~Lon Chaney~

Born: April 1, 1883 in Colorado Springs, CO, USA
Died: August 26, 1930 in Hollywood, CA, USA
~Lon Chaney with his very famous make-up kit~
The story of Lon Chaney reads like the scenario of an epic of the silent screen. A natural-born
pantomimic genius, Chaney entered the film industry when American cinema was still fairly
primitive. His star rose along with the art of the silent film, an art he helped to advance. He became a
household name, having carved a unique niche for himself that no other contemporary performer
could touch. Then, when both his worldwide popularity and the silent cinema were at their zenith,
Lon Chaney died, and the silent era of which he was so important a part was swept away by the

One of the most popular and respected actors of his day, Lon Chaney has also been one of the most
misunderstood, and even ignored, among succeeding generations of film fans. Long unfairly
pigeonholed as a “horror star,” Chaney was anything but. In fact, Chaney’s long run as a star was
marked by an astonishingly broad range of roles, with “monsters” accounting for a miniscule portion
of his 160+ film appearances. He was a true chameleon. Chaney played gangsters and clowns, sons
and fathers, historical personages, Asians, pirates, and more. What these diverse characters had in
common was depth of emotion compellingly brought to life. Audiences around the world thrilled to
his creations, eagerly anticipating his next character—those with and without disguises. If anything,
Lon Chaney was the Robert DeNiro of his day: an actor’s actor who specialized in not specializing,
imbuing his often intense and occasionally bizarre characters with a deep sense of emotional realism.

If ever someone was born to star in silent films, it was Leonidas Frank Chaney. A native of Colorado
Springs, Colorado, Lon was born on April 1, 1883 to deaf-mute parents. At a very young age he
became adept at expressing himself through pantomime, embellishing stories for his family with
mimed characterizations of neighbors and townspeople, building a seemingly limitless vocabulary of
gesture and facial expression. Much has been made of how the supposed trauma of being raised by
people who were “different” in an age of intolerance must have motivated Chaney in his later career.
But in an interview conducted when he was at the height of his fame, he called tales of his childhood
suffering “the bunk.” Still, one has to wonder, when studying the depth he brought to some of his
roles, how it must have felt to be known in Colorado Springs as the son of “Dummy” Chaney (his
father’s local nickname). Young Lon was also an avid outdoorsman who worked as a tour guide on
Pike’s Peak and enjoyed hiking and fishing. From an early age he had a respect for tradesmen,
perhaps an example set by his father, a barber. He trained in carpet laying and wallpaper hanging,
and proudly maintained his membership in that trade’s union well into his days as a movie star.

Chaney took to the vaudeville stage in 1902, touring the country while building a varied resume in
stagecraft. He assisted with costumes, scenery and makeup, performed a variety of roles on stage,
and at one time was stage manager for a popular comedy duo, Kolb & Dill. In marked contrast to his
later film roles, Chaney was adept at light comedy and was an accomplished dancer.

Unlike most of the dreamers who flocked to Hollywood when it was being transformed from orange
groves to the vibrant capital of the film industry, Chaney did not go there seeking fame. He was in a
family way and needed to work.  While on the road in 1905, he had met and married a young singer
named Cleva Creighton. Their son, Creighton Chaney, was born in 1906. The marriage was stormy
and money was scarce. At one point, Lon had to fall back on his skills laying carpet. In the 1960’s
Creighton recalled visiting bars with his father, who would distract the patrons with impromptu
performances while young Creighton stuffed his pockets with sandwiches.

Eventually, vaudeville took the couple to California, where they were living by 1910. Problems
between Lon and Cleva escalated. They reached their climax in 1913, when she went to the theater in
Los Angeles where Lon was working as stage manager and attempted suicide by swallowing poison.
The attempt failed, but it led to divorce and the end of Cleva’s singing career.
It almost put an end to Lon’s career as well. It has been speculated that the resulting scandal forced
Chaney out of the theater and into films, while in fact he had already made his film debut in 1912. But
the scandal ensured that finding employment in the theater would become more difficult. And with
custody of his son in the balance after the divorce, Lon needed steady work more than ever. He
became a regular in the pool of extras at Universal, where his natural acting talent and stage-honed
skill with disguise soon earned him regular work. His first credited role was in a 1913 comedy called
Poor Jake’s Demise.

Chaney remarried in 1915, to Hazel Hastings, and over the next several years, the young actor
appeared in scores of one and two reelers—many, no doubt, uncredited. His enthusiasm and
experience as a stage manager led to his getting the opportunity to direct several films, but his forte
was in front of the camera. Chaney’s rugged features prevented him from being cast in traditional
leading man roles. His versatility and vital physique were in demand, however, and he became one of
Universal’s busiest character actors. Chaney played everything from a caveman to a plantation
owner, and his makeup box was his constant companion. Digby Bell, a popular stage actor, claimed
that he showed Lon many tricks of makeup while the two were working together on the feature
Father and the Boys (1915). In an article on Lon in a 1916 issue of Moving Picture Weekly, mention is
made of Chaney actually making himself up as Bell.

While it is possible that Bell showed Chaney some tricks of the makeup trade, it is clear that Chaney
himself was his own best teacher. During his early years at Universal, as later, he experimented
constantly with makeup, always striving for realism. Lon became a one-man laboratory, and his work
in some ways formed the foundation of the modern craft and industry of film makeup. He borrowed
cameras and did screen tests. He carefully studied not only makeup techniques, but the complicated
interrelationships among lights, lenses, film stock, the actor’s face and the spectator’s eye. His
dedication to excellence helped elevate motion picture makeup from the conventions of heavy
disguise it occupied on the stage to the recognized art it is today.
Some advice Chaney gave to a struggling actor years later harks back to his days as an extra worried
about his next paycheck, who discovered that his makeup box held the key to future employment.
Once he was established, Chaney was known to give rides to extras to and from the studio. One
evening in the late ‘20’s, he offered one to Boris Karloff. Lon told Boris, “The trick in this business is
to do something totally different from the rest so they’ll take notice of you.”

They noticed. By 1918, Chaney had graduated from two-reelers to features at Universal, and had
earned the respect of not only the critics but many of his coworkers on the lot. One person who did
not share this respect was studio manager William Sistrom (the same man who later supposedly said
Clark Gable would never be a star because his ears were too big.) After several years of full time work
at Universal, Chaney still didn’t have a contract and was essentially a day player earning $75 a week.
He approached Sistrom and asked for a regular contract at $125 a week. Sistrom flatly turned him
down as not worth it—a decision he may have regretted in the years to come.

Fueled by this insult and confident in his ability, Chaney left Universal. He was hired by top western
star William S. Hart to play the villain in Riddle Gawne, which raised Chaney’s profile and credibility.
After Riddle Gawne, he appeared in six more features before director/producer George Loane
Tucker cast him in the role that would vault him to stardom: the bogus cripple “The Frog” in the 1919
hit The Miracle Man (Mayflower).  As The Frog, Chaney plays one of a gang of crooks who use a faith
healer to scam money from the public. The grotesquely crippled Frog is “cured” by the faith healer,
and the transformation is so realistically wrenching that it inspires a genuinely crippled boy to throw
away his crutches and walk. Though the film is now lost, this scene survives, and it gives ample
evidence of why The Miracle Man became a huge hit.

For the next several years, Chaney sought to capitalize on the success of The Miracle Man by
appearing in a number of features of varying quality. The public had by now embraced him as a
character star, and Chaney had already learned that curiosity over what kind of character he might
portray next made for good box office. He played the pockmarked scoundrel Ricardo in Maurice
Tourneur’s lush production of Victory (Paramount, 1919) and two pirates in Tourneur’s Treasure
Island (Paramount, 1920).

Nineteen-Twenty also saw one of his most striking roles: that of the legless underworld boss
“Blizzard” in Wallace Worsley’s The Penalty (Goldwyn), a film that stands in stark contrast to the
notion that the 1920’s was the Age of Innocence. Chaney’s performance is truly arresting in this
twisted tale of drugs, physical mutilation, murder, communist terrorism and psycho-sexual
dysfunction. (Its content was so strong that it inspired a censorship crusade in a New York
newspaper that no doubt contributed to The Penalty’s box office appeal.) To play Blizzard, Chaney
devised a leather harness with which to bend his legs back at the knees and strap them to his thighs.
His knees fit into leather stumps, with the ruse partially concealed by elongated jackets. The
startling authenticity of his appearance, coupled with the manic intensity he brings to the character,
combine to create an unforgettable portrait. Moving Picture World noted, “Rarely has the screen
seen a better piece of acting.”It has often been said that the harness Chaney wore caused injury to
his knees and back. While many of the legends of Chaney’s intense physical suffering to create his
roles are undoubtedly exaggerations, it is hard to watch The Penalty without thinking that the role at
the very least caused him significant discomfort, if not outright harm.

Two years after Sistrom’s slap in the face over a fifty-dollar raise, Lon earned $500 a week for The
Penalty… and found out later that the studio had actually been willing to pay him three times that
amount. It was a hard lesson that Chaney would not forget. He got in the habit of carefully studying
box office receipts, so he would have a clear idea of his value to producers and never be taken
advantage of again. While building his career he lived modestly with Hazel, never forgetting his
experiences as a struggling actor living hand to mouth on the road. From all indications, his zest to
advance his popularity and fame were not ego-driven, but stemmed from a desire to establish and
maintain financial security in a notoriously fickle and risky business. This practical sense, coupled
with his commitment to excellence in all his endeavors, would, ironically, soon propel him to the
absolute pinnacle of stardom.

Lon was back at Universal for his next film, Outside the Law (1921), his second with director Tod
Browning, with whom he would later form a celebrated partnership. Chaney plays a dual role in this
crime melodrama: gangster “Black Mike” Silva and a Chinese servant named Yen Sin (who kills Silva
in the film’s climax).  While today it is usually considered unnecessary and inappropriate for actors
to portray individuals of other races, in Chaney’s day the ability to so transform oneself was
considered a required part of the actor’s craft, and Chaney himself called playing Asians an “infinite
art.” To create this illusion, he employed a thin material called fishskin, glued next to his eyes with
spirit gum and pulled back to stretch the lids into the conventional “slanted” appearance. False
teeth, costume and convincing gesture complete the illusion. Chaney played Asians in several films,
and he never slipped into the overblown caricature that most western actors did when assaying such
roles. Chaney’s goal was always authenticity.

This sensitivity is displayed to great effect in Shadows (Preferred Pictures, 1922), in which he plays
the lead role, a Chinese castaway named Yen Sin. Chaney’s makeup and acting are remarkably free of
stereotypical caricature. That a film with an Asian character as the lead was made at all at that time
of rampant bigotry is very unusual, and thanks to Chaney’s sensitive portrayal of Yen Sin, the film
satisfied both the critics and the public. Moving Picture World enthused that Chaney “…grips you
with a human chain that is unbreakable. This role clinches the claim of friends of Chaney that he is
the greatest character man on the screen, for his is as fine an example of realistic acting and makeup
as this writer has seen.”

That year was a banner one for Lon Chaney. It marked the first year that his enduring nickname
entered the parlance: The Man of a Thousand Faces.  The moniker was more than borne out in 1922
as Lon performed a variety of roles in features of escalating caliber: Fagin in Oliver Twist (Associated
First National) with reigning child star Jackie Coogan; the semi-comic villain Obadiah Strout in the
all-star Quincy Adams Sawyer (Sawyer-Lubin/Metro); crippled escaped convict David Webster in
Flesh and Blood (Irving Cummings Prod.) and the dual role of “mad doctor” Lamb and one of his
experiments, the Hunchback, in A Blind Bargain (Goldwyn). As Doctor Lamb, Chaney is a debonair
society man with Van Dyke whiskers. The hunchback, however, is a semi-simian result of one of
Lamb’s experiments, complete with low forehead (an illusion created by a close-cropped wig that
extends towards his eyes and a large “uni-brow.”) The film is now lost, but stills offer a tantalizing
glimpse of a very unusual production.

Directed by Wallace Worsley, who had helmed The Penalty, A Blind Bargain is one of the few films in
Lon’s oeuvre that can be considered a “horror film.” But while his reputation as a horror actor is
unfairly narrow, it is true that Chaney came to own the market on the dark side of the public psyche
of the Roaring Twenties. As represented in Hollywood films, the post-World War One decade was
one of moralizing and a breezy belief that goodness is rewarded while badness is ultimately
punished. Yet the streets of the world, some of which were in ruins following the war, were peopled
with the human wreckage of the conflict: amputees, men scarred by shells and poison gas, and
countless other veterans suffering from what we now call post traumatic stress. In his cripples and
crooks, sad clowns and lovelorn rejects, Lon Chaney illuminated the tortured pathways of the
human mind and spirit. In an article Lon wrote on prison reform that was published in 1930, he
makes a statement that goes to the heart of many of his characterizations: “It is a basic fact that in
every man is an inherent desire to be a respected member of society.”

The Roaring Twenties was a decade of steadily increasing popularity for Chaney, and that popularity
went far beyond curiosity about what face would spring from his makeup box. Clearly, there was
something in his work that moved people. Even his most extreme characters, like Blizzard, were
imbued with a palpable sense of humanity. Audiences were enthralled by his talent even as they
drank up the novelty of his creations.

Today, it is easy to see why Lon Chaney came to be known as an actor’s actor. Though some of his
performances might seem overdone to modern audiences, they nonetheless show an astonishing
range of emotion, from the most subtle to the most extreme. For example, The Penalty features
close-ups in which a complete backstory plays out across Chaney’s face. Film after film, his hands
alone are a ballet of expression. The constraints of silent film made it impossible to achieve “realism”
as we know it today, because it was a strictly visual language. Yet emotional realism animated the
subtlest of Chaney’s expressions and gestures. His film presence resonates with a vast palette of
human feelings. In Lon Chaney’s acting is the genesis of the craft of realism that has yielded Marlon
Brando, Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet. His existing films demonstrate that he is a
vital stepping stone in the development of one of the most important art forms in the last century:
motion picture acting.

The following year, 1923, the art of acting was to take a long step forward when Chaney brought to
the screen one of its most legendary characters: Quasimodo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The “official version” of the making of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Universal, 1923) is a classic
case of Hollywood bending the facts in its own favor. This legend, as propagated in the James
Cagney biopic of Chaney, Man of a Thousand Faces (Universal, 1957), is that studio wunderkind
Irving Thalberg had read Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris while a sickly, shut-in child. Later, he
nursed a desire to show the world a spectacular vision of what it was like to be different, and The
Hunchback of Notre Dame became his pet project. When fate brought Thalberg an actor, Chaney,
whom he thought capable of realizing his vision, he lavished all of Universal’s resources on the
project and created an enduring classic. But information discovered by Chaney biographer Michael
Blake reveals that in fact it was Lon Chaney who conceived of this project. It was Chaney who
recognized Quasimodo as a role made for him, who acquired the rights to Hugo’s book, and actively
canvassed Hollywood for either the backers or the production company that could do justice to this
made-in-heaven showcase for his talents. Thalberg did indeed come through, and The Hunchback of
Notre Dame would ultimately become one of the best-remembered works of the silent era.

Though The Hunchback of Notre Dame suffers today from stodgy direction by Wallace Worsley, it is
nonetheless visually spectacular. The recreation of medieval Paris is stunningly realistic. The Notre
Dame cathedral set, which was built full-size to a level above the doors and completed with a
hanging miniature, dominates the scenery. The sets are peopled with a beautifully-costumed “cast of
thousands.” This film was very much Lon’s labor of love, and he was active in all aspects of its
production. He directed some of the scenes, and was on the set every day whether he was appearing
in a scene or not. Chaney shepherded the project all the way to New York City, where he was
privately shown the “final cut” so he could make suggestions to its editor before its special premiere
screening at Carnegie Hall.

Just as Chaney dominated the production behind the camera, he dominates the finished product on
screen. The story is rich in melodramatic subplots, and Quasimodo himself has less screen time than
might be expected for a title character. But in Chaney’s hands the deaf, deformed bellringer is
present even in his absence. The humanity of this heartbroken outcast, who “hears” the bells by
feeling their vibrations in the cathedral’s stones, is truly touching. Hailed as a masterpiece of acting
at the time, this performance has maintained its luster through the decades, and is sometimes cited
as one of the greatest in the history of film.

That Quasimodo’s soul could manifest itself so poignantly at all through Chaney’s makeup is a
tribute to his abilities. His head-to-toe creation is a virtually spot-on replica of Hugo’s description,
from the protruding cheeks and nose to the sickle-shaped, knock-kneed legs. The hump, which
costar Patsy Ruth Miller said was made of plaster, was held in place with a leather harness that
prevented Lon from standing upright. His body was covered with a rubberized shirt to which hair
was attached. This makeup, which took several hours each day to apply, is remarkable even by today’
s standards. It does not look realistic. It looks real.  But the most real aspect of Chaney’s portrayal is
the emotion that radiates through this thick coat of makeup.
Released in September of 1923, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a tremendous success. The first
two weeks of its first run at the Astor Theater in New York City sold out in advance, and it played at
that 1,500+ capacity theater for 20 weeks. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was still enjoying
theatrical bookings into 1929. Already a popular star, Lon Chaney was now a household name.

Irving Thalberg left Universal shortly after Hunchback was released to become head of production at
the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn studios. The studio that was soon to become MGM began with a
grand concept: to assemble the greatest roster of top rank stars and produce pictures of consistently
high quality (and even artistic merit). It speaks volumes about Lon Chaney’s position both as an
artist and as a box office attraction that he was chosen to play the title role in Metro-Goldwyn’s first
production, He Who Gets Slapped.
This lyrical film, directed by Swedish director Victor Seastrom (Sjostrom) certainly lives up to the
studio’s lofty vision for itself. It is the story of a scientist (Chaney) who is betrayed by his wife and
buries his sorrow in a new identity as a circus clown. The clown’s act, for which he becomes famous,
is to be brutally slapped by an increasing number of other clowns. In the climax of the act he dies,
and has his heart symbolically torn out and buried in the dirt, to the delight of the audience. As
extreme as it sounds, the subject matter is handled poetically, and Chaney’s subtly powerful
performance more than justifies the faith Thalberg and his fledgling company put in his talents. The
reviewer for the New York World, after extolling the film’s artistic and dramatic virtues, added, “…I
am inclined to think that Mr. Lon Chaney is the real triumph.” He Who Gets Slapped was popular
with the public and a tremendous critical success, laying the golden cornerstone for one of
Hollywood’s most legendary studios. Lon Chaney was soon to have the lucrative studio contract he
had been striving for a few years previously, and was now one of the most popular and respected
dramatic actors in the world.
One wonders what William Sistrom must have thought.

In October of 1924, Lon started work on what would be his last film as a freelancer—a film which
would cement his status as a film immortal. But before that movie was released, he built on his
success with two more pictures: The Monster (Tec-Art/Roland West Productions, 1925) and The
Unholy Three (MGM, 1925.) The latter marked the beginning of a partnership with director Tod
Browning that would see several more hits through 1929. In this crime drama, Chaney plays
Professor Echo, a circus ventriloquist who is the leader of an unlikely trio of crooks that includes a
midget and a circus strongman. Echo disguises himself as an old woman who owns a pet store.
Together the three steal from customers until a brutal murder by the strongman and the midget
brings the gang down. It is a strange premise indeed, but under Browning’s direction The Unholy
Three achieves a true creepiness that modern audiences find enjoyable. Chaney’s performance
garnered even more praise, and the film was a big success for MGM, landing on many top ten lists
for 1925.

But it was Chaney’s final release in 1925 that gave him his best remembered, most iconic role: that of
the maniacal, unspeakably ugly “ghost” of the Paris Opera, Erik, The Phantom of the Opera. Like Lon’
s previous Universal super-production, Phantom represents the results of Chaney’s ongoing search
for quality, memorable roles that no other actor could do creditably. Oft-repeated legend has it that
Thalberg, then at Metro-Goldwyn, had to battle with Louis B. Mayer to loan Chaney to Universal for
this project, assuming it would enhance Chaney’s prestige, which would be reflected back on Metro-
Goldwyn. But Chaney was still not yet contractually beholden to anyone. Again, Phantom was Lon’s
baby. He acquired the rights for Gaston LeRoux’s novel of the mad, deformed musician who
terrorizes the Opera. Again, he was an integral part of the planning and execution of the story,
directing many scenes—especially when communication broke down between himself and the
director, Rupert Julian. Lon was never one for fits of artistic ego on the set, and apparently Julian
annoyed him both on a personal level and because he wanted the actors to overdo it to the detriment
of the story’s suspense. Things got so bad between the two of them that they refused to speak.
Intermediaries had to relay their words back and forth—while they were within earshot on the same

Clearly determined to make a suitably spectacular followup to The Hunchback of Notre Dame,
Universal lavished a great deal of money on Phantom. The sets are every bit as stunning; the main
stage was the first movie set to be built on a structural steel framework, and it is still in use today.
Several scenes were filmed in two-color Technicolor. Again, a huge cast was assembled for scenes of
immense grandeur.  But the problems with Julian’s direction are glaring. Chaney is unforgettable,
but his performance stands in contrast to the other leads, Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry, who
either overact or appear wooden. To make matters worse, Universal kept second guessing the script.
First they felt it was too frightening, so extensive comic relief was added and the film re-cut. Then
this footage was scrapped. Phantom went through several previews and re-cuts, and not surprisingly
the final picture was a bit uneven. The reviews were tepid, though praise was heaped on Chaney and
the gorgeous settings.

The public response, however, was anything but tepid. The Phantom of the Opera was a much-
talked-about hit, and one of the main things talked about was Chaney’s makeup and performance as
the title character. Again, he brought the author’s description perfectly to life. As conceived by
Leroux and realized by Chaney, Erik’s face is a living death’s head: paper-white flesh stretched
across protruding cheekbones, rotting teeth exposed in the perpetual grimace of a corpse, a slit of a
nose and bulging eyes staring from black, sunken sockets. It’s a visage that burned itself into the
memory of all who saw it in the 20’s, and the unmasking scene, where costar Mary Philbin (as
Christine) exposes Erik’s face, still raises gasps and cheers from modern audiences. Chaney’s
makeup in this role is so astonishing that over the years it has lent itself to many exaggerations as to
how he accomplished it. Among them: He distended his cheeks with celluloid discs in his mouth.
This is nonsense, as the only place distended by something inserted into the mouth would be far
below the lofty cheekbones that give Erik’s face its distinctive skull-like impact. In fact, Erik’s cheeks
are what modern makeup pros call “appliances.” Made of cotton with a skin of flexible collodion (like
the cheeks he used in Hunchback), these were glued to the surface of his face and blended with

He put chemicals in his eyes to dilate the pupils. With his lengthy experience under the harsh lights
used at that time, Chaney would have been well aware that doing so would have caused severe,
excruciating and probably permanent damage to his eyes.

His nostrils were distended with cut-off ends of cigar holders (and/ or wire prongs). This was
unnecessary (beyond the fact that cigar holders are not shaped like nostrils). Chaney used fishskin
or another adhesive material, glued to the tip of his nose and pulled up between his eyes to lift the
tip and give it a more skull-like appearance. The distinctive slit nostrils are painted on, as can be
seen in several photographs of Erik. In fact, even in a few of the most famous portraits of this
makeup, the fishskin or adhesive tape can clearly be seen peeling up from the end of his nose.

Wire prongs in his false teeth held his mouth in a death’s head grin. This appears to be untrue, as in
most scenes Chaney’s mouth is free to grimace beyond what such a device would render possible.
Again as can be seen in photographs, Chaney accentuated the grin with paint. He used this same
technique to achieve the illusion of bulging eyes. The deep sockets are painted on, and the “bulging”
is actually painted in a lighter color on the lower lids. This simple technique is remarkably effective
in Chaney’s hands because of his years of study of the effects of lights on makeup. Lon worked very
closely with his cinematographers and had a master’s knowledge of cameras, lenses, lights and film
stock. He knew how to create a makeup with the use of painted highlights and shadows which, when
photographed from the right angle, with the right lighting, would appear real to the viewer.  He knew
that within the realm of film, two dimensions could appear as three.  (He contributed the article on
film makeup to the 1929 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.) Nowhere is this mastery more evident
than in his creation of Erik.
But, as with his other iconic masterpiece, Quasimodo, it’s the character that inhabits the amazing
disguise that stirred the hearts of audiences then, as now. Erik is a homicidal maniac. But he is
human, and in Chaney’s hands he evokes great sympathy. Again, Chaney illuminated the humanity
that can light the darkest depths of a troubled spirit. His performance, and his immortal makeup,
propelled Leroux’s character into the public consciousness, where it has remained through the
decades, to be reincarnated in one of the biggest theatrical franchises ever to grace the stage.

Chaney now had a lucrative contract and was not only one of the top stars in the MGM stable (all his
remaining films were at MGM) but in filmland in general.  

In spite of his fame and wealth, and the power they brought him, Chaney was well loved among the
lower ranks of the studio hierarchy, who addressed him by his first name. He treated his less
fortunate coworkers with the utmost respect, and would frequently intercede on behalf of a crew
member in disputes with management—and sometimes on behalf of the entire crew as well. For
instance, he insisted that filming cease at 5PM so the crew could enjoy their evenings, and he would
make sure that they were compensated for extra hours. Loretta Young, who appeared with him as a
14 year-old in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (MGM, 1928), fondly recalled how he became very protective of
her when he found out that the director, Herbert Brenon, was bullying her on the set.

Chaney was famous on the lot for dumping his immense loads of fan mail unread because he viewed
it as idolatry and not an accurate indicator of his actual box office popularity (he called the trashcan
“my high-priced secretary”). The one exception he made to this rule is very telling: he answered
every letter he received from someone in prison. Despite his cavalier treatment of fan mail, he was
by no means antisocial nor morose and withdrawn, the way some contemporary writers painted him.
Those who knew him remembered him as gregarious and good humored; behind-the-scenes photos
reveal that he could engage in some pretty outrageous clowning. He took a keen interest in the poor,
with a particular interest in prison reform, and interviewers found him vigorous, insightful and
Lon completely lacked film star airs, and in his own words considered vanity to be a “personal
parasite. “  Known in Hollywood as “the star who lives like a clerk,” Chaney lived very modestly for
his means and status, and avoided both the limelight and Hollywood’s ubiquitous “yes-men.”  
Preferring childhood friends and local businessmen for company, he rarely associated off screen
with other members of the film industry, with the exception of set musicians Sam and Jack Fienberg
and a few others. Creighton, Lon’s son, grew up to be a handsome young man, and Lon did all he
could to discourage him from following the temptation to enter the film business. He knew full well
that show business is no business for someone seeking a stable career and trustworthy associates.
From all appearances he and Hazel were a devoted couple who were never involved in a whisper of
Hollywood scandal.
Chaney jealously guarded his privacy, famously saying, “Between pictures there is no Lon Chaney.”
His public appearances were very rare and therefore very newsworthy. This reclusiveness was in
some respects calculated. Chaney was convinced that overexposure in the press would make the
public tire of a star more quickly—and make him easier prey for the “personal parasite” as well.  
Once he was established, he happily maintained his precious privacy behind a veil of mystery. MGM’
s publicity department eagerly played up this angle, and indeed the mystery added to the public’s
curiosity over his film appearances. Chaney advised another shy star on the MGM lot, Greta Garbo,
to handle her public image the same way, and she went on to become almost as famous for her air of
personal mystery as for her films.

The next several years saw a steady rise in Lon Chaney’s popularity. MGM was careful to put him
into roles that capitalized on his reputation for unusual characters, and he made several films with
Tod Browning (who would go on to direct Bela Lugosi in Dracula).  Among other strong roles,
Chaney played the a Limehouse crook who disguises himself as his own crippled brother in The
Blackbird (1926), a strangler who hides by masquerading as an armless knife thrower in The
Unknown (1927), three generations of the Chinese Mandarin Mr. Wu (1927) and Scotland Yard
hypnotist/detective who flushes out a murderer by disguising himself as vampire in London After
Midnight (1927).
The latter, which is one of the most sought-after of all lost films, is noted as the first American
vampire film—though it is really a murder mystery with the element of vampirism stirred into the
brew. As the vampire in London After Midnight, Chaney created one of his most startling makeups.
Quite different from the vampire makeups known by modern audiences, Lon’s vampire sports a
maniacal grin lined with serrated double rows of pointed teeth, wispy grey hair and enormous
staring eyes. Here is one makeup that might have lived up to the legends of Chaney suffering for his
art: he created the staring eyes by inserting wire rings into his eye sockets that both held his eyes
wide open and plowed the flesh beneath into deathly-looking circles.

As bizarre as these roles sound, MGM was careful to accent Chaney’s parts with characters that didn’
t rely on his makeup skills: a tragic clown in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), a gangster in The Big City
(1928) and a New York gumshoe in While the City Sleeps (1929). In one of his most popular roles he
wore absolutely no makeup whatsoever: Sergeant O’Hara in Tell It to the Marines (1927). In this
memorable movie, Chaney virtually created the blueprint for the tough drill sergeant with a heart of
gold which has become a staple movie character through the years. Chaney’s O’Hara is indeed gruff
but loveable, with excellent comic flourishes, and actually has a love interest (though unrequited) in
Eleanor Boardman. The public loved Chaney in this film, and Tell It to the Marines was a smash at
the box office. It’s a tribute to the authenticity he brought to the role that he was made an honorary
member of the Marine Corps for life. The Marine Corps’ magazine, Leatherneck, offered perhaps the
highest praise: “Few of us who observed Chaney’s portrayal of his role were not carried away to the
memory of some sergeant we had known whose behavior matched that of the actor in every minute

Not long after this picture’s release, the film industry was rocked by the introduction of sound. As
the 20’s waned, talkies became the rage, and silent stars were dropping by the wayside. By this time,
Lon Chaney would have had a long way to drop: in both 1928 and 1929, film exhibitors voted him the
most popular male movie star. He was truly at the pinnacle of stardom; an MGM trade ad proudly
expanded on his nickname with “The Man of 1000 Faces and 100 Million Fans.” Even as public
tastes were changing radically due to the novelty of talking pictures, Chaney’s silent films continued
to pack the theaters and his popularity was undiminished. The public had a real affection for him,
built over 15 years by his devotion to delivering performances of depth and sincerity. This bond was
no doubt deepened by Chaney’s refusal to wear his stardom as a crown and live a life of frivolous
extravagance like so many of his colleagues. Yes, many of his roles were extreme. But in a way, the
average moviegoer could embrace the “real” Lon Chaney as one of them. There was great debate
over which kind of role he should play next. There was even a hue and cry for Lon to finally be
allowed to “get the girl.”

But in spite of his popularity, he couldn’t hold out against the microphone forever. Lon Chaney, the
man born to act in silent films, seemed to the public to be at a crossroads, since he delayed making
his talking debut for at least two years. There were rumors that his voice would not record well, that
he was actually mute like his parents. But Chaney, ever the shrewd businessman, was most likely
holding out for other reasons entirely. It was new contract season; his existing contract said nothing
about making talking films. Additionally, his perfectionism would not allow him to stake his career
on a technology that had not been perfected. He hinted that he was steeling himself to fade away.

But by 1930, the technology was perfected enough (as were contract negotiations) that he could
undertake his talking debut in a remake of his 1925 hit The Unholy Three. It was worth the wait.
Playing the ventriloquist, Chaney was a revelation, and the role allowed him to demonstrate that he
was as adept at vocal characterizations as he was at makeup. The publicity declared, “The Man of a
Thousand Faces is Now the Man of a Thousand Voices.”
Unfortunately, this auspicious talking debut was to be Chaney’s last film. Even while filming it he
had been ill, and just over a month after its release he died of lung cancer at the age of 47 on August
26, 1930. His death was front page news. The film industry and fans around the world were shocked
by his unexpected passing.  He was widely eulogized, and as his body was being interred at Forest
Lawn Cemetery, MGM suspended production for a moment of silence.  His friend, actor Wallace
Beery, summarized the feelings of the public by recalling Lon as “the one man I knew who could walk
with kings and not lose the common touch."

With Lon Chaney’s death, the silent cinema and one of its brightest luminaries passed at virtually
the same moment. The film industry and public tastes moved on, and over the years Chaney’s
memory was somewhat hijacked so that he became remembered as primarily a horror actor, mostly
because of the enduring popularity of his iconic roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The
Phantom of the Opera.  This was exacerbated by Creighton’s taking the name Lon Chaney, Jr.  and
spending decades typecast in monster roles. There was a revival of interest in Lon’s life and work in
1957, when James Cagney played him with great sensitivity in the biopic Man of a Thousand Faces
(Universal).  But if anything, his memory remained dormant. It seems strange that someone who
had literally become a legend in his own time and had so inhabited the consciousness of moviegoers
worldwide would not retain his place on the pedestal he had worked so hard to earn. Others whose
popularity he rivaled or exceeded during his lifetime survived in the memorial pantheon of the silent
cinema. But Lon Chaney, if mentioned at all, was pigeonholed by Quasimodo and Erik. Perhaps he
was too versatile. He was not a type: not a romantic idol like Valentino, not a comedian like Chaplin
or Keaton, nor a swashbuckler like Douglas Fairbanks. He defied labels because he’d worn so many.
So it was easy to put an inaccurate and even diminishing label on him.
That began to change in the late 80’s, spurred by the sensation surrounding the Broadway musical
Phantom of the Opera. Turner Classic Movies and the world of home video and DVD have made
Chaney’s work available to new generations of fans, and in-depth biographies have shed new light on
him as a person and as an actor. His popularity has even been recognized by the United States Postal
Service: some Presidents and person of historic importance have only been pictured on one postage
stamp, if that. Lon Chaney has two.
Perhaps one day Lon Chaney will be remembered as what he was: an artist of unique depth and
range… and almost unimaginable popularity. In fact, one could say that Lon Chaney was among the
most popular movie stars of all time. Why? Because of those exhibitor polls for 1928 and 1929.
During those seasons, before there was a radio in every home, movies were the number one form of
entertainment. More people saw more films more often than at any other time in history. And Lon
Chaney was their number one choice.

© 2009 Richard Day Gore
Writer, musician, fashion industry veteran, cancer survivor and lifelong silent film enthusiast,
Richard Day Gore is currently Senior Editor at LaChance Publishing. He invites all kindred spirits to
join him on Facebook.

For more information on Lon Chaney, the most complete and definitive works are the three books by
Michael F. Blake: Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces, A Thousand Faces: Lon
Chaney's Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures, and The Films of Lon Chaney.
Thunder (1929) .... Grumpy Anderson
Where East Is East (1929) .... Tiger Haynes
West of Zanzibar (1928) .... Phroso 'Dead-Legs'
While the City Sleeps (1928) .... Dan Callahan - Movie Still Code: 346-X
Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) .... Tito Beppi
The Big City (1928) .... Chuck Collins
London After Midnight (1927) .... Professor Edward C. Burke
... aka The Hypnotist (UK)
Mockery (1927) .... Sergei
The Unknown (1927) .... Alonzo the Armless
Mr. Wu (1927) .... Mr. Mandarin Wu - Mr. Wu's Grandfather
Tell It to the Marines (1926) .... Sgt. O'Hara
The Road to Mandalay (1926) .... Singapore Joe
The Blackbird (1926) .... The Blackbird/The Bishop
The Tower of Lies (1925) .... Jan
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) .... Erik, The Phantom
The Unholy Three (1925) .... Professor Echo - The Ventriloquist / Mrs. 'Granny' O'Grady
The Monster (1925) .... Dr. Ziska
He Who Gets Slapped (1924) .... Paul Beaumont/HE
The Next Corner (1924) .... Juan Serafin
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923/I) .... Quasimodo
The Shock (1923) .... Wilse Dilling
While Paris Sleeps (1923) .... Henri Santodos
All the Brothers Were Valiant (1923) .... Mark Shore
A Blind Bargain (1922) .... Dr. Arthur Lamb/The Ape Man ... Movie Still Code: 165-X
... aka The Octave of Claudius (USA)
Quincy Adams Sawyer (1922) .... Obadiah Strout
Shadows (1922/I) .... Yen Sin - 'The Heathen'
Oliver Twist (1922) .... Fagin
The Light in the Dark (1922) .... Tony Pantelli
... aka The Light of Faith
Flesh and Blood (1922) .... David Webster
The Trap (1922) .... Gaspard the Good
... aka Heart of a Wolf (UK)
Voices of the City (1921) .... O'Rourke
... aka The Night Rose
The Ace of Hearts (1921) .... Mr. Farallone
Bits of Life (1921) .... Chin Chow
For Those We Love (1921) .... Trix Ulner
Outside the Law (1920) .... Black Mike Sylva/Ah Wing
Nomads of the North (1920) .... Raoul Challoner
The Penalty (1920/I) .... Blizzard
The Gift Supreme (1920) .... Merney Stagg
Treasure Island (1920) .... Blind Pew / Merry
Daredevil Jack (1920) .... Royce Rivers

Victory (1919) .... Ricardo
When Bearcat Went Dry (1919) .... Kindard Powers
Paid in Advance (1919) .... Bateese Le Blanc
The Miracle Man (1919) .... The Frog
A Man's Country (1919) .... 'Three Card' Duncan
The Wicked Darling (1919) .... Stoop Connors
The False Faces (1919) .... Karl Eckstrom
Danger, Go Slow (1918) .... Bud
The Talk of the Town (1918) .... Jack Lanchome
That Devil, Bateese (1918) .... Louis Courteau
Riddle Gawne (1918) .... Hame Bozzam
A Broadway Scandal (1918) .... 'Kink' Colby
Fast Company (1918) .... Dan McCarty
The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin (1918) .... Bethmann-Hollweg
... aka Beast of Berlin
... aka The Kaiser
... aka The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin
Broadway Love (1918) .... Elmer Watkins
The Grand Passion (1918) .... Paul Argos
The Scarlet Car (1917) .... Paul Revere Forbes
Bondage (1917) (uncredited) .... Seducer
Anything Once (1917) .... Waught Moore
The Empty Gun (1917) .... Frank
Triumph (1917) .... Paul Neihoff
Pay Me! (1917) .... Joe Lawson
... aka Pay Day
... aka The Vengeance of the West
The Rescue (1917) .... Thomas Holland
Fires of Rebellion (1917) .... Russell Hanlon
A Doll's House (1917) .... Nils Krogstad
The Flashlight (1917) .... Henry Norton/Porter Brixton
... aka The Flashlight Girl (USA: alternative title)
The Girl in the Checkered Coat (1917) .... Hector Maitland
The Mask of Love (1917) .... Marino
Hell Morgan's Girl (1917) .... Sleter Noble
The Piper's Price (1917) .... Billy Kilmartin
The Price of Silence (1916) .... Edmond Stafford
Accusing Evidence (1916)
The Place Beyond the Winds (1916) .... Jerry Jo
Felix on the Job (1916) .... Tod
If My Country Should Call (1916) .... Dr. George Ardrath
The Mark of Cain (1916) .... Dick Temple
... aka By Fate's Degree
The Grasp of Greed (1916) .... Jimmie
... aka Mr. Meeson's Will (UK)
Bobbie of the Ballet (1916) .... Hook Hoover
The Gilded Spider (1916) .... Giovanni
... aka The Full Cup (USA)
Tangled Hearts (1916/I) .... John Hammond
The Grip of Jealousy (1916) .... Silas Lacey
Dolly's Scoop (1916) .... Dan Fisher
Stronger Than Death (1915) .... Attorney
Father and the Boys (1915) .... Tuck Bartholomew
Under a Shadow (1915) .... DeSerris
The Millionaire Paupers (1915) .... Martin - landlord
Lon of Lone Mountain (1915) .... Lon Moore
A Mother's Atonement (1915) .... Ben Morrison
Alas and Alack (1915) .... The Fisherman and Hunchback Fate
The Fascination of the Fleur de Lis (1915) .... Duke of Safoulrug
The Pine's Revenge (1915) .... Black Scotty
The Chimney's Secret (1915) .... Charles Harding
Quits (1915/I) .... Frenchy
Mountain Justice (1915) .... Jeffrey Kirke
Bound on the Wheel (1915) .... Tom Coulahan
The Trust (1915) .... Jim Mason
The Violin Maker (1915) .... Pedro
Steady Company (1915) .... Jimmy Ford
The Oyster Dredger (1915)
The Stronger Mind (1915) .... The Crook's Pal
An Idyll of the Hills (1915) .... Lafe Jameson
The Stool Pigeon (1915/I)
The Girl of the Night (1915) .... Jerry
... aka Her Chance (USA: reissue title)
The Grind (1915) .... Henry Leslie
... aka On the Verge of Sin
Maid of the Mist (1915) .... Lin, Paulines father
The Desert Breed (1915) .... Fred
All for Peggy (1915) .... Seth Baldwin
Outside the Gates (1915) .... Perez
Where the Forest Ends (1915) .... Paul Rouchelle
Such Is Life (1915) .... Tod Wilkes
When the Gods Played a Badger Game (1915) .... Joe, the property man
... aka The Girl Who Couldn't Go Wrong
The Threads of Fate (1915) .... The Count
The Measure of a Man (1915) .... Lt. Jim Stuart
A Small Town Girl (1915) .... The Procurer
The Star of the Sea (1915) .... Tomasco
The Sin of Olga Brandt (1915) .... Stephen Leslie
Her Escape (1914) .... Pete
A Night of Thrills (1914) .... Visitor
The Lion, the Lamb, the Man (1914) .... Fred Brown
Lights and Shadows (1914) .... Bentley
Damon and Pythias (1914) (unconfirmed) .... Wild man
Her Life's Story (1914) .... Don Valesquez
Virtue Is Its Own Reward (1914) .... Duncan Bronson
The Pipes o' Pan (1914) .... Arthur Farrell
Richelieu (1914/I) .... Baradas
The Higher Law (1914/I) .... Sir Stephen
Her Bounty (1914) .... Fred Howard
A Miner's Romance (1914) .... John Burns
The Oubliette (1914) .... Chevalier Bertrand de la Payne
By the Sun's Rays (1914) .... Frank Lawler
Her Grave Mistake (1914) .... Nunez
A Ranch Romance (1914) .... Raphael Praz
The Hopes of Blind Alley (1914) .... Vendor
The Old Cobbler (1914) .... Wild Bill
The Forbidden Room (1914) .... John Morris
Heart Strings (1914) (unconfirmed)
The Unlawful Trade (1914) .... The Cross Blood
The Tragedy of Whispering Creek (1914) .... The Greaser
The End of the Feud (1914) .... Wood Dawson
The Lamb, the Woman, the Wolf (1914) .... The Wolf
The Embezzler (1914/I) .... J. Roger Dixon
The Menace to Carlotta (1914) .... Giovanni Bartholdi
... aka Carlotta, the Bead Stringer (USA)
Discord and Harmony (1914) .... The Sculptor
Remember Mary Magdalen (1914) .... The Half-Wit
The Honor of the Mounted (1914) .... Jacques Laquox
The Lie (1914/I) .... Young MacGregor
Bloodhounds of the North (1913) .... Mountie
Red Margaret, Moonshiner (1913) .... Lon
... aka Moonshine Blood (USA: reissue title)
Back to Life (1913) .... The Rival
An Elephant on His Hands (1913) .... Eddie
Almost an Actress (1913) .... Cameraman
The Restless Spirit (1913) (uncredited) .... Russian Count
The Trap (1913/I) .... Lon
Shon the Piper (1913) .... Clansman
The Blood Red Tape of Charity (1913) .... Marx, a Gentleman Thief
The Sea Urchin (1913) .... Barnacle Bill
Poor Jake's Demise (1913) .... The Dude
Suspense (1913) (uncredited) (unconfirmed) .... A Hobo
The Ways of Fate (1913)
The Honor of the Family (1912/I) (unconfirmed)
~Lon Chaney: The Man of a Thousand Faces~

By Richard Day Gore
~Early Years~
~From Vaudeville to The Miracle Man~
~Busy Freelancer~
~The Brink of Superstardom~

~Lon Chaney, Superstar~
~The Pinnacle~
~Silent Filmography~