film enthusiasts throughout the world “London after Midnight” the most sought after lost classic of all time. All we have today are a few stills which give a tantalising glimpse of what may have been Chaney’s finest hour. Enthusiasts still search for a copy of this film today.
He was now a superstar and was up there with the other stars of the 1920s Fairbanks, Chaplin, Pickford, Valentino & Swanson. A popular saying of the day was “Don’t step on it, it may be Lon Chaney!”

London after Midnight

He had the world at his feet but he remained a shy quiet man who shunned publicity and liked the simple things in life like cooking and photography. He always kept his makeup secrets to himself and even had bodyguards watch over his makeup box while he was on set. Sadly it was all to end a mere three years later. Chaney began to have trouble with his throat in 1929 and whilst filming “Thunder” he got a piece of artificial snow stuck in his throat and this aggravated the condition. Chaney had an operation to remove his tonsils but it continued to trouble him. Then in 1930 he was given a part in his first talking picture. He was filled with dread as were many other silent stars, not surprising given the amount of careers that were ended by the “talkies” He needn’t have worried he was a success and he even imitated five other speaking parts in the movie, an old woman, a ventriloquist and his dummy, a girl and even a parrot! It was to be his last film.
His throat was getting worse and he saw specialists who discovered that he had bronchial cancer. He found it increasingly difficult to talk and his last spoken words were to ask for a cigarette. In a bizarre twist he spent the last days of his life as he had begun it, communicating by sign language. On the 6th of August 1930 he indicated to his nurse that he was going and died from a throat haemorrhage. He was 47yrs old.
MGM studios stopped production and a period of silence was ordered. Fans all over the world mourned his passing. He was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in California and his crypt to this day remains unmarked.

Lon Chaney Man of a Thousand Faces

Tony Topping

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