Lon Chaney Shall Not Die! --- Part One
Lon Chaney carried the burden for all working men. He looked the average Joe and comported himself as humbly. Slouch caps subbed for silk hats others about Hollywood wore. Crippled legs and the occasional hump back made him that much easier to identify with, for who among his public didn’t look in mirrors (often) and see freakish manifestation staring back? Wallace Beery said Chaney had the common touch. Beery was plain enough intent on carrying forth that image in talkies after Lon’s death, and in fact, his greater 30’s stardom could be said to have been an extension of LC’s own (Chaney would have been ideal for Beery’s role in The Big House). The genius of Chaney lay partly in our own capacity to imagine him doing work skilled or unskilled just as fans would between buying movie tickets. He was the star we might encounter hanging wallpaper or laying carpet. In fact, he began at both and never let future employers forget that he’d be as content going back to either. Chaney, like Garbo, never bluffed. MGM couldn’t be sure of his renewing pacts, for LC played both money and privacy close to the vest. Others faked this kind of resolve. With Chaney, you knew it was real. Could any artist so renowned disappear as completely into the sea of faces watching his? After all, he had a thousand of them from which to choose. The catchphrase said Don’t Step On It, It Might Be Lon Chaney, but Metro understood too well its meaning: Tread on Chaney and He May Be Gone Tomorrow. Would that their other personalities have had such bargaining power!
Lon Chaney went well past movie idol status to become a sort of religious icon for youngsters who came of unsure adolescence adoring him. After all, what gawky kid doesn’t know from downtrodden? Here was an adult playing and replaying the book on it. His freaks and monsters fought back too, which gave many times a vicarious ticket price’s worth. Forrest Ackerman and Ray Bradbury spoke of him with reverence you’d not encounter outside of communion. One could argue that FJA started Famous Monsters Of Filmland to spread his gospel of Lon Chaney, the one and only Mr. Monster who’d lived and died before any of FM’s readers were born. Consider for a moment Ackerman’s power of persuading us that Chaney was greatest of all horror practitioners, something in fact LC never claimed or aspired to be. I didn’t question said wisdom even if my own exposure to Chaney was limited to stills and a glimpse or two on Fractured Flickers. Where were we going to see The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Phantom Of The Opera in the mid-sixties, other than excerpted on 8mm reels? I subsisted on frozen images and Ackerman’s assurance that Lon Chaney Shall Not Die!. Who among us didn’t try applying make-up as Lon had? My own experiment was conducted behind a barber’s chair with shoe polish assist during my brother’s haircut. Arrival home aroused a mother’s panic when she observed this ten-year-old’s approximation of Erik The Phantom’s hollowed eyes. Well, didn’t Chaney suffer too for his cosmetic art? Doubtlessly so, though not in terms of smacks to the backside and a face rubbed raw with soapy washcloths …
Lon Chaney didn’t do autographs or fan mail. That stuff went into trash barrels at Metro. He thought actors should apply themselves more to work than courting popularity. Face number one thousand and one was a self-applied blank his paying public seldom viewed. It wasn’t that Chaney shunned people. Those he knew were object of many kindnesses. Strangers were something else. Lon liked to think he simply didn’t exist between pictures. Silence bought mystery and stature to make the Chaney persona seem otherworldly. He was like the next dimension’s shape-shifter that came down occasionally to astonish us, only to withdraw again until next we’d meet. LC wrote his own ticket for knowing nobody else could possibly do what he did (and who since has attempted it?). Chaney’s was magic that could only be performed in an era predating make-up guilds with teeth and an inquisitive press turned loose. This actor kept his offscreen life uneventful. He had pet causes like prison reform (what was that about?) and smarts enough to write an Encyclopedia Britannica entry about make-up. The self-educated always apply themselves better to learning, it seems. Chaney took no short cuts toward character effects, even if the hunch his back bore was a mere twenty pounds as opposed to the seventy we’d thought. And who’s got the stomach anymore to wire up their face and slap on collodian like he did? One look at his Phantom and you know Lon took no easy outs.
Chaney’s past just feeds his grandeur for me. He seems not to have come of particular hardship other than those his parents suffered for being deaf and dumb. Dad was a barber the locals liked (and tactlessly called "Dummy" Chaney), so everyone ate. Lon’s mother fell sick and dutiful son sat bedside and told her of local happenings with expressive face and hands. Such empathy should at the least be rewarded with stardom for doing the same before audiences. How appropriate that his world stage should be a silent one. No one came to pre-talking movies better prepared than Lon. Personal dramas running up to Hollywood were like previews of Chaney vehicles to come. First wife Cleva went unhinged and drank poison back of a vaudeville stage one night. Successor in matrimony Hazel had formerly been wed to a legless cigar stand operator. Was she perfect for Lon or what? I see Chaney moving about comfortably in a world of blind beggars and humpbacks. After all, there were lots more of them in those days. What we’d call a freak show was common currency then. So many things they can fix now went untreated in LC’s day (I knew one hunchback in my life, and he died thirty years ago). Chaney was remarkable for capturing the everyday horrors of being disabled. We cringe at The Shock for his cripple’s efforts just to make way up an embankment or get in and out of a chair (no film makes better argument for handicap access). It was those simplest movements, but not so for him, that gave Chaney such authority on the screen. This actor’s entire body was resource for his pantomime. More so even than Chaplin. Look at Phantom Of The Opera next time and observe how LC carries an entire first half with his hands alone.