Scholars’ Spotlight: Lon Chaney

Early Years

Leonidas Frank Chaney was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado on April Fool’s Day in 1883. Both of Chaney’s parents were deaf and they actually met at the Colorado School for the Education of Mutes, which was founded by Chaney’s maternal grandfather.
Due to his parent’s inability to hear Chaney had no choice but to become an expert in the art of pantomime. By the time he reached adulthood, he had begun a stage career on the vaudeville circuit.
Not long after beginning his career, Chaney started a theatre company with his brother. The business was successful enough for the brothers to be bought out and the new owners had the company tour predominately in the Midwest.

Turmoil and Hollywood

In 1905 a 22-year-old Chaney married Cleva Creighton, a 16-year-old singer he met in Oklahoma City on the vaudeville circuit. The couple had a son, Creighton Tull Chaney (later known as Lon Chaney Jr.) the following year.
Lon Chaney
In 1910 the Chaney family settled in Los Angeles. He worked in the theatre as a stage manager, actor, and choreographer. While his career thrived, Cleva’s stalled. This led her into a state of depression, which strained their marriage.
On April 30, 1913, Cleva went to the Majestic Theater in downtown Los Angeles, where Chaney was managing the “Kolb and Dill” show and attempted to commit suicide by drinking mercury chloride in front of the cast and crew of the show. Cleva survived the incident but her singing voice was ruined.
This failed suicide attempt caused turmoil for Chaney, both personally and professionally. A public scandal occurred because of the event as well as a spiteful and vicious divorce between the Chaney’s. Divorce proceedings were so bloodthirsty that neither parent got outright custody of their son. Chaney could only gain custody if and when he remarried. In the meantime, young Creighton was sent to boarding school.
Lon Chaney
With his theatrical career in ruins from the lengthy scandal, Chaney turned to the low-brow world of motion pictures. He signed a contract with Universal Pictures in 1913. His first role was as an extra in the 1913 Wallace Reed short The Ways of Fate. He would work for the studio in various roles for the next four years.
In 1915 Chaney would marry a recently divorced chorus girl named Hazel Hastings whom he knew from his days with “Kolb and Dill”. This allowed Chaney to get custody of his son. Upon being reunited with him Chaney told the boy his mother was dead. It would not be until after his father’s death in 1930 that Crieghton would learn that this was a lie. He was 24 years old at the time.

Early Film Career

By 1917 Chaney was a well-known star at Universal. However, his pay was meager, only $100 a week. Chaney approached studio executive William Sistrom for a raise to which the executive replied:

“You’ll never be worth more than one hundred dollars a week.”

Lon Chaney
At the time Chaney had just made The Piper’s Price (1917) with Dorothy Phillips and William Stowell, which was a hit at the box office. Betting on himself Chaney left the studio to work as a freelance film actor.
Initially, Chaney struggled to find success on his own, however, that changed when he was cast in a leading role in 1918’s Riddle Gawne. His performance as a cutthroat cattle rustler made put him in the cat bird’s seat which allowed him more say in the roles he accepted as the studio demand for him to appear in movies skyrocketed.

“He was someone who acted out our psyches. He somehow got into the shadows inside our bodies; he was able to nail down some of our secret fears and put them on-screen. The history of Lon Chaney is the history of unrequited loves. He brings that part of you out into the open, because you fear that you are not loved, you fear that you never will be loved, you fear there is some part of you that’s grotesque, that the world will turn away from.”

– Ray Bradbury

Soon after, Chaney began to appear in more movies with Phillips and Stowell at Universal. All told, the trio made fourteen movies together from 1917 through 1919. Tragically this grouping came to an unexpected end when Stowell was killed in a locomotive accident in Africa not long after their last movie together Paid in Advance (1919) was released.
Lon Chaney

Movies and Makeup

Chaney’s popularity increased both inside and outside of Hollywood when his reputation for physical transformation became cemented in the minds of audiences and Hollywood moguls alike. Chaney applied and designed his own makeup for the roles he played. Eventually, he came to be known as the foremost authority on movie makeup, writing an article on the subject for the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Although Chaney preferred to use his actual hair in his performances, he often turned to the use of wigs, (which were made by a Yugoslavian wigmaker called “Zan”). The actor would keep the wigs after the production wrapped, and he eventually amassed scores of hairpieces, which were cataloged and often inspected for damage from moths.
Movies that really benefitted from Chaney’s makeup-based performances included The Miracle Man (1919) and The Penalty (1920). In the latter, Chaney played a gangster with both legs amputated. The character actor was so convincing in the role that a special tag had to be added to the end of the movie, showing Chaney walking up a flight of stairs.
Lon Chaney

“I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since The Hunchback, such as The Phantom of the Opera, He Who Gets Slapped, The Unholy Three, etc., have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do.” 

-Lon Chaney

Chaney had two of the most iconic roles at Universal during the mid-1920s: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Both roles saw Chaney transformed into a grotesque wretch and he turned to his personal dentist James L. Howard to create the false teeth he needed for the roles.
For the role of Quasimodo in the former, Chaney’s makeup involved contact lenses and heavy makeup over his right eye, a knotted wig, false teeth, and a brace that held his legs together. The obstruction used to cover his right eye damaged his vision to point that he needed glasses for the rest of his life. The actor also employed a 72-pound rubber hump to complete the look of the character.
To create the visual look of Erik in The Phantom of the Opera, Chaney stuffed cotton balls into his mouth to raise the contours of his cheekbones and crafted a nose made out of modeling putty reinforced by wires to give the nostrils the turned-up look they had in the film. With the exception of a skull cap and a pair of false teeth, the rest of the transformation was done entirely with makeup.
Lon Chaney

Off Camera

In addition to writing an article for Encyclopedia Britannica Chaney was also an expert on the subject of crime and punishment. He was an advocate for prison reform to end the abuse of prisoners and wrote many articles on the subject.
Chaney also eschewed fame and preferred to stay at his cabin in the Sierra Nevada. This was where the actor perfected his makeup techniques and fly-fished to pass the time. The actor famously never attended movie premieres, even for movies in which he starred. He also never signed autographs.
Lon Chaney

Final Years

During the final five years of Chaney’s career, the actor worked exclusively for MGM. The most beloved role he undertook during this time was that of Sergeant O’Hara, a tough-as-nails drill instructor in the USMC set Tell it to the Marines (1926). For this role, Chaney appeared as his “normal self” avoiding elaborate makeup. During filming, Chaney formed a bond with General Smedley D. Butler, commander of the Marine base in San Diego. The pair remained close friends until Chaney’s death.
In 1927 Chaney appeared alongside Joan Crawford in the movie The Unknown. Crawford would reflect on the experience of working with Chaney years later by stating:

“It was then I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera and acting.”

Lon Chaney
During the filming of Thunder (1929) in Wisconsin Chaney developed pneumonia. Shortly thereafter the screen legend was diagnosed with bronchial lung cancer. Chaney would fight the disease for the better part of a year but would fatally succumb to it on August 26, 1930. He was 47 years old.
His funeral was held two days later on August 28 in Glendale, California. He was interred in an unmarked crypt at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, as stipulated in his will.
Pallbearers at the funeral service included Louis B. Mayer, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Tod Browning, Paul Bern, Hunt Stromberg, Irving Thalberg, Lew Cody, and Ramon Novarro. The USMC provided a chaplain and Honor Guard for his funeral. At the time of his funeral, all MGM studios and offices observed two minutes of silence.

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