In or out of makeup, the face of Lon Chaney is one of the silent screen’s most compelling. Unique among film personalities, Chaney was a character actor who used his physical dexterity and mastery of makeup not to conceal, but to add depth to his powerful performances. In doing so, he became one of the most popular actors of the silent era. As Chaney historian Michael Blake writes, “Lon Chaney ascended from character actor to Hollywood’s only character star.”
The Penalty (1920), directed by Wallace Worsley, is a prime example of Chaney’s physical and emotional characterizations. Chaney’s portrayal of Blizzard, kingpin of the San Francisco underworld, demonstrates the complexity and humanity he gives to even the most evil character. Blizzard is driven by the loss of his legs. Chaney displays all the emotional and physical awkwardness that challenge and enrage Blizzard. Playing the part of the outcast, as he frequently did, afforded Chaney a unique challenge. His skills produced horrifying characters that repelled audiences. Chaney would then use those same skills to win over audiences and change their repulsion into sympathy, and a more profound understanding of his characters. His intensity was the key. His immense popularity as one of the greatest stars of the silent era was proof of his success.
Lon Chaney was born in Colorado Springs to deaf parents in 1883. His mother’s parents founded the Colorado School for the Deaf in 1874, which still exists today. Many historians credit the influence of Colorado Springs’ deaf community and his interaction with deaf parents as the start of Chaney’s skills in pantomime, acting, and later his complex portrayals of the disabled.
Chaney dropped out of school in the fourth grade to care for his bedridden mother. He communicated with her through sign language, and also, as Michael Blake has pointed out “[through] facial and body expressions …. Through this daily ritual Chaney’s talent of pantomime, with his graceful movements and his expressive hand gestures, began to grow and take shape.” Beginning in 1895, Chaney worked at a variety of jobs, including chores at the Colorado Springs Opera House where his older brother worked.
By 1902, Chaney had landed a full-time job as a stagehand at the opera house. That same year, he debuted in an amateur play called The Little Tycoon and received a favorable review in the Colorado Springs Gazette. The review mentions talents that Chaney rarely showed off in films. “As a comedian he is irresistible, and it would be hard to find his equal in dancing among many first class vaudeville performers.” Within two years, Chaney was touring with the Columbia Opera Company as a jack-of-all-trades, doing everything from acting to arranging transportation to choreography. During this period, he met and married his first wife, Cleva Creighton, a singer in the theater. The marriage was unhappy, but did produce his only child Creighton Tull Chaney, later known as Lon Chaney Jr.
In 1913, his marriage over, Chaney found work at Universal Studios. Within two years he had acted in more than 30 films of one to three reels in length and directed his first film, The Stool Pigeon. He also married his second wife, Hazel Hastings. By 1916 Chaney was becoming known for his makeup skills, and he was the subject of articles in magazines such as Motion Picture Weekly. In 1919, after six years and more than 100 films, Chaney was offered his most ambitious role to date.
The Miracle Man (1919) was the first film to demonstrate his abilities of physical characterization. Chaney played a con man, The Frog, whose game was to act severely disabled, be “healed,” and then solicit money from the astounded audience. In a pivotal scene, a small boy watching Frog’s act is so inspired that he throws aside his crutches and walks, to the astonishment of the crowd and the hucksters. Without a convincing portrayal by Chaney, there would have been no basis for the crowd’s amazement. Chaney had succeeded in making a potentially corny scene remarkably moving. It was the turning point of his career.
The year 1919 also marked the first collaboration between Chaney and director Tod Browning on The Wicked Darling, the first of ten films they made together. They were a well-matched pair, sparking off each other’s interest in the odd and macabre. The next year Chaney appeared in four features: Treasure Island; Nomads of the North, in which he played a rare romantic lead; The Gift Supreme; and The Penalty, his first film with director Wallace Worsley.
To play Blizzard, the leader of the notorious Barbary Coast underworld in The Penalty, Chaney designed an apparatus that produced the illusion of having no legs below the knee. It was an important tool for the development of the character (and for the film’s promotion). The device was constructed of leather stumps and straps that secured his lower legs behind his thighs. To complete the illusion, he wore enlarged pants and padded his upper body to match the size of his doubled-up legs. He could only wear the apparatus for a few minutes at a time, and he had to take frequent breaks to unbind his legs and restore circulation.
After The Penalty, Chaney made acclaimed films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), He Who Gets Slapped (1924), and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). During the filming of Thunder in 1929, he fell ill with pneumonia, and later that year he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in 1930, soon after completing his remarkable performance in the Tod Browning sound remake of The Unholy Three.
In recent years, some critics and historians have condemned Chaney’s portrayals as perpetuating negative stereotypes of the disabled. In fact, Chaney’s great gift was his ability to reveal the humanity within even the most disturbed and damaged character. His performances convey such a fascinating combination of intensity, wickedness, sadness, and emotion that even 80 years later, audiences are compelled to watch.
Presented at SFSFF 2003 with live music by Jon Mirsalis