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Monday, March 01, 2010

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.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson sends the following comments re Chaney and "The Hollywood Revue Of 1929" via e-mail:

TCM recently ran Hollywood Review of 1929, a relic where even Laurel and Hardy are off their game. At one point Jack Benny is doing a lame Chaney monologue (speculating he doesn't actually exist) when Chaney himself appears, looking like Fredric March as Mr. Hyde. He doesn't say a word, but shakes hands and and leaves Benny holding a fake arm. Then comes a creepy (but still lame) number, "Lon Chaney's Gonna Get You If You Don't Watch Out", where a bunch of guys in what look like storebought rubber masks molest chorus girls in an art deco bedroom set. It was as if nobody involved had ever seen a Chaney film, but were winging it from some jokes they heard -- like sheltered studio execs trying to communicate with Chaney's working-class fans.

Also recall "Man of a Thousand Faces," the Universal biopic that ultimately seemed to be about legitimizing Lon Jr. as his father's artistic heir. Cagney was good, but it was generally obvious he was wearing elaborate masks instead of the painful makeups Chaney created.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Hollywood Review of 1929": Just watched this. Agree that the masks used in the Long Chaney "song" were lame. Surprising that none of the masks looked like roles he performed in his starring vehicles. In fact, a few of the masks looked similar to the Morlock masks used 30 years later in "The Time Machine."

I like the Laurel and Hardy magician routine. Yes, it's a bit slow, but no slower than the rest of the movie.

The highlight for me: Mr. Hardy makes me laugh out loud when he tells us in no uncertain terms, "The egg trick is OUT."

Tom Ruegger

3:41 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Such intensity must not have made Chaney the easiest person to live with. The story goes that Universal executives ran "Man of a Thousand Faces" for Lon Chaney, Jr. His only comment was, "Well, you really white-washed the son of a bitch, didn't you?"

4:41 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Interesting how the "horror" of Chaney is completely differen't from the traditional "horror"of gothic sets and boogeymen that was to follow in the 30s..
Horror in the reality that you are an immigrant in a foriegn country,of being in love but not loved back, of being deformed and outcast..Outcast in any form that people could understand.Tons of fans buying tickets to see a story about a person they'd shun if they passed them on the street.He definately had his own gig that noone else in the biz would want to sully their hands with on a regular basis..He must a been quite a show in his day..The people did love it!

2:23 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Mr. Benson,

One has to be gentle with films like "The Hollywood Revue" -- they meant well, and obviously everyone at Metro (including Laurel and Hardy) were still "feeling their way" through these as yet uncharted waters of sound. It's almost as though they were leaving us a frame of reference guide to "Singin' In The Rain", isn't it?

As for the "Chaney number", athough I haven't seen "Revue" for a number of years, again this is a valuable record of what would have easily passed for a vaudeville "turn" of that time. It was composed, and performed by Gus Edwards, who was a vaudeville headliner, and composer, then. Remember too, that the references to Chaney that were, yes, ("slightly") overdone, were doubtless with the blessings of Mayer and Thalberg -- it was part of the studio's "mystique" that they wanted to profligate over one it's most valuable properties!

And, Johnny, you're right on the money about how Chaney carries the first-half of "Phantom" with only his hands -- but to that I would add even then, mostly in shadow!

Best, R.J.

3:49 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Interesting that you should mention "The Hollywood Revue," Donald, as I had just watched that a few weeks ago. It seemed to me as though MGM was toying with their 1929 audience in presenting those masked doubles as possible Chaneys. I wonder if a lot of patrons didn't think it was actually LC that came out and did that gag with Jack Benny, or that one of the performers in the Chaney song wasn't the man himself.

As always, thanks for your welcome input.

Tom, you're right about some of those looking like morlocks. That had not occured to me before.

Kevin, do you think Chaney Jr. really said that? I wonder ...

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Bill Luton said...

Excellent post John. In the early 1960's, Thanks to Famous Monsters of Filmland and Lon Chaney, I pestered my mother into taking me from drugstore to drugstore in my effort to locate Non-flexible Collodian....the only kind we were assured that would work for making scars!

4:44 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

6:28 PM  
Anonymous Doug Bonner said...

Once again, dude, your post has been what a Madeleine was to Proust. In addition to the fact that LC has been under my skin since I was a kid, the remembrances of projecting 50' eight-millimeter clips of his work over and over as a youngster brought back the awe and chills of his miraculous talent.

12:51 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

My personal faves: HE WHO GETS SLAPPED and WEST OF ZANZIBAR. The former is not terribly difficult to see; the latter shows infrequently but is really something. As described by Guy Maddin for a Berkeley showing six years ago:

An orgy of revenge and retribution from the team of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney—this may be the meanest of films from those two meanies. Chaney plays a vaudeville magician left paralyzed as the result of a heyrube with his wife's lover (Lionel Barrymore). The disabled man, now known as Deadlegs, disappears for eighteen years into darkest Africa to rule over a sleazy ivory-poaching operation until he can hatch his elaborately maleficent payback plot against his romantic nemesis. Lushly shot always and uncomfortably racist at times. The sometimes indifferent Browning really got up for this one.

It's got some unforgettable moments, including perhaps the most intense example of Chaney's patented "psychological breakdown" shtick.

4:02 PM  

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