Lon Chaney (Sr.)
Chaney during the production of The Miracle Man, 1919
|Born||Leonidas Frank Chaney
April 1, 1883
Colorado Springs, Colorado, U.S.
|Died||August 26, 1930
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death
|Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California|
|Occupation||Actor, director, screenwriter|
|Spouse(s)||Cleva Creighton (1906–1915)
Hazel Hastings (1915–1930)
|Children||Creighton Tull Chaney (later known as Lon Chaney, Jr.)|
Lon Chaney (April 1, 1883 – August 26, 1930), born Leonidas Frank Chaney, was an American actor during the age of silent films. He is regarded as one of the most versatile and powerful actors of early cinema, renowned for his characterizations of tortured, often grotesque and afflicted characters, and his groundbreaking artistry with makeup. Chaney is known for his starring roles in such silent horror films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His ability to transform himself using makeup techniques he developed earned him the nickname "The Man of a Thousand Faces."
Leonidas Frank Chaney was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to Frank H. Chaney and Emma Alice Kennedy; his father had mostly English and some French ancestry, and his mother was of Scottish, English, and Irish descent. Her father, Jonathan Ralston Kennedy, founded the "Colorado School for the Education of Mutes" (now, Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind) in 1874, and Chaney's parents met there. Both of Chaney's parents were deaf, and as a child of deaf adults Chaney became skilled in pantomime. He entered a stage career in 1902, and began traveling with popular Vaudeville and theater acts. In 1905, Chaney, then 22, met and married 16-year-old singer Cleva Creighton (Frances Cleveland Creighton) and in 1906, their only child, a son, Creighton Tull Chaney (later known as Lon Chaney, Jr.) was born. The Chaneys continued touring, settling in California in 1910.
Marital troubles developed and on April 30, 1913, Cleva went to the Majestic Theater in downtown Los Angeles, where Lon was managing the Kolb and Dill show, and attempted suicide by swallowing mercuric chloride. The suicide attempt failed but it ruined her singing career as a result; the ensuing scandal and divorce forced Chaney out of the theater and into film.
The time spent there is not clearly known, but between the years 1912 and 1917, Chaney worked under contract for Universal Studios doing bit or character parts. His skill with makeup gained him many parts in the highly competitive casting atmosphere. During this time, Chaney befriended the husband-wife director team of Joe De Grasse and Ida May Park, who gave him substantial roles in their pictures, and further encouraged him to play macabre characters.
Chaney married one of his former colleagues in the Kolb and Dill company tour, a chorus girl named Hazel Hastings. Little is known of Hazel, except that her marriage to Chaney was solid. Upon marrying, the new couple gained custody of Chaney's 10-year-old son Creighton, who had resided in various homes and boarding schools since Chaney's divorce from Cleva in 1913.
By 1917 Chaney was a prominent actor in the studio, but his salary did not reflect this status. When Chaney asked for a raise, studio executive William Sistrom replied, "You'll never be worth more than one hundred dollars a week."
After leaving the studio, Chaney struggled for the first year as a character actor. It was not until 1918 when playing a substantial role in William S. Hart's picture, Riddle Gawne, that Chaney's talents as a character actor were truly recognized by the industry.
In 1917 Universal presented Chaney, Dorothy Phillips, and William Stowell as a team in The Piper's Price. In succeeding films, the men alternated playing lover, villain, or other man to the beautiful Phillips. They would occasionally be joined by Claire DuBrey nearly making the trio a quartet of recurring actors from film to film. So successful were the films starring this group that Universal produced fourteen films from 1917 to 1919 with Chaney, Stowell, and Phillips. The films were usually directed by Joe De Grasse or his wife Ida May Park, both friends of Chaney's at Universal. When Chaney was away branching out on films such as Riddle Gawne and The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin, Stowell and Phillips would continue on as a duo until Chaney's return. Stowell and Phillips made The Heart of Humanity (1918), bringing in Erich von Stroheim for a part as the villain that could easily have been played by Chaney. Paid in Advance (1919) was the group's last film together, for the chiseled featured Stowell was sent to Africa by Universal to scout locations for a movie. En route from one city to another, Stowell was in the caboose when it was hit by the locomotive from another train; he was killed instantly. The majority of these films are lost but a few, including Triumph and Paid in Advance survive in private collections or unrestored in European or Russian archives.
In 1919, Chaney had a breakthrough performance as "The Frog" in George Loane Tucker's The Miracle Man. The film displayed not only Chaney's acting ability, but also his talent as a master of makeup. Critical praise and a gross of over $2 million put Chaney on the map as America's foremost character actor.
He exhibited great adaptability with makeup in more conventional crime and adventure films, such as The Penalty, in which he played an amputee gangster. Chaney appeared in 10 films directed by Tod Browning, often portraying disguised and/or mutilated characters, including carnival knife-thrower Alonzo the Armless in The Unknown (1927) opposite Joan Crawford. In 1927, Chaney also co-starred with Conrad Nagel, Marceline Day, Henry B. Walthall and Polly Moran in the Tod Browning horror film, London After Midnight, considered one of the most legendary lost films. His final cinema role was a sound remake of his silent classic The Unholy Three (1930), his only "talkie" and the only film in which Chaney utilized his versatile voice. The actor signed a sworn statement declaring that five of the key voices in the film (the ventriloquist, the old woman, a parrot, the dummy and the girl) were his own.
In Quasimodo, the bell ringer of Notre Dame, and Erik, the "phantom" of the Paris Opera House, Chaney created two of the most grotesquely deformed characters in film history. However, the portrayals sought to elicit a degree of sympathy and pathos among viewers not overwhelmingly terrified or repulsed by the monstrous disfigurements of these victims of fate.
"I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice," Chaney wrote in an autobiographical article published in 1925 in Movie magazine. "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."
"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," Ray Bradbury once explained. "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."
In his 1925 Movie magazine article, Chaney referred to his expertise in both make-up and contorting his body to portray his subjects as "extraordinary characterization." Chaney's talents extended beyond the horror genre and stage makeup. He was also a highly skilled dancer, singer and comedian. Many who did not know Chaney were surprised by his rich baritone voice and his sharp comedic skills.
Chaney and his second wife Hazel led a discreet private life distant from the Hollywood social scene. Chaney did minimal promotional work for his films and for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, purposefully fostering a mysterious image, and he reportedly intentionally avoided the social scene in Hollywood.
In the final five years of his film career (1925–1930), Chaney worked exclusively under contract to MGM, giving some of his most memorable performances. His portrayal of a tough-as-nails marine drill instructor in Tell It to the Marines (1926), one of his favorite films, earned him the affection of the Marine Corps, who made him their first honorary member from the motion picture industry. He also earned the respect and admiration of numerous aspiring actors, to whom he offered mentoring assistance, and between takes on film sets he was always willing to share his professional observations with the cast and crew.
During the filming of Thunder in the winter of 1929, Chaney developed pneumonia. In late 1929 he was diagnosed with bronchial lung cancer. This was exacerbated when artificial snow, made out of cornflakes, lodged in his throat during filming and quickly created a serious infection. Despite aggressive treatment, his condition gradually worsened, and seven weeks after the release of the remake of The Unholy Three, he died of a throat hemorrhage on August 26, 1930. His death was deeply mourned by his family, the film industry, and his fans. The US Marine Corps provided a chaplain and Honor Guard for his funeral. He was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale, California, next to the crypt of his father. His wife Hazel was interred there upon her death in 1933. For unknown reasons, Chaney's crypt has remained unmarked.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (March 2012)|
In 1957, Chaney was the subject of a biopic titled Man of a Thousand Faces, and was portrayed by James Cagney. Though much of the plot was fictional, the film was a moving tribute to Chaney and helped boost his posthumous fame. During his lifetime, Chaney had boasted he would make it difficult for biographers to portray his life, saying that "between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney." This was in line with the air of mystery he purposefully fostered around his makeup and performances.
Lon Chaney has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1994, he was honored by having his image, designed by noted caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, placed on a United States postage stamp. The stage theater at the Colorado Springs Civic Auditorium is named after Chaney.
In 1929, Chaney built an impressive stone cabin in the remote wilderness of the eastern Sierra Nevada, near Big Pine, California, as a retreat. The cabin (designed by architect Paul Williams) still stands, and is preserved by the Inyo National Forest Service.
Chaney's son Creighton, renamed Lon Chaney, Jr., became a film actor after his father's death, and is best remembered for roles in horror films, especially The Wolf Man. The Chaneys appeared on US postage stamps as the Phantom of the Opera and the Wolf Man, with the set completed by Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster and the Mummy. He and his son are mentioned in the Warren Zevon song "Werewolves of London".
Following his death, Chaney's famous makeup case was donated by his wife Hazel to the Los Angeles County Museum, where it is sometimes displayed for the public. Makeup artist and Chaney biographer Michael Blake considers Chaney's case the most important artifact in the history of film makeup.
(Followed by * denotes currently "lost film" status; asterisking of this list is incomplete.)
- The Honor of the Family (1912) (uncredited, dubious) *
- The Ways of Fate (1913) (uncredited, dubious) *
- Suspense (1913) (unconfirmed, dubious)
- Shon the Piper (1913) * (unconfirmed - claimed by Blake)
- The Blood Red Tape of Charity (1913) *
- The Restless Spirit (1913) (uncredited) *
- Poor Jake's Demise (1913)
- The Sea Urchin (1913) *
- The Trap (1913) *
- Almost an Actress (1913) *
- An Elephant on His Hands (1913) *
- Back to Life (1913) *
- Red Margaret, Moonshiner (1913) *
- Bloodhounds of the North (1913) *
- The Lie (1914) *
- The Honor of the Mounted (1914) *
- Remember Mary Magdalen (1914) *
- Discord and Harmony (1914) *
- The Menace to Carlotta (1914) *
- The Embezzler (1914) *
- The Lamb, the Woman, the Wolf (1914) *
- The End of the Feud (1914) *
- The Tragedy of Whispering Creek (1914)
- The Unlawful Trade (1914) *
- Heartstrings (1914)
- The Forbidden Room (1914)
- The Old Cobbler (1914)
- The Hopes of Blind Alley (1914)
- A Ranch Romance (1914)
- Her Grave Mistake (1914)
- By the Sun's Rays (1914)
- The Oubliette (1914)
- A Miner's Romance (1914)
- Her Bounty (1914)
- The Higher Law (1914)
- Richelieu (1914)
- The Pipes o' Pan (1914)
- Virtue Is Its Own Reward (1914)
- Her Life's Story (1914)
- Lights and Shadows (1914)
- The Lion, the Lamb, the Man (1914)
- A Night of Thrills (1914)
- Her Escape (1914)
- The Sin of Olga Brandt (1915)
- The Star of the Sea (1915)
- A Small Town Girl (1915)
- The Measure of a Man (1915)
- The Threads of Fate (1915)
- When the Gods Played a Badger Game (1915)
- Such Is Life (1915)
- Where the Forest Ends (1915)
- Outside the Gates (1915)
- All for Peggy (1915)
- The Desert Breed (1915)
- Maid of the Mist (1915)
- The Grind (1915)
- The Girl of the Night (1915)
- The Stool Pigeon (1915 – also directed)
- For Cash (1915 – directed only)
- An Idyll of the Hills (1915)
- The Stronger Mind (1915)
- The Oyster Dredger (1915 – also directed)
- Steady Company (1915)
- The Violin Maker (1915 – also directed)
- The Trust (1915 – also directed)
- Bound on the Wheel (1915)
- Mountain Justice (1915)
- Quits (1915)
- The Chimney's Secret (1915 – also directed)
- The Pine's Revenge (1915)
- The Fascination of the Fleur de Lis (1915)
- Alas and Alack (1915)
- A Mother's Atonement (1915)
- Lon of Lone Mountain (1915)
- The Millionaire Paupers (1915)
- Under a Shadow (1915)
- Father and the Boys (1915)
- Stronger Than Death (1915)*
- Dolly's Scoop (1916)
- The Grip of Jealousy (1916) *
- Tangled Hearts (1916)
- The Gilded Spider (1916)
- Bobbie of the Ballet (1916) *
- The Grasp of Greed (1916)
- The Mark of Cain (1916) *
- If My Country Should Call (1916)
- Felix on the Job (1916) *
- The Place Beyond the Winds (1916)
- Accusing Evidence (1916)
- The Price of Silence (1916) *
- The Piper's Price (1917) *
- Hell Morgan's Girl (1917) *
- The Mask of Love (1917) *
- The Girl in the Checkered Coat (1917) *
- The Flashlight (1917) *
- A Doll's House (1917) *
- Fires of Rebellion (1917) *
- The Rescue (1917) *
- Pay Me! (1917) *
- Triumph (1917)
- The Empty Gun (1917) *
- Anything Once (1917) *
- The Scarlet Car (1917)
- The Grand Passion (1918) *
- Broadway Love (1918)
- The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin (1918) *
- Fast Company (1918) *
- A Broadway Scandal (1918) *
- Riddle Gawne (1918)
- That Devil, Bateese (1918) *
- The Talk of the Town (1918) *
- Danger, Go Slow (1918)
- The Wicked Darling (1919)
- The False Faces (1919)
- A Man's Country (1919) *
- Paid in Advance (1919)
- The Miracle Man (1919)
- When Bearcat Went Dry (1919)
- Victory (1919)
- Daredevil Jack (1920)
- Treasure Island (1920) *
- The Gift Supreme (1920)
- Nomads of the North (1920)
- The Penalty (1920)
- Outside the Law (1920)
- For Those We Love (1921) *
- Bits of Life (1921) *
- The Ace of Hearts (1921)
- The Trap (1922)
- Voices of the City (1922) *
- Flesh and Blood (1922)
- The Light in the Dark (1922)
- Oliver Twist (1922)
- Shadows (1922)
- Quincy Adams Sawyer (1922) *
- A Blind Bargain (1922) *
- All the Brothers Were Valiant (1923) *
- While Paris Sleeps (1923) *
- The Shock (1923)
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
- The Next Corner (1924) *
- He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
- The Monster (1925)
- The Unholy Three (1925)
- The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
- The Tower of Lies (1925) *
- The Blackbird (1926)
- The Road to Mandalay (1926)
- Tell It to the Marines (1926)
- Mr. Wu (1927)
- The Unknown (1927)
- Mockery (1927)
- London After Midnight (1927) *
- The Big City (1928) *
- Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)
- While the City Sleeps (1928)
- West of Zanzibar (1928)
- Where East is East (1929)
- Thunder (1929)
- The Unholy Three (1930)
- "Lon Chaney Dies After Brave Fight. On Road to Recovery, Screen Actor Is Stricken by Hemorrhage of the Throat. Was a Master of Makeup. Son of Deaf and Dumb Parents, He Began Career as Property Boy. Excelled in Vivid Personations. Acted as Pike's Peak Guide. Made Stage Debut at 17. Appeared in Slap-Stick Comedy. Wore Straitjacket as "Hunchback." New Disguise for Each Film.". New York Times. August 27, 1930. "Although he was believed to be on the road to recovery, Lon Chaney, screen actor, who had been making a valiant fight against anemia and bronchial congestion, died at 12:55."
- Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Embracing Events, Institutions, Industries, Counties, Cities, Towns, Prominent Persons, etc. edited by Frank W. Blackmar c. 1912 pp.496–498
- Mysteries and Scandals - Lon Chaney (Season 3, Episode 34). 2000. E!.
- "Mrs. Lon Chaney Dies. Before Her Husband Entered the Movies She Was Well Known In Vaudeville.". New York Times. November 1, 1933.
- Internet Movie Database,IMDb.com ; film listings on Lon Chaney, William Stowell, Dorothy Phillips & Claire Dubrey
- Pictorial History of the Silent Screen, by Daniel Blum c. 1953 p.141; scene from Triumph (1917), description ...Phillips has hand on Chaney's head embracing him while Stowell reads paperwork on desk
- Silents are Golden
- Dick, Bernard F., City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997, pp. 52-55
- Schickel, Richard (1962). The Stars. New York: Bonanza Books, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc. p. 133.
- Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces by Michael Blake, New York by Vstal Press, 1990 (ISBN 1-879511-09-6)
- The First Male Stars: Men of the Silent Era by David W. Menefee. Albany: Bear Manor Media, 2007.
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