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Lon Chaney – Guest Blogger – Lea Stans from ‘Silent-ology’

LON CHANEY

“Perhaps few actors have enjoyed such a cult following as the great Lon Chaney, whose remarkable makeup and acting skills have inspired generations of film lovers. I am pleased to present this article from my blog, Silent-ology, on the life and career of a man who became a legend in his own time. –Lea Stans”

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Lon Chaney, Hollywood’s Finest Character Actor

Per a reader’s request, here is a piece on one of the greatest and most respected silent film legends–Lon Chaney. As you read this, I am currently at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival–and yes, I’ll be recapping every moment of it!

There was a popular, widespread joke back in the 1920s–“Don’t step on that spider, it might be Lon Chaney!” A joke which, of course, referred to his remarkable use of makeup and acting skills to create bizarre characters who stick in the popular imagination. Indeed, Chaney was one of the rare actors who was so skilled that he became a legend in his own time, graced with the title “The Man of a Thousand Faces”–a title which is linked with his name to this very day.

His birth name was Leonidas Frank Chaney, and he was born in Colorado Springs on April 1, 1883. His parents, Frank and Emma, were both deaf and mute. They had met at the Colorado School for the Education of Mutes, which had been founded by Chaney’s grandfather. Being the child of parents who couldn’t hear or speak, Chaney became adept at pantomime, which proved a useful training ground for his career–not only because of the pantomime used in early films, but because it made him more in tune with facial expressions and subtle gestures. When Chaney’s mother fell ill and developed rheumatism in her hands, she and Chaney reportedly would communicate only with their eyes.

As a young man Chaney quickly became set on having a stage career, and in 1902 he began working in vaudeville. He enjoyed a variety of stage roles and would also assist with Universalcostumes, makeup and choreography. In 1905 he married stage singer Cleva Creighton, and on February 10, 1906, their son Creighton Tull Chaney was born (he would one day go by Lon Chaney Jr.). It’s said that little Creighton was born premature and not breathing and that Lon, not knowing what else to do, rushed outside into the cold, knocked a hole in the ice of a lake and dunked the infant in the water, shocking him back to life.

Unfortunately, the marriage proved to be an unhappy one, involving jealousy and Cleva’s growing drinking problem. In April 1913 the Chaneys were in Los Angeles where Lon was working at the Majestic Theater. One day Cleva went to the theater, stood in the wings and attempted suicide by drinking mercuric chloride. While this dark, dramatic gesture didn’t claim her life, it did destroy her singing voice and caused a scandal that essentially put an end to Chaney’s theatrical career. He would divorce Cleva and take custody of his son, and with his stage options now closed, he had no choice but to fall back on a less lofty line of work–acting in motion pictures. (At least, it was less lofty back in 1913.)

He became an extra at Universal, partly because of his skill with makeup, and soon proved himself to be a reliable supporting actor. His earliest role that we can confirm was in Poor Jake’s Demise (1913), starring comedians Max Asher and Louise Fazenda. In 1914 he would remarry a woman named Hazel Hastings, and it would be a happy and lasting union.

Over the next few years, Chaney appeared in dozens and dozens of films, playing a wide variety of characters and often specializing in villains–an easy fit for a man with the square-jawed, rough-hewn face of a boxer or a steelworker. He grew deeply interested in creating detailed makeup effects and would photograph his various experiments to pinpoint what would be convincing onscreen. He kept his various greasepaints and other tools of transformation in a simple lunchbox–one day he would use a toolbox.

Chaney attracted attention as the villain Hame Bozzam in William S. Hart’s western Riddle Gawne (1918), but he got his breakthrough role in the drama The Miracle Man (1919). Chaney played a contortionist nicknamed “The Frog” who’s part of a gang that moves to a small town to escape the police. They discover that a faith healer has much of the town in thrall. They decide to scam the townspeople by having The Frog pose as a cripple and pretend to be miraculously healed and then use the resulting excitement to collect funds–supposedly for a chapel. But their plans go awry when a little boy really does experience a miraculous healing, and the gang’s, shall we say, “faith in fakery” is shaken.

Sadly, much of this intriguing The Miracle Man is lost, but luckily surviving clips show The Frog experiencing his “miraculous” healing. Chaney’s exceptional use of jerky body language to convey crippled limbs becoming straight is so convincing that to this day many people believe he was double-jointed, or at least knew how to dislocate his shoulders–not so. The performance put Chaney on the map as an exceptional and in-demand character actor.

Picture-Play Magazine interviewed Chaney in 1920, and the writer noted with some surprise:

The longer I talked with Lon Chaney the more paradoxical he proved to be. I had expected to find he was a circus contortionist or, at least, a veteran character actor. He is merely a talented young man with a hobby for cooking, painting, wood carving, modeling in clay, and in grease paint. He contradicts all notions of what an actor and villain should be…Acting to him means the creation of a man, whereas most of our favorite actors portray their personalities as pigment, Chaney, like the artist of sculpting or painting, creates from an imaginative model which has nothing to do with himself.

This would prove to be a rare peek into Chaney’s home life. Soon he would shy away from interviews and steer clear of Hollywood social events, preferring to keep the focus on his characters. He would once say: “My whole career has been devoted to keeping people from knowing me. It has taken me years to build up a mystery surrounding myself, which is my stock in trade.”

The Moving Picture Weekly, December 1920.

The Penalty (1920) is a fascinating example of his commitment to that stock in trade. Chaney plays a criminal whose legs were unnecessarily amputated above the knee after a childhood accident, and who finally decides to take revenge on the doctor. Chaney tied his legs back with special harnesses and walked on his kneecaps to portray the amputee, which was so painful that he could only act for ten minutes at a time. Originally, the film included a shot at the end of Chaney walking down a staircase–to prove the actor did have normal legs.

His fame only increased with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), a huge hit that featured his most extreme makeup. As the grotesquely deformed Quasimodo, Chaney used layers of cotton and colodium on his face and sported fake teeth and a 20-lb hump on his back, all of which took three hours to put together. He also used a brace to keep himself in a hunched-over position special contact lenses and (in the 1920s these would’ve been made of glass). He was paid the generous salary of $2500 a week–a big achievement for someone who, in his early Universal days, was once told he would never be worth more than $100 a week.

Other iconic roles included the circus clown HE in He Who Gets Slapped (1924), the first film to begin production with the newly-formed MGM studio; Sergeant O’Hara in Tell It to the Marines (1926), which earned Chaney an honorary membership in the U.S. Marine Corps; and, of course, the titular Phantom of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Chaney’s elaborate makeup was kept a complete secret, for maximum screen effect. Not only did the famous unmasking scene scare the daylights out of countless audiences (publicity stories claimed some people fainted), but it seems to have stuck in their minds long after other movie memories had faded. Even decades later, old-timers would recall their childhood terror of first seeing that ghastly face.

Chaney’s other iconic role is one we haven’t even seen–the ghoulish character from the thoroughly lost London After Midnight (1927). With his pointed teeth, long hair, and top hat, Chaney was the embodiment of many a Halloween haunted house decoration. Although it’s one of the most sought-after silent films (despite getting lackluster reviews in its own day), London After Midnight, unfortunately, shows no signs of turning up.

Tod Browning’s The Unknown is not only one of Chaney’s bizarre best but it also contains one of the rawest moments of horror in cinematic history. (SPOILERS at the end of this paragraph.) Chaney is Alonzo the Armless, a performer who secretly binds his arms to pose as a circus freak with a knife-throwing act (he keeps his hands out of sight so his double thumb can’t identify him as a former criminal). He falls hard for beautiful Nanon, a fellow performer who has a phobia of men’s arms and can’t stand being touched by them. But she’s comfortable around Alonzo, and he’s so head-over-heels in love that he decides to go through an unbelievably extreme act of devotion–have his arms amputated so they can be together. Unfortunately, his rival, the strongman, is able to overcome Nanon’s phobia and Alonzo finds out too late that he’s had his arms amputated for nothing–a truly horrifying moment of realization that Chaney plays to the hilt.

Chaney wasn’t enthused about the advent of talkies, feeling that if audiences heard his voice it would destroy his mystique. Eventually, he was talked into appearing in the crime drama The Unholy Three (1930), playing the ventriloquist Echo–and giving a solid performance. But sadly, it would be his final film. Lung cancer, which he had been secretly enduring for some time, finally claimed his life on August 26, 1930, after he began hemorrhaging uncontrollably. The news he had been taken to the hospital had moved countless fans to call the studio offering to donate blood, and the news of his death shocked both the public and the industry alike.

Fortunately, Chaney’s elaborate makeups were not doomed to obscurity. Today he continues to awe and inspire, one of the rare actors whose work is considered untouchable. And it’s moved some of his fans to declare, “Lon Chaney Shall Not Die!”

Sources:

Howe, Herbert. “A Miracle Man of Makeup.” Picture-Play Magazine, March, 1920.

Gebhart, Myrtle. “The Last of Mr. Chaney.” Picture-Play Magazine, September, 1930.

Everson, William K. American Silent Film. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.

Koszarski, Richard. The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

“Chaney Dies As Fan Thousands Swamp Phone; Scores Offer Blood.” Variety, August 27, 1930.

http://lantern.mediahist.org

https://www.biography.com/people/lon-chaney-9244177

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lon_Chaney

https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0151606/?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

I highly recommend this classic documentary on Chaney’s life–another important source for this article!

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Special Thanks to
Lea Stans and her blog ‘Silent-ology‘.

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Categories
Book Shelf Cinema Pranks Sideshow Story Teller Vaudevisuals Bookshelf Ventriliquist

Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “The Unholy Three” by Tod Robbins

Step right up, folks, and prepare to have your blood run cold as you meet the strangest, most bizarre trio of misfits ever spawned by a carnival of blood: TWEEDLEDEE, an adult man trapped in the body of a three-year-old toddler, whose mask of childlike innocence hides a seething brain plotting hideous revenge against all that is sane and normal! HERCULES, the circus strongman, brutal, bestial, reveling in carnage and murder – yet the submissive slave of a deadly dwarf! ECHO, the expert ventriloquist with the uncanny ability to throw his voice so that lifeless wooden dummies seem to speak even as you or I! Together, they are THE UNHOLY THREE, star attractions of Tod Robbins’ classic novel of hate, murder, and madness on and off the midway. Best known as an author of the story which inspired the still-controversial fear-film FREAKS, Robbins first stunned the public with this intense account of a ruthless war on society waged by a triad of carny castaways.

It seems to have garnered much interest by the director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney as they made a film out of this book.

Here is the description of the film by Wikipedia:

The Unholy Three is a 1925 American silent film involving a crime spree, directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney. The supporting cast features Mae Busch, Matt Moore, Victor McLaglen and Harry Earles.

The film was remade in 1930 as a talkie. In both the 1925 and the 1930 version, the roles of Professor Echo and Tweedledee are played by Chaney and Earles respectively. The films were based on the novel of the same name by Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins.

The Plot:

Three performers leave a sideshow after Tweedledee (Harry Earles), the midget, assaults a young heckler and sparks a melee. The three join together in an “unholy” plan to become wealthy. Prof. Echo, the ventriloquist, assumes the role of Mrs. O’Grady, a kindly old grandmother, who runs a pet shop, while Tweedledee plays her grandchild. Hercules (Victor McLaglen), the strongman, works in the shop along with the unsuspecting Hector McDonald (Matt Moore). Echo’s girlfriend, pickpocket Rosie O’Grady (Mae Busch), pretends to be his granddaughter.

Using what they learn from delivering pets, the trio later commits burglaries, with their wealthy buyers as victims. On Christmas Eve, John Arlington (an uncredited Charles Wellesley) telephones to complain that the “talking” parrot (aided by Echo’s ventriloquism) he bought will not speak. When “Granny” O’Grady visits him to coax the bird into performing, “she” takes along grandson “Little Willie”. While there, they learn that a valuable ruby necklace is in the house. They decide to steal it that night. As Echo is too busy, the other two grow impatient and decide to go ahead without him.

The next day, Echo is furious to read in the newspaper that Arlington was killed and his three-year-old daughter badly injured in the robbery. Hercules shows no remorse whatsoever, relating how Arlington pleaded for his life. When a police investigator shows up at the shop, the trio becomes fearful and decide to frame Hector, hiding the jewelry in his room.

Meanwhile, Hector proposes to Rosie. She turns him down, but he overhears her crying after he leaves. To his joy, she confesses she loves him but was ashamed of her shady past. When the police take him away, Rosie tells the trio that she will exonerate him, forcing them to abduct her and flee to a mountain cabin. Echo takes along his large pet ape (who terrifies Hercules).

In the spring, Hector is brought to trial. Rosie pleads with Echo to save Hector, promising to stay with him if he does. After Echo leaves for the city, Tweedledee overhears Hercules asking Rosie to run away with him (and the loot). The midget releases the ape. Hercules kills the midget before the ape gets him.

At the trial, Echo agonizes over what to do, but finally rushes forward and confesses all. Both he and Hector are set free. When Rosie goes to Echo to keep her promise, he lies and says he was only kidding. He tells her to go to Hector. Echo returns to the sideshow, giving his spiel to the customers: “That’s all there is to life, friends, … a little laughter … a little tear.”

Production:

The “ape” was actually a three-foot-tall chimpanzee who was made to appear gigantic with camera trickery and perspective shots. When Echo removes the ape from his cage, the shot shows Echo (with his back turned to the camera) unlocking the cage and walking the ape to the truck. The ape appears to be roughly the same size as Echo. This effect was achieved by having midget actor Harry Earles (who played “Tweedledee” in the film) play Echo for these brief shots, and then cutting to Chaney, making it seem as though the ape is gigantic. (In the 1930 remake, the ape was played by Charles Gemora.)

Lon Chaney as Professor Echo in “The Unholy Three”.

Harry Earles, Victor McLaglen and Lon Chaney in “The Unholy Three” 

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One of my favorite films of all time!

 

Categories
Clown Dixon Place Photography Variety Arts Ventriliquist Video

Lon Chaney/Tod Browning – A Silent Film night at Dixon Place – March 16th – 8pm

Lon Chaney stars in The Unholy Three presented at Dixon Place March 16thOriginal Poster for “The Unholy Three”

If you never seen a Lon Chaney/Tod Browning film…this is a good place to start.

THE UNHOLY THREE.

Friday night March 16th at 8pm.

FREE

Here is more information on this wonderful silent film classic from Tod Browning with Lon Chaney.

From Wikipedia.

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The Unholy Three is a 1925 American silent film melodrama involving a crime spree, directed by Tod Browning.[1]

The film was remade in 1930 as a talkie. In both the 1925 and the 1930 version, the roles of Professor Echo and Tweedledee are played by Lon Chaney and Harry Earles respectively. Both were based on the novel of the same name by Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins.

Three sideshow performers leave the circus after Tweedledee the midget assaults a child at one of their shows and become “The Unholy Three.” Echo the ventriloquist assumes the role of Mrs. O’Grady, a kindly old grandmother, who runs a bird shop. Tweedledee, “The Twenty Inch Man,” becomes her grandchild, and Hercules (Victor McLaglen) is their assistant. Soon an incredible crime wave is launched from their little store.

Convincingly disguised as a little old lady, Echo and his two carnival cohorts perform a series of Park Avenue robberies. Echo’s sweetheart Rosie (Mae Busch) plays along with the Unholy Three but changes her mind when their latest burglary, which ended in murder, threatens to send an innocent man (who is also Rosie’s Lover) to the electric chair.

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This will be the first in a series of “A QUIET NIGHT AT THE MOVIES”  that will happen once a month at Dixon Place. Hosted by Jim Moore and DP’s Katy Einerson.

Dedicated to the Silent Film. Mostly Lon Chaney and Tod Browning collaborations unseen by the public very often.

Come and enjoy a nice quiet night out at the movies. (The films are not recommended for the squeamish)

Friday March 16th 9pm at Dixon Place – DON’T FORGET – it is FREE!

Lon Chaney picture and bio from Wikipedia

Tod Browning's photograph and bio on Wikipedia