Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mr. Lon Chaney

17 followers! I dig it! Thanks you guys, it means a lot to me :)

Friday night I went to the Redford Theatre (which is so beautiful, my favorite place to see films) to see The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin. I had seen pictures of Lon in makeup, but when his mask is first pulled off and you see his face, I actually let out a "Oh wow!" Pictures really don't do the job justice. Seeing him interact with other characters and the expressions he made were incredible. I remember thinking that he really was the master and someone truly to admire. Mary Philbin on the other hand...beautiful, angelic face. But her acting was laughably over the top at some points in the film.

Buster Keaton, in my opinion, is the master of slapstick comedy. He did his own stunts and wrote his own films and directed them...etc. Lon did his own incredible, intricate makeup and really became engrossed in the characters he played. He sadly was struck down by illness when he was only 47 years old. It would have been great to see what else he could have accomplished.

Lon Chaney was born Leonidas Frank Chaney on April 1, 1883 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His parents Frank and Emma were both deaf and mute so Lon learned early how to communicate with them through hand gestures and facial expressions. Lon joined older brother John, and they were joined later by brother George and sister Caroline.

In 1902, he began to appear on stage and travel with various theatre and vaudeville shows. He ended up in California in 1910.

He signed with Universal Studios in 1912 and stayed with them until 1917, playing bit roles. He won many of the roles by demonstrating his excellent makeup techniques. He began to gain some notoriety and so he asked for a raise. This was denied. The studio head actually told him that he "wouldn't be worth more than a hundred dollars a week." Needless to say, Lon left the studio.

In 1918, Lon really made his mark on the film industry when he appeared in the film Riddle Gawne. Within a year, he became THE character actor that all others looked up to (They still should! Actors today have nothing on the greats of old Hollywood).

His two most famous films, The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are still notable today for Lon's amazing makeup and characters. He preferred to view his roles as "extraordinary characterizations" rather than just makeup on an actor.

Lon's last film was a talkie, a remake of his 1925 film, The Unholy Three. He actually signed a sworn statement saying that the five main voices heard in the film were all his. So, not only was he an excellent actor in pantomime, but he also had a great talent for voices.

While filming his next movie in 1929, he took ill with pneumonia and eventually was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was said that the cause had been him having inhaled crushed gypsum (being used for fake snow on a film). This may not of helped his condition, but it wasn't the main cause. It eventually surfaced later on that Lon had been a heavy smoker. He underwent aggressive treatments for weeks but to no avail.

Lon Chaney passed away on August 26, 1930 in Los Angeles, California.

He was interred next to his father in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California. For reasons unknown, his grave is unmarked.

Lon was married twice. First to fellow actress and singer Cleva Creighton in 1905. He was 23, she was only 16. They had one son in 1906 named Creighton. The marriage began to get rocky after the two relocated to California and in 1913, Cleva attempted suicide by ingesting mercury bichloride (the same thing that killed Olive Thomas). Not only did this attempt fail but it also ruined her singing voice for good. The scandal surrounding the attempted suicide led the couple to divorce in 1915.

Lon's second marriage was to a chorus girl named Hazel Hastings in 1915. There isn't much known about Hazel, but what is known is that hers and Lon's marriage was a good one. The couple regained custody of Creighton who had spent most of his childhood bouncing back and forth from house to house and eventually ended up in boarding school.

Creighton Chaney is better known today as Lon Chaney Jr. He appeared in a number of horror films, including The Wolf Man in 1941. His father tried to dissuade his son from entering show business and encouraged him to go to college instead. Also interesting to note that Jr. was told growing up that his mother had died, and wasn't made aware of the fact that she was still living until after his father died. He himself passed away in 1973 of heart failure.

In 1957, James Cagney starred in the bio-film Man of a Thousand Faces. As usual, the plot of the film is highly fictionalized but it helped revive the interest in Lon that had waned over the years.

Had he not died, he would have starred in Dracula rather than Bela Lugosi. That would have been pretty cool to see........however, Bela IS Dracula.

He was a very private man, and was rarely seen out on the town. But those who worked with him, including Joan Crawford and Loretta Young, he was a great man and very helpful to other actors.

Joan Crawford and Lon

While filming Hunchback at Notre Dame, he wore heavy makeup over one eye and had to go for weeks only using one eye. Because of this, he became very short sighted and had to wear glasses for the rest of his life.

Lon actually wrote the entry on makeup for an edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Supposed to be distantly related to Dick Cheney. That sucks.
Lon and Mary Philbin

"The parts I play point out a moral. They show individuals who might have been different , if they had been given a different chance." ~ Lon Chaney


  1. I came across your blog when I was looking for information on Florence la Badie and I am so glad that a blog exists dedicated to the silent stars and cinema. So often they are now ignored but so much has come from them. I am actually going to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame in a church accompanied by choral ensemble. This will be played on Nov 5th. I am looking forward to it. Lon Chaney is one of my favourites and there are so few books written on him. He actually self-tortured himself to get the proper effects like in the Phantom. I would not want wires spreading my nose up and apart but he was dedicated to his work. I am going to leave a comment on Florence La badie because there are actual reports that she was murdered and the president had something to do about it!

  2. Hi Jessica,

    I actually follow your blog via google reader, but I guess I don't show up as an 'official' follower. I just wanted to let you know that you may possibly have a lot more followers than you think! Amazing blog by the way! I hope sometime to post about it on mine if that's alright! :)


  3. Birgit - Thank you very much for stopping by. I remember reading somewhere about Florence being murdered and was flabbergasted. Any info you have would be great. And a film with chorale accompaniment? That would be very interesting to see/hear. Thank you very much again for reading. I am always glad to meet silent film fans like me. Seems like we are few and far between.

    Rachel- It still blows my mind that I have 18 "official" followers. I need to look at some other blogs, I just never seem to have the time. I will for sure check out your blog. Thanks for reading. It means a lot to me :)

  4. Lon Chaney's maternal grandparents founded the Colorado Springs School for the Deaf and Blind in 1874. It is still going strong and is an awesome campus. We here in Colorado Springs are rather proud of our connection with one of Hollywood's great actors. :-)

    Anne in Colorado

    1. Hi Anne! That is wonderful to hear that his legacy still lives on!