Or: Never got the girl
This is of course not entirely true; Hollywood's most famous multi-faced man of the silent era did all right for himself off-camera and on, but has gone down in history--quite fairly--as the ugly mug behind such grotesque ghouls as the Phantom of the Opera, the Wolfman, and Quasimodo.
But there was a great deal more to him than chin putty and cleverly concealed wires. He was a formidable actor even sans makeup, playing roles in over 150 films, one of which earned him the extraordinarily rare honor of being named an honorary Marine.
Chaney was, despite the roles that made him famous, a fairly normal, highly intelligent character actor. More films of his have been lost than a lot of people ever get the chance to be in--so if you're aspiring to great cinematic heights, take a page out his script and start learning how to get ugly. It just might work.
It Starts a Bit Strangely
Childhood is bumpy for a lot of us. But put this in your bottle and suck it.
- 1883: Alonzo--there seems to be some confusion, he's also known as Leonidas--Chaney was born on April 1st--that's April Fools' Day, no harbingers there--in Colorado Springs, Colorado to parents Frank and Emma. Mom and Pop were both deaf-mute; Lon had to learn alternative means of expression from the get-go. Makes your family's communication problems a walk in the park.
- ca. 1893: Mom comes down with a nasty case of rheumatism which has the dual effect of keeping her in bed and Lon out of school. He has to drop out to look after her.
- ca. 1896: Lon starts working at his elder brother John's theater as a propmaker and stagehand. When he's not there he's cracking people up with his pantomime routines, which came in quite handy around the house and now stood him the chance of earning a buck or two.
- ca. 1899: or might have done, had his father--as fathers will--not decided that one kid in the theater business was bad enough. Lon got bundled off to Denver to work on the seamier side of interior decorating: carpet laying, wallpapering, etc. He was also a trail guide up Pikes Peak. Remember that when you abuse your next tour guide.
- 1902: Opporunity knocks when he co-pens a play with his brother that's good enough to take him on tour in an acting capacity--The Little Tycoon. Following a brief run, the company is sold, and Lon goes with it.
All You Need is Love. Oh, And Money. Definitely Money.
Or so Lon finds out in 1905, when while on tour in Oklahoma City he meets Cleva Cleighton, a stunning sixteen year old songbird auditioning for the show. Not to imply that she slept her way to the top, but by 1906 she and Lon were retiring from the stage to prepare for the arrival of an unexpected baby.
Lon went back to laying carpet to support the family, filling the spare hours with vaudeville acts and wondering if perhaps his girl wasn't a wee bit young for all this.
If she wasn't, the little boy they had certainly was, but that didn't stop them taking him all over the country in barnstorming acts that often as not went bust and left Lon leering at people on the streets for spare change while the kid pinched the sandwiches right out of said people's picnic baskets.
Stop When You Get to the Ocean
The Chaneys, fairly hungry and a bit disillusioned, eventually worked their way to California, where Lon got back to work in the business that had never made him rich.
- 1910: Lon takes work in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and points in between as a stage manager and occasional actor. Cleva gains popularity as a singer in cabaret type shows. You'd think that with all that time spent apart, him on the road and her in skimpy costumes late at night, everything would be fine.
- 1913: Not so, funnily enough. Enough being enough for a young Cleva, she (rather dramatically) swallows a vial of poison which (rather ironically) ends everything in her life, except her life. She finds herself no longer able to sing; Lon finds himself no longer married and without a job again--the scandal put him out of the theatre.
They May Take our Wives. But They'll Never Take Our FREEDOM!
Not to say family life was holding him back, but the first job he got was with Universal, a screen-credit acting gig in a one-reel picture (they called'em "pictures" back then) called Poor Jake's Demise. Many of you will appreciate his title--The Dude.
Bear in mind, the filmmaking business in those days was more mass production than mega-blockbuster. From 1914 to 1918 Chaney appears in over 100 films for Universal, picking up a new bride, Hazel Hastings, along the way. Something attractive to him about alliteration.
When the war ended, Chaney put in for a raise, and was told summarily to take it on the heel and toe. He did, going freelance (and getting hungry again) for a few months until someone came along and changed his life for him.
The big break came in the form of a Western, in which Lon was cast as the villain opposite one of the day's more beloved leading men. Critical acclaim followed, and Lon began in earnest his bizarre and painful crawl to the top.
Here are some of the better known films, and the ways in which he suffered for his art--the practice that made Lon Chaney worth a few PBS specials and a writeup or two:
- 1919: The Miracle Man. Lon plays a con man pretending to be crippled. The body-jerks and snaps he puts himself through create a myth of his abilities as a contortionist.
- 1920: The Penalty. Lon goes legless for this role, binding his legs behind him so tightly that many a blood vessel bursts as a result. He could act for barely twenty minutes at a time, but it really does look like he hasn't a leg to stand on.
- 1923: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 'Ole Hump-and-Harness. The backpack he put on for this weighed over fifty pounds, and that was after his face was done over with enough makeup to render him a right beast. But if you think that made him famous, check out--
- 1925: The Phantom of the Opera. This is the one you know. Nose pulled back by wire attached to his skullcap, black circles around the eyes, the greatest ghoul of the era. So ugly that now a lot of posters give him green skin even thought the film was shot in black-and-white. Poor Erik. This is one of the few Chaney films I've seen, and it's well worth a viewing. Fairly true to the book, unlike that rubbish musical.
There were many films in between and after those, in which he played less monstrous figures. Chaney took several Pagliacci-type roles (sad clowns and such), and did a damn convincing job of playing Chinese characters, madmen, doctors, circus performers, soldiers, and so on. He was known, in his own time as well as beyond it, as "The Man of a Thousand Faces."
Hm. Sounds Like You're Coming to a Close.
Rather. Chaney's career didn't end with the talkie, but he didn't exactly embrace the new technology, either. He stood out against them, taking only one speaking role in 1930, a remake of one of his previous films, The Unholy Three.
In addition to his many faces, Chaney was called upon to come up with five voices, playing a ventriloquist. Perhaps this did him in, as he died two months after its release from a throat hemorrhage.
Or it might have been the cancer. Chaney was, after all, a lifelong smoker. The last scene of his last film, by the way, has one of the other characters giving him a rather dubious farewell gift--a carton of cigarettes.
MGM--for which he was by now under contract--stopped production for a period to honor his memory. Marine units flew flags at half-mast. Interest in his films surged. His remains are behind an unmarked square in a California mausoleum.
Why not put it here, when the IMDB makes it so easy?
- Unholy Three, The (1930) .... Professor Echo, aka Mrs. 'Grandma' O'Grady
- Thunder (1929) .... Grumpy Anderson
- Where East Is East (1929) .... Tiger Haynes
- West of Zanzibar (1928) .... Phroso 'Dead-Legs'
- While the City Sleeps (1928) .... Dan Callahan
- Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) .... Tito Beppi
- Big City, The (1928) .... Chuck Collins
- London After Midnight (1927) .... Burke
- Mockery (1927) .... Sergei
- Unknown, The (1927) .... Alonzo the Armless
- Mr. Wu (1927) .... Mr. Mandarin Wu/Mr. Wu's Grandfather
- Tell It to the Marines (1926) .... Sergeant O'Hara
- Road to Mandalay, The (1926) .... Singapore Joe
- Blackbird, The (1926) .... The Blackbird/The Bishop
- Tower of Lies, The (1925) .... Jan
- Phantom of the Opera, The (1925) .... Erik, The Phantom
- Unholy Three, The (1925) .... Professor Echo, the ventriloquist
- Monster, The (1925) .... Dr. Ziska
- He Who Gets Slapped (1924) .... Paul Beaumont
- Next Corner, The (1924) .... Juan Serafin
- Hunchback of Notre Dame, The (1923) .... Quasimodo
- Shock, The (1923) .... Wilse Dilling
- While Paris Sleeps (1923) .... Henri Santodos
- All the Brothers Were Valiant (1923) .... Mark Shore
- Blind Bargain, A (1922) .... Dr. Arthur Lamb/The Ape Man
- Quincy Adams Sawyer (1922) .... Obadiah Strout
- Shadows (1922) .... Yen Sin,'The Heathen'
- Oliver Twist (1922) .... Fagin
- Light in the Dark, The (1922) .... Tony Pantelli
- Flesh and Blood (1922) .... David Webster
- Trap, The (1922) .... Gaspard
- Voices of the City (1921) .... O'Rourke
- Bits of Life (1921) .... Chin Chow
- Ace of Hearts, The (1921) .... Mr. Farallone
- For Those We Love (1921) .... Trix Ulner
- Outside the Law (1920) .... Black Mike Sylva/Ah Wing
- Nomads of the North (1920) .... Raoul Challoner
- Penalty, The (1920/I) .... Blizzard
- Gift Supreme, The (1920) .... Merney Stagg
- Treasure Island (1920) .... Pew/Merry
- Daredevil Jack (1920)
- Victory (1919) .... Ricardo
- When Bearcat Went Dry (1919) .... Kindard Powers
- Paid in Advance (1919) .... Bateese Le Blanc
- Miracle Man, The (1919) .... The Frog
- Man's Country, A (1919) .... 'Three Card' Duncan
- Wicked Darling, The (1919) .... Stoop Connors
- False Faces, The (1919) .... Karl Eckstrom
- Danger, Go Slow (1918) .... Bud
- Talk of the Town, The (1918) .... Jack Lanchome
- That Devil, Bateese (1918) .... Louis Courteau
- Riddle Gawne (1918) .... Hame Bozzam
- Broadway Scandal, A (1918) .... 'Kink' Colby
- Fast Company (1918) .... Dan McCarty
- Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, The (1918) .... Bethmann-Hollweg
- Broadway Love (1918) .... Elmer Watkins
- Grand Passion, The (1918) .... Paul Argos
- Empty Gun, The (1917)
- Scarlet Car, The (1917) .... Paul Revere Forbes
- Anything Once (1917) .... Waught Moore
- Triumph (1917) .... Paul Neihoff
- Pay Me! (1917) .... Joe Lawson
- Rescue, The (1917) .... Thomas Holland
- Fires of Rebellion (1917) .... Russell Hanlon
- Doll's House, A (1917) .... Nils Krogstad
- Flashlight, The (1917) .... Henry Norton and Porter Brixton
- Girl in the Checkered Coat, The (1917) .... Hector Maitland
- Mask of Love, The (1917) .... Marino
- Hell Morgan's Girl (1917) .... Sleter Noble
- Piper's Price, The (1917) .... Billy Kilmartin
- Price of Silence, The (1916) .... Edmond Stafford
- Accusing Evidence (1916)
- Place Beyond the Winds, The (1916) .... Jerry Jo
- Felix on the Job (1916) .... Tod
- If My Country Should Call (1916) .... Dr. George Ardrath
- Mark of Cain, The (1916) .... Dick Temple
- Grasp of Greed, The (1916) .... Jimmie
- Bobbie of the Ballet (1916) .... Hook Hoover
- Gilded Spider, The (1916) .... Giovanni
- Tangled Hearts (1916) .... John Hammond
- Grip of Jealousy, The (1916) .... Silas Lacey
- Dolly's Scoop (1916) .... Dan Fisher
- Father and the Boys (1915) .... Tuck Bartholomew
- Stronger Than Death (1915)
- Under a Shadow (1915) .... Jealous Husband
- Millionaire Paupers, The (1915)
- Lon of Lone Mountain (1915) .... Lon Moore
- Mother's Atonement, A (1915) .... The Husband
- Alas and Alack (1915) .... Her Husband
- Fascination of the Fleur de Lis, The (1915) .... Duke of Safoulrug
- Pine's Revenge, The (1915) .... Black Scotty
- Chimney's Secret, The (1915) .... The Robber
- Quits (1915) .... Frenchy
- Mountain Justice (1915) .... Mountaineer
- Bound on the Wheel (1915)
- Trust, The (1915) .... The Burglar
- Violin Maker, The (1915) .... The Violin Maker
- Steady Company (1915) .... Factory Worker
- Stronger Mind, The (1915) .... The Crook's Pal
- Idyll of the Hills, An (1915) .... Mountaineer
- Grind, The (1915) .... The Old Man
- Girl of the Night, The (1915) .... Jerry
- Maid of the Mist (1915) .... Postmaster
- Desert Breed, The (1915) .... Fred
- All for Peggy (1915) .... The Stable Groom
- Outside the Gates (1915) .... Perez
- Where the Forest Ends (1915) .... Paul Rouchelle
- Such Is Life (1915) .... Tod Wilkes
- When the Gods Played a Badger Game (1915) .... The Property Man
- Threads of Fate, The (1915) .... The Count
- Measure of a Man, The (1915) .... Lieutenant Jim Stuart
- Smalltown Girl, The (1915) .... The Procurer
- Star of the Sea, The (1915) .... Tomasco
- Sin of Olga Brandt, The (1915) .... Stephen Leslie
- Her Escape (1914) .... Pete
- Night of Thrills, A (1914) .... Visitor
- Lion, the Lamb, the Man, The (1914) .... Fred
- Lights and Shadows (1914) .... Bentley
- Her Life's Story (1914) .... Don Valesquez
- Virtue Is Its Own Reward (1914) .... Duncan Bronson
- Pipes o' Pan, The (1914) .... Arthur Farrell
- Richelieu (1914/I) .... Baradas
- Higher Law, The (1914) .... Sir Stephen
- Her Bounty (1914) .... Fred Howard
- Miner's Romance, A (1914) .... John Burns
- Oubliette, The (1914) .... Chevalier Bertrand de la Payne
- By the Sun's Rays (1914) .... Frank Lawler
- Her Grave Mistake (1914) .... Nunez
- Ranch Romance, A (1914) .... Raphael Praz
- Hopes of a Blind Alley (1914) .... Vendor
- Old Cobbler, The (1914) .... Wild Bill
- Forbidden Room, The (1914) .... John Morris
- Heart Strings (1914)
- Unlawful Trade, The (1914) .... The Cross Blood
- Tragedy of Whispering Creek, The (1914) .... The Greaser
- End of the Feud, The (1914) .... Wood Dawson
- Lamb, the Woman, the Wolf, The (1914) .... The Wolf
- Embezzler, The (1914) .... J. Roger Dixon
- Menace to Carlotta, The (1914) .... Giovanni Bartholdi
- Discord and Harmony (1914) .... The Sculptor
- Remember Mary Magdalen (1914) .... The Half-Wit
- Honor of the Mounted, The (1914) .... Jacques Laquox
- Lie, The (1914) .... Young MacGregor
- Bloodhounds of the North (1913) .... Mountie
- Red Margaret, Moonshiner (1913) .... Lon
- Back to Life (1913) .... The Rival
- Elephant on His Hands, An (1913) .... Eddie
- Almost an Actress (1913) .... Cameraman
- Trap, The (1913/I)
- Shon the Piper (1913) .... Clansman
- Sea Urchin, The (1913) .... Barnacle Bill
- Poor Jake's Demise (1913) .... The Dude
Hm. Not as easy as I thought.