Lon Chaney and His Gallery of Grotesques

Each year I look forward to the Silent Summer Film Festival at the Portage Theater, one of Chicago’s few restored movie palaces. For six consecutive Fridays, the Silent Film Society of Chicago (SFSC) presents a variety of well-known and unknown silent movies accompanied with live organ and sound effects by professional “photoplay organists” Dennis Scott and Jay Warren. This year’s lineup included: The Freshman starring Harold Lloyd, the original Ben-Hur, The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks, the comic-strip comedy Harold Teen, and Pollyanna starring Mary Pickford. Though the festival isn’t over yet, I have already selected my favorite: Lon Chaney in The Penalty.

Over the years, the SFSC has presented several Chaney films, and I have seen them all, becoming a major fan of this unique star. I had seen film stills and clips of the actor in his most famous roles, but I had never viewed a Chaney movie in its entirety until I saw The Phantom of the Opera a few years ago in all its glory on the big screen with live musical accompaniment. The experience was a terrific introduction to the work of this intense actor whose films are highly recognizable but little seen and whose image is famous but whose real life was overshadowed by publicity.

CHANEY AND HIS TRUSTY MAKEUP KIT

Chaney’s stardom and fame rest on the complex makeup he designed for himself for his roles. More than just pancake, rouge, and spirit gum, the makeup jobs consisted of various devices, gadgets, contact lenses, and prosthetics to build his bizarre, warped characters from the outside in. As in German Expressionist films that also thrived during the 1920s, the grotesque makeup and physical deformity of Chaney’s characters symbolized their internal corruption or spiritual void. Many of these devices and contraptions were painful for Chaney, and publicity for the films and for the actor exploited and exaggerated the discomfort and pain he endured for his craft. In retrospect, his legend has been expanded with claims that he suffered permanent body damage because of the prosthetics and devices he wore during the production of certain films. How true these claims are is open to debate.

Evidently, his contraptions did cause some pain, discomfort, and permanent aches, though they did not lead to an early death as myth would claim. He actually died of lung cancer in 1930 at age 47. The more important mystery about Chaney is why he felt compelled to endure the discomfort. Biographers and historians have researched the events of his childhood, focusing on his parents who were both deaf and mute. Publicity of the day claimed that he did not speak a word until he was eight years old out of sympathy for his parents, but this sounds like a press agent’s story to me. Some biographers have suggested that his parents’ experiences with a public that was unenlightened about deaf mutes left him with a lifelong affinity for playing outsiders and misfits. Others recount the loneliness and difficulties he endured after being yanked out of the fourth grade to take care of his dying mother. Maybe it was his first marriage to vaudeville singer Cleva Creighton that left him scarred. An unstable alcoholic, Creighton once drank poison in the wings of a theater while Chaney was performing onstage and could see her. Often called a suicide attempt, the episode seems more like a bid for attention combined with an act of revenge against Chaney for some real or perceived slight. The poison damaged her vocal chords and ruined her career. The couple was soon divorced, with Chaney winning custody of their only child, Creighton (who later took the name Lon Chaney, Jr.). Whatever drove him to test the limits of his body, he stretched the boundaries of what constituted “makeup” for the time.

PUBLICITY PHOTOS OF CHANEY EMPHASIZED THAT HE DID HIS OWN MAKEUP.

Chaney’s elaborate makeup jobs dictated how his films were shot, at least to some degree. Studios and producers generated publicity around the arduous makeup process that Chaney underwent to create and play his characters. In part, viewers came to the theater to see him endure the discomfort. Chaney and the producers made sure that viewers could tell that he was indeed “suffering” for his craft. In those films in which his characters are physically handicapped, long or medium-long shots dominate his scenes so viewers can see that it is Chaney walking or moving as the afflicted character. The shots are held on screen for long periods of time so that his feat of physical endurance is fully appreciated. In films in which his face is heavily made up, close-ups are used to exploit his fearsome ugliness. The only other films I can think of in which the choice of filmmaking techniques is dictated by the physical performance of the star is Jackie Chan’s early action movies, in which the types of shots and the editing were chosen based on exploiting Chan as he executed his amazing stunts.

Chaney’s career is remembered in the history books for his contributions to makeup; in 1929, he even wrote the entry on makeup for the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. But, there was more to Chaney than his expertise in this area. Skilled at pantomime, the actor offered vivid performances defined by their physicality—deliberate gestures, specific ways of walking, controlled expressions. Another indicator of his skill was his ability to make his gallery of grotesque characters sympathetic. No matter how black of heart, there was a humanity about them that made the viewer feel the inner pain and torment that drove the characters to commit dark deeds or seek sanctuary. Charismatic and versatile, he was one of the most talented actors of the silent era, though I don’t think he has been given his due as a thespian. Because of his starring roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, in which he designed his own horrific-looking makeup, Chaney has been associated with the horror genre, and perhaps this has prevented him from being appreciated for his acting talent. It’s more accurate to call Chaney a character actor than a star of horror.

Below is a list of Lon Chaney films presented by the Silent Film Society of Chicago over the years that I have had the pleasure of seeing. According to my research, all of them were available for home viewing at one time, though some are tough to find now. While nothing can compare to watching them in a beautiful theater on the big screen with musical accompaniment, all of them make enjoyable viewing.

AS BLIZZARD IN 'THE PENALTY'

The Penalty (1920). Ninety years ago, this film played the opening week of the Portage Theater, which was one of the reasons it was chosen by the SFSC for this year’s festival. Chaney portrays Blizzard, a major figure in the criminal underworld who runs a garment sweatshop where women are forced to grind out dozens of hats each day. His criminal activities on the Barbary Coast of San Francisco include gambling, prostitution, and other vices. He is also a double amputee who lost his legs in childhood because of a mistake made by an inexperienced doctor. To play an amputee, Chaney devised a leather harness that bound the calves of his legs against his thighs. The harness also had stumps that allowed him to walk on his knees. Chaney could tolerate his legs in this position for only ten to fifteen minutes before the pain forced him to take a break. He was costumed in a suit coat that came to mid-thigh so that viewers could clearly see that he was walking on his knees. Often shot in long or medium-long shots, he exploited this novelty by hopping into chairs, walking upstairs, climbing down ropes, and hoisting himself up a wall via pegs so that he could look through a window into his sweat shop. The stunts suggest that Chaney must have worked out to maintain the upper-body strength to pull them off. It was impressive to watch the actor execute these amazing physical feats, but, it did not distract from his ability to create a believable character.

Those unaccustomed to silent films might be surprised by the frankness in The Penalty. One of the female characters is an art student, and she is shown sculpting the female form from a live model. Shown mostly from behind, the model is clearly nude. Blizzard likes to play the piano, but he cannot reach the pedals, so he chooses an attractive young girl from his sweat shop to sit at his feet and pump the pedals for him. The position of the girl on the floor combined with the expressions on Blizzard’s face gives these scenes a sexual connotation. Taking place on the Barbary Coast, the film also includes references to characters who are prostitutes and drug addicts.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CySh2PojEk&feature=related]

The Shock (1923). My favorite part of this film is the concluding sequence, which recreates the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The earthquake is mostly suggested through shaking the camera, but I like the way it uses a historical event as a reckoning for the character. Chaney portrays a deformed and handicapped con man who is hired to keep an eye on an embezzling banker. He falls in love with the banker’s daughter and decides to blow up the bank’s safe to destroy incriminating records, but the explosion permanently injures the daughter. Chaney’s character redeems himself by paying for her operation, among other acts. Many of the actor’s films featured themes of redemption, reconciliation, or reform, and his characters’ physical deformities are often related to his lack of morality and his need for redemption.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Chaney’s performance as Quasimodo made him a major star, and the film was one of the biggest box-office hits of the year. He studied Hugo’s novel and modeled his makeup after the description in the book. He wore a heavy rubber hump on his back, which some writers claim was as heavy as 70 pounds. He also wore a harness that did not allow him to stand fully upright in addition to a skin-tight, flesh-colored suit covered in hair that was quite itchy. His grotesque facial makeup consisted of a huge putty nose, crooked teeth, and a half-closed eye. Despite the heavy apparatus, Chaney is once again graceful and controlled in his movements. While watching the actor in one of his signature performances is a treat, the direction by Wallace Worseley is dull and uninspired. Watching this on a small screen without the immediacy of live music and sound effects may be difficult.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925). In his most famous performance, Chaney transformed his face into a death mask with a variety of devices. He inserted discs in his mouth to distort the cheekbones and wore protruding teeth with prongs that drew back the corners of his mouth. He also stuck a device up his nose to widen the nostrils and lift the tip. The result was a frightening skull-like appearance that compelled audiences to scream when the Phantom’s mask was ripped off his face, and his deformity was revealed in one of the most famous close-ups in history. I prefer Phantom over  Hunchback because Rupert Julian’s direction is better paced, and the set designs are amazing.

AS MR. WU

Mr. Wu (1927). Chaney plays two versions of Mr. Wu through three generations in this morbid tale of family honor. He plays ancient Wu from the nineteenth century who decides his grandson should be raised in the Western world; and he also depicts the grandson as an old man years later. Modern Wu discovers his only daughter, played by Renee Adoree, is pregnant by a white man. According to ancient custom, at least as defined by the film, she must be killed by her father. To exact revenge on the white man’s family, he kidnaps the man and gives the mother the choice of having her daughter raped or her son killed.  I found Mr. Wu to be the least sympathetic of Chaney’s madmen, criminals, or grotesques, and the idea of a parent killing their child over lost honor did not make for an enjoyable viewing experience. However, Chaney ‘s makeup and physical transformation into Mr. Wu is impressive. His bulky frame seemed to shrink as he mimicked the stance and walk of an old man.

The Unknown (1927).  In my favorite Chaney role, the actor portrays Alonzo the Armless, a circus performer who uses his feet to throw knives instead of his arms. However, he is faking his condition because he is a fugitive from justice. In secret, he binds his arms to his torso to perform his act and to hide his identity. He falls in love with Nanon, played by a young Joan Crawford, who is the daughter of the circus owner. Nanon cannot stand to be touched by a man, which allows her to be friends with Alonzo. However, the melodrama thickens when the circus strongman’s affections for the girl create a love triangle, and complications occur when Nanon’s father discovers Alonzo is not armless. Alonzo decides to have his arms surgically removed for real, only to have Nanon marry the strongman. If this film sounds freaky and a bit demented, it should come as no surprise that it was directed by Tod Browning. To play this part, Chaney wore a straightjacket to tie down his arms. He was bound so tight by the straightjacket that his spine was affected, generating considerable pain. This was one of the roles that supposedly caused permanent damage to his body.

AS ALONZO THE ARMLESS IN 'THE UNKNOWN'

The Unholy Three (1930). Chaney’s only talkie was remade from the 1925 silent version with the same title by Tod Browning. Jack Conway directed the sound version in which Chaney reprises his role as Professor Echo, a carny ventriloquist who is also a master criminal. He and his two partners in crime use a pet store as a cover to stage a series of Park Avenue robberies. Echo disguises himself as a little old lady; his midget buddy from the carnival, Tweedledee, pretends to be a toddler; and strongman Hercules plays a third member of the phony family. One of the creepiest aspects to this film is the character Tweedledee, played by midget Harry Earles. Tweedledee was the most cruel of the three characters, which makes his disguise as a small child a twisted addition to the story. The sight of Earles smoking a cigar in toddler’s clothing or lying in a baby carriage with a twisted grin on his face is truly disturbing.

Chaney was concerned about the talkies, because so many of his fellow movie stars did not make the transition to sound, but just like he transformed his face and body through makeup and prosthetics, so he changed his voice to suit the character. As Professor Echo, he provided the voice of a ventriloquist’s dummy; as Grandma O’Grady, he sounded like an old lady; and, for one scene, he mimicked the voice of a talking parrot. Much like the publicity generated throughout his career, the studio exploited Chaney’s ability to transform himself using his voice. They asked Chaney to sign an affidavit as proof that he did all of these voices, and they included a copy of the affidavit with the promotional materials for the film. Sadly, his triumph in sound films was short-lived; two months later, he died of cancer.

21 Responses Lon Chaney and His Gallery of Grotesques
Posted By Roger : August 23, 2010 2:27 pm

Thanks for the great overview on Chaney. I loved the horror films as I was growing up. So sad that he passed on so early in his life. As an artist, his dedication to the field is inspiring.

Posted By Roger : August 23, 2010 2:27 pm

Thanks for the great overview on Chaney. I loved the horror films as I was growing up. So sad that he passed on so early in his life. As an artist, his dedication to the field is inspiring.

Posted By debbe : August 23, 2010 4:31 pm

fascinating suzidoll. I didnt know alot of these movies… nor that much about Chaney. Thank you for letting us know so much about this actor. I forget that the movies in the twenties were really creepy.

Posted By debbe : August 23, 2010 4:31 pm

fascinating suzidoll. I didnt know alot of these movies… nor that much about Chaney. Thank you for letting us know so much about this actor. I forget that the movies in the twenties were really creepy.

Posted By dukeroberts : August 23, 2010 9:12 pm

I hope that we can see these on TCM sometime soon.

Posted By dukeroberts : August 23, 2010 9:12 pm

I hope that we can see these on TCM sometime soon.

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 24, 2010 1:02 am

To Suzie, told ya’ I’d check this one out. Not to be mordid, even TCM a few yrs back did a docu on Caney, Sr. & though they were permitted in the massive gothic “Great Maus” Glendale’s, “Forest Lawn” Most are not permitted inside there now, ridiculously! His grave was appropriately unmarked on it’s 2nd floor. & as I write Suzie, it’s easily among *OSCARS top 5 or sobigest blunders, in not even nominating> *James Cagney for “Man of a Thousand Faces???”

“STUNNING OMISSION!” What more did he have to do?

Just for the record the official Best Actor noms were instead:
*Alec Guinness, “Bridge on River Kwai
Anthony Franciosa, “Hateful of Rain”
Anthony Quinn, “Wild is the Wind”
Brando in “Sayonara”
& Charles Laughton, “Witness for the Prosecution”

YOU DECIDE

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 24, 2010 1:02 am

To Suzie, told ya’ I’d check this one out. Not to be mordid, even TCM a few yrs back did a docu on Caney, Sr. & though they were permitted in the massive gothic “Great Maus” Glendale’s, “Forest Lawn” Most are not permitted inside there now, ridiculously! His grave was appropriately unmarked on it’s 2nd floor. & as I write Suzie, it’s easily among *OSCARS top 5 or sobigest blunders, in not even nominating> *James Cagney for “Man of a Thousand Faces???”

“STUNNING OMISSION!” What more did he have to do?

Just for the record the official Best Actor noms were instead:
*Alec Guinness, “Bridge on River Kwai
Anthony Franciosa, “Hateful of Rain”
Anthony Quinn, “Wild is the Wind”
Brando in “Sayonara”
& Charles Laughton, “Witness for the Prosecution”

YOU DECIDE

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 24, 2010 1:04 am

EXCUSE BLUNDERS AGAIN!

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 24, 2010 1:04 am

EXCUSE BLUNDERS AGAIN!

Posted By Trag Lee : August 24, 2010 2:48 am

Those classic films are all interesting!

Posted By Trag Lee : August 24, 2010 2:48 am

Those classic films are all interesting!

Posted By Lydia M : August 24, 2010 12:26 pm

Suzidoll, thanks for this great blog about Lon Cheney. I, too, feel he is underappreciated as an actor. His contributions to the field of Film Make-up is impressive, as is his sheer physicality of his roles. My favorite film of Lon’s that I’ve seen is The Unknown, with Phantom of the Opera a close second. I hope TCM shows more of his films soon!

Posted By Lydia M : August 24, 2010 12:26 pm

Suzidoll, thanks for this great blog about Lon Cheney. I, too, feel he is underappreciated as an actor. His contributions to the field of Film Make-up is impressive, as is his sheer physicality of his roles. My favorite film of Lon’s that I’ve seen is The Unknown, with Phantom of the Opera a close second. I hope TCM shows more of his films soon!

Posted By Amy : August 24, 2010 6:19 pm

Amazing article, Susan! This is THE best information I’ve ever read on Lon Chaney. Very insightful. And best of all, it makes me want to pop some popcorn, settle back and watch a Lon Chaney movie! Bravo for shedding some light on this dark, complex and ultimately fascinating character.

Posted By Amy : August 24, 2010 6:19 pm

Amazing article, Susan! This is THE best information I’ve ever read on Lon Chaney. Very insightful. And best of all, it makes me want to pop some popcorn, settle back and watch a Lon Chaney movie! Bravo for shedding some light on this dark, complex and ultimately fascinating character.

Posted By Philip J Riley : August 25, 2010 2:38 pm

Hi TMC fans – What about a Lon Chaney Collection Vol.2 with Mr. Wu, West of Zanzibar, East is East etc.

Great overview article of his life.

Posted By Philip J Riley : August 25, 2010 2:38 pm

Hi TMC fans – What about a Lon Chaney Collection Vol.2 with Mr. Wu, West of Zanzibar, East is East etc.

Great overview article of his life.

Posted By John Helgason : August 29, 2010 12:50 pm

Unfortunately, we’ll never know why Chaney did what he did to himself. Fortunately, we can still watch his work and admire his devotion to his craft, which the studios (as you pointed out) exploited. There were only a few shots in “The Penalty” that really required showing his stumped legs, yet we kept on seeing long and medium shots to remind us of what he putting himself through. Watching him pull himself up the wall using only his hands and the pegs was truly amazing. Great article!

Posted By John Helgason : August 29, 2010 12:50 pm

Unfortunately, we’ll never know why Chaney did what he did to himself. Fortunately, we can still watch his work and admire his devotion to his craft, which the studios (as you pointed out) exploited. There were only a few shots in “The Penalty” that really required showing his stumped legs, yet we kept on seeing long and medium shots to remind us of what he putting himself through. Watching him pull himself up the wall using only his hands and the pegs was truly amazing. Great article!

Posted By Will Carmichael : March 28, 2018 3:35 pm

Very good read. With all due respect, I feel I must correct you on one matter. As to the Phantom, Chaney did not insert anything into his mouth to distort his cheeks/cheekbones. Everything, except the false teeth was external. He built up his cheekbones with cotton and a makeup substance called “collodion”. The nose effect was done by painting the outer edges of his nostrils black and a piece of a sort of tape was attached to the tip of his nose and pulled upwards and covered with makeup. A lotta myths about Chaney’s makeups. The Phantom and the Hunchback are probably the most mythical. Cheers!

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