My biggest regret in tackling this article is that I have not seen more of Mr. Lon Chaney, Sr.’s (1883-1930) work. Of the handful of films I’ve seen of his, none have disappointed and all have been wonderfully twisted. Lon Chaney—father of the Wolf Man, Lon Chaney, Jr.—was one of the biggest icons of the silent era. Praised alongside silent legends such as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, and Rudolph Valentino, Chaney was every bit as talented and engaging. Chaney’s trademark, however, is what separated him from his contemporaries. They loved Chaplin for his comic humanity; Fairbanks for his swashbuckling acrobatics; Pickford for her beauty and the dramatic chances she took; Bara for her exotic, seductive persona; Valentino for his rich, foreign good looks; they loved Chaney for playing grotesques and psychotics. His real claim to fame was that not only did he portray gross villains and sympathetic monsters, but also he designed all of his own makeup and prosthetics to astounding effect.
Lon Chaney, Sr. made his living by playing some of the most demented characters in movie history. He was known for the incredible emotional power he could evoke even beneath layers of makeup and for his amazing facial and bodily expressiveness. Both his parents were deaf-mutes, so he had to learn at a young age how to express himself without words.
From mad doctors, to amputees and deformed deviants, to bent Chinese patriarchs, to tragic clowns, to insane killers and criminals, Chaney played them all.
The first film of his I ever saw was the classic 1925 horror flick, The Phantom of the Opera (directed by Rupert Julian). This is easily his most famous and well-known role. Naturally, he plays the diabolical and disfigured eponymous phantom. He wears a most unnerving rubber face-mask with a crude veil over his mouth to hide his hideousness. The best scene of the film occurs when his lovely muse, Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), is taken to his secret lair beneath the streets of Paris and her curiosity spurs her to approach her musical master while he plays the organ and she removes his mask to reveal his true ugliness. Chaney’s reaction is one of the most memorable few seconds you are likely to see on film. This movie also boasts a colored Masque of the Red Death segment. Although the lavish film presents the Phantom as a deranged killer out for revenge, Chaney brings a darker, more tormented side to his performance. He is the character we see the rest of the film through. We recognize his sorrow and—on those wonderful occasions—cavort as he executes his judgment on the little people of the opera house. We catch ourselves sympathizing with this murderous monster and even rooting for him.
Besides the Phantom, Chaney played a very noble Quasimodo in Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), again implementing his own inventive makeup effects. In 1922 he was a pretty solid Fagin in a silent version of Oliver Twist (co-starring The Kid star Jackie Coogan). He played a deranged and possessive Chinese patriarch in Mr. Wu (1927) (he actually plays a double-role and Anna May Wong has a small part). Chaney received much acclaim for his performance as a tough Marine Sergeant in 1926’s Tell It to the Marines. He played a brilliant scientist whose heartless betrayal at the hands of his mentor and his fiancée, drive him to become a tormented circus clown whose sole act consists of being slapped in the face in Victor Sjostrom’s bizarre carnival tragedy He Who Gets Slapped (1924). Chaney played another conflicted, tragic circus clown in Herbert Brenon’s Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928). He joined the circus again for Tod Browning’s (Dracula, Freaks) The Unknown.
The Unknown is a particularly strange movie. As only a sample of the weirdness of some of these plots, I shall explain. Set in Spain, Chaney plays a wicked fugitive with double-thumbs, who stuffs his arms in a corset-like device so he can join the circus as Alonzo the Armless, the amazing knife-thrower (he uses his feet…or rather Chaney used the feet of real-life armless wonder, Paul Desmuke). He falls in love with a beautiful circus girl, Nanon Zanzi (Joan Crawford) and—in order to ensure that she will love him instead of the circus strongman—he psychologically bewitches her into developing a phobia human arms. Alonzo kills and creates general mayhem while he dreams of how he will make this poor girl his own…until his sidekick reminds him that if they were to marry, Nanon would find out he really has arms and be repulsed. Distraught, Alonzo devises a plan. He cashes in on a favor owed him by a shady doctor and has the doctor amputate his arms. While Alonzo recovers in the hospital, the strongman gets cozy with Nanon and cures her of her fear of arms. When Alonzo meets Nanon again she is engaged to the strongman and Alonzo becomes quite mad. He sabotages a circus stunt to have the strongman ripped apart by horses on treadmills. It goes awry and Alonzo gets fatally trampled.
Chaney worked with Tod Browning on several projects, including the most famous lost movie in film history, London After Midnight (1927). The original The Unholy Three (1925) was another great film Chaney collaborated with Browning on. He played a circus ventriloquist who turns to crime along with a strong man and a dwarf (played by Freaks star, Harry Earles). Chaney dresses as an old granny who runs a parrot shop and the dwarf poses as a baby. Together the trio act as jewelry thieves. The film is wonderfully peculiar and a must-see. Chaney’s final film was the 1930 remake of The Unholy Three. It was Chaney’s first and only “talkie” and he performed five different voices in the film. Apparently “the man of a thousand faces” (as he was so dubbed for his talent with makeup) was also ready to become “the man of a thousand voices” when he died of lung cancer in 1930 at age 47.
I think Chaney was at his best when paired with Tod Browning because it seemed Browning was about as messed up and screwy as he was. A few other Chaney-Browning films I really enjoyed were The Penalty (1920), The Road to Mandalay (1926), and West of Zanzibar (1928). Both are awesome and West of Zanzibar might be among my favorite movies. Yeah. It’s that pulpy, strange and great. Imagine if he hadn’t died and Browning had cast him as Dracula instead of Bela Lugosi. I don’t know if it would have been better, but our understanding of vampire motifs would be quite different today.
After making well over 150 films in his lifetime and establishing himself as a true master of his craft, Lon Chaney, Sr. stands as a real treasure that film has been able to make immortal. Chaney’s films are quiet oddities, psychotic marvels, and horrific tragedies and deserve to be celebrated. His performances have been highly regarded for decades and are still just as enchanting today. If you like movies and have never seen anything with Lon Chaney, Sr., I strongly recommend you remedy this, and if you’re like me and you’ve seen several of his films already then I needn’t hesitate to tell you to see more. My hat’s off to you, Mr. Chaney. Thanks for giving us so much.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 29, 2009