Born to deaf-mute parents Lon Chaney’s gifts for communicating without sound made him a natural for the silent screen. Though there were bigger stars than Chaney through the silent era, I am not sure there was a greater actor, meaning a pure actor capable of finding the truth in his character and bringing that to the audience with the ease he did. There was beauty in his best work, an economy of acting as he allowed his gestures and body language to speak where words could not, Though expressionistic acting it was also shockingly real and as honest as anything put on the screen at that time.
Chaney found fame as an actor slowly, beginning on the stage before moving into film. He would begin work at Universal Studios before the paint was dry on the walls of the soundstages, becoming the company’s first superstar before the phrase was coined. Adept with make-up, in fact hugely gifted as a make-up artist he would arrive at the studio and check the call sheet to see where they needed actors. Back into the lot he would go and make himself up as an Indian for the western shoot in the morning, a pirate for the afternoon and a villain in a period piece for the evening. As they shot films side by side on small stages there was an abundance of work for extras and less than supporting roles. Chaney quickly established himself as a talent, stunning audiences and critics with his incredible contortions in The Miracle Man (1919) and eventually won the coveted role of Fagin in Oliver Twist (1920) giving a memorable performance that drew the attentions of Universal executives. Three years later he gave his first truly astounding performance, combining his gifts for body contortion with make up with pathos in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), not written as a horror film but presented as such. Though a monster in appearance Quasimodo is the less monstrous in the story than his evil master, and underneath that wretched exterior beats the heart of a romantic. Without knowing it Chaney was perhaps the first great method actor, undergoing immense body pain to achieve the look he sought, weighing himself down with weights that caused eventual damage to his spine. Worse he used early versions of contact lenses to color his eyes, twist them into different shapes, and dentures to create terrible teeth, again at the cost of his own well-being.
His greatest creation both as actor and make-up artist remains Erik, The Phantom of the Opera (1925) in the great Universal film. Living in the bowels of the Paris Opera House, the phantom hears the voice of the young woman he has fallen in love with and demands that she accompany him to his lair for proper training. There he adores her voice and beauty, however his mind has been warped by years of isolation and being what he is. Again Chaney gives himself over to the role and inhabits the character like a second skin giving a mesmerizing performance. One of the great moments in film history is the famous unmasking sequence when we see in full frontal glory the startling make-up he created for the role, sort of a living skull, truly a high point of film horror. Two years later he would appear in London After Midnight (1927) as a frizzled haired vampire, but sadly very few prints of the film exist. Incredibly Chaney’s filmography does not list a great many horror films, but that gives one an idea of the staggering impact of the horror films he did make and their place in film history.
Chaney died at the age of forty-seven in 1930 after being diagnosed with cancer of the throat. He had made his first and only sound film, The Unholy Three (1930) in which he portrayed a bank robber who dresses up as an old lady to confuse the police. Critics pointed out that his mastery of the voice matched his work with make up, but sadly, tragically, cancer took the actor from us. Universal had big plans for Chaney, havicast him as Dracula in their upcoming film, and as the monster in Frankenstein (1931). It is likely he would have portrayed the mummy and might have taken a shot at Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932). God, would he have been given The Wolfman (1941)?? A role that became his son’s signature character? Sadly Chaney slipped into eternity leaving the studio scrambling for new actors to replace him, and they found them in Bela Lagosi, Boris Karloff, and incredibly, Lon Chaney Jr.
If we are to believe (and we should not) the ending of the Chaney biography Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), the dying Chaney encouraged his son Creighton to go into the film business, when in fact Lon Chaney did not want his son in the film business at all. If we are to believe what we see at the end of the biopic, which offers a very fine performance from James Cagney as Chaney, the dying Chaney takes his battered make-up kit and scrawls “Jr.” beside his own name, welcoming his son to the business he so loved. The younger Chaney had been told he was too tall, 6’5 to be an actor, and knocked around in early RKO films before landing the plum role of Lennie in a stage production of Of Mice and Men (1939). Basking in glowing reviews, Chaney was cast in the film opposite Burgess Meredith, and the pair would earn some of the finest reviews of their careers. By this time Creighton Chaney was now Lon Chaney Jr., and was able to get into audition for roles much easier. HIs star was on the rise, though he would never achieve the level of stardom his father had, in fact, Lon Chaney Jr. would play every one of the famous Universal monsters, but be little more than a character actor for much of his life. The role he called his own was The Wolf Man (1941) in which he used his genuine sadness as a man in the part of Larry Talbot, who knows come the full moon he will become a werewolf. Chaney owned the role, and while other actors including Chaney would tackle to roles of Dracula, the Mummy, and the Frankenstein monster, Chaney and only Chaney was the Wolf Man.
The actor handled his roles as the other monsters with ease, though his Dracula was a surprisingly beefy fellow for a vampire, and his off-screen battle with the bottle became evident in the latter half of his career. There were some nice performances, such as his old deputy in High Noon (1952) which reminded Hollywood that Chaney could act, but never was he revered as his father had been.
He would die, as his father had of throat cancer in 1973, though he lived longer than his father, lasting until he was 67, still far too young to pass away. Through his life Chaney Jr. battled depression and was a confirmed alcoholic, never able to shake the grip the bottle had on him.
Their contribution to the genre of horror cannot be denied, and while Chaney Sr was the greater actor, Chaney Jr is equally iconic because of his role as The Wolf Man. Once immersed in the horror genre, neither was ever able to shake free, despite being recognized as fine actors outside of the genre. Sadly most the films Chaney Jr. made through the fifties and sixties were junk, and his television work was equally weak, but as he said, “I get paid to act, so I act.” Each launched thousands of nightmares across North America and left the world far too soon.