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Friday, January 06, 2006

How Did Lon Jr. Feel About Missing The Phantom Remake?

It always seemed to me that Lon Chaney Jr.’s story was a pretty sad one. A question persisted as to whether he even wanted to become an actor, as opposed to just submitting to his place in the thespic family business at a time when any kind of work was at a premium. Apparently, there was friction between father and son. Lon Sr. had his own issues, and couldn’t have been easy to get along with. The younger Chaney didn’t exactly burst upon the scene amidst garlands of praise either. His timing was not great, as Senior had just died and thus not around to help out when Lon Jr. was starting out. The parts were mostly bits. When they were bigger, it was things like RKO’s one-serial-ever, The Last Frontier, to which no adult viewer or critic was likely to pay attention. After that, it was cheapies and occasional glimpses in "A’s", primarily, it seems, at 20th Fox. The serious praise, make that raves, came with Of Mice and Men for Hal Roach, but that one ended up doing more harm than good when Chaney found himself typed in dumb brute roles for much of his remaining career. Efforts to duplicate his father’s success with self-applied make-up were frustrated by the lately empowered trade unions that put the nix on Chaney’s would-be (and frankly grotesque) face job for Roach’s One Million B.C. in 1940. The inevitable came within the year when he was the object of Universal’s "B" level star-making treatment in a slick horror, Man-Made Monster, the first in a well-orchestrated series designed to elevate Chaney the younger to his father’s stellar heights. By 1943, he was being shuttled back and forth between budget thrillers and program fillers. Serials were not considered beneath him, as he was merely a utility player in a company not normally associated with important "A" properties. One big exception was Universal’s technicolor remake of Phantom Of The Opera. The added value of color told the story. This was a big picture, and no expense (within reason) would be spared. Chaney had to want that title role. It was one of his dad’s biggest. He’d been subject to comparisons with his father since walking through the gate. There was a tribute ceremony a couple years before wherein Chaney was asked to dedicate a plaque which was placed at the entrance to the old Phantom stage (I remember seeing that in one of Dick Bojarski’s career articles in Castle Of Frankenstein magazine). The trick shot shown here obliged Chaney to appear in his Ghost Of Frankenstein make-up for a ghostly reunion with his father on the familiar location. Since Universal did not permit photos of Chaney Sr. in the Phantom make-up to be published at the time of the silent film’s initial release (1925), and assuming that policy remained in force for the 1930 "sound" re-issue, I'm actually wondering if this might have been the first time the horrific face was shown in a still image (the shot here was made in 1942). There were certainly plenty of stills issued the following year of the unmasked Chaney in connection with publicity for the new version, but I'm still curious --- could this have been the public’s initial still glimpse? The other shot, as you can see, is Lon visiting the remake set for a cordial pose with eighteen-year-old leading lady Susanna Foster. I showed this one to Susanna when we met seven or eight years ago and asked if Lon seemed okay with Claude Rains having been chosen for the title role over him. She said he was fine with it. Well, that’s what I would have expected her to say. After all, she probably didn’t spend ten minutes with the guy. Big Lon could be a boisterous sort at times (he and fellow bruiser Brod Crawford would occasionally beat hell out of each other just for fun), but this is one disappointment I suspect he kept pretty much to himself. Truth is, the role was probably beyond him anyway. Lon Jr. had yet to develop his father’s delicate touch in 1943. The really fine performances lay ahead in High Noon, The Defiant Ones, and others wherein Chaney reached full maturity as a seasoned character player. I remember being startled by his unexpected appearance on an episode of The Monkees TV series around 1966, and wondering if any of those boys were old fans of his. You’d like to think that someone on that set would have gone up to Lon and told him how great he was. If I’d been a Monkee, I sure would have.

Being that the Phantom stage is the oldest one still in active use today, it seemed appropriate to pay tribute with this elevated view from Universal’s 1960 meller, Midnight Lace (pretty good show, too). That’s Doris Day, Myrna Loy, and Herbert Marshall in the opera box.


Blogger Director Robert said...

Having seen so many dreadful Chaney performances, I am always startled by the depth and texture of his bit in High Noon. Who dragged that out of him? In how many takes? Only four years later came The Black Sleep?! He's a tragic figure, all right, but for those few onscreen High Noon moments, he gave us hints of something very special.

11:32 AM  
Blogger East Side said...

Several years ago, I saw him (billed by his given name, Creighton Chaney) in a 1934 movie called "The Life of Vergie Withers." His performance is the only thing I remember about it. It was a supporting, character role, very natural, almost contemporary; nothing like what he became in later years. A shame he couldn't have continued in similar roles.

11:30 AM  
Blogger James C. Swanton said...

A poster advertising Frankenstein on its 1931 release depicts some of the studio's other monsters - namely Lugosi's Dracula and Chaney's Hunchback and Phantom. However, the Phantom isn't shown as the shadowy, ambiguous figure seen on posters for the film - his face is clearly visible and quite detailed. Not sure whether that would count...

6:48 PM  

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