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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone


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Well, it’s Halloween time, and TV stations across the continent are digging into the archives to show all the horror-ific films they have on hand. The horror genre, which has had its ebbs and flows over the years, is also at an incredible peak right now – when else in recent memory have a Japanese film (Ju-On) and its American remake (The Grudge) been in North American release at the same time? What better time, then, to look into our cinematic history and pay tribute to one of the first ever master actors of the genre. Long before Linda Blair gave us The Exorcist, and well before the uber-creepy Boris Karloff and Vincent Price made gasping in shock and burying our faces in pillows part of the movie experience, there was the Man of a Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney Sr.

1936 Lon Chaney Sr. Linen Photo "In Memoriam" Lon Chaney Sr. 1920's-30's Les Vedettes de l'Ecran Chocolate Card

In many ways, his real life is the stuff of lore. Born Leonidas Chaney in Colorado on April 1 (!) in 1883, Lon’s parents were deaf-mutes, which meant that Lon learned at an early age how to communicate in gestures and with exaggerated expression – in other words, you could say that he was working as a silent screen actor would before he ever appeared in front of a camera. Not a typical beginning – it’s no wonder Lon was drawn at an early age to the performance arts. As a young actor, he also acquired a theater company with his brother John.

Lon Chaney Sr. 1932 R&J Hill Tobacco Card1923 MPDA Photo Lon Chaney as FaginBy 1913, the movies came calling, and Lon made his debut playing a hobo in a film called Suspense. Though he made all kinds of films – he made around 150 throughout his relatively short career – he rapidly became known for his work in the horror genre. As we know, the silent period of cinema was ripe with innovation and experimentation – genres were just being formed and it quickly became evident that audiences had an appetite for horror films as much as they did for Westerns and melodramas. Lon distinguished himself by becoming known for his make-up effects, which is how he became known as The Man with a Thousand Faces.

A prolific actor, some of Lon’s early films include: An Elephant on His Hands, Bloodhounds of the North (1913);  The Land, The Woman, The Wolf and Lights and Shadows (1914); The Grind and Stronger than Death (1915); The Grips of Jealousy and The Mark of Cain (1916); A Doll’s House and Triumph (1917); That Devil, Bateese and Danger, Go Slow (1918); The Wicked Darling (1919); Treasure Island (1920); Voices of the City (1921); and Oliver Twist (he played Fagan, 1922) and While Paris Sleeps (1923).

A quiet, private man who stayed away from the press, Lon’s image is almost solely defined by his roles, as opposed to his off-screen antics. Perhaps the role he is most famous for today is that of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), which made him a bonafide star of the horror film. First made as a short in 1911 under the name Notre-Dame de Paris, the film has since been remade for television and the big screen – actors from Charles Laughton (1939), Anthony Quinn (1956) and Tom Hulce (the 1996 Disney Animated version) owe a lot to the precedent Chaney set in bringing this skulking, tragic figure to life.

Between 1923 and his untimely death in 1930, Chaney mastered his craft in such spookfests as The Phantom of the Opera (1923), The Monster (1925), The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), and West of Zanzibar (1928). His last silent film, and second to last film, Thunder (1929), is unfortunately now lost. He made one sound film, a remake of his The Unholy Three, in 1930, before he died of lung cancer on August 26.

When we go see horror films today, we are not expecting our favorite actor or actress to be in most or all of them – we certainly have stars today, but we’re very fickle about our devotion to them. So Lon Chaney 1924 Godfrey Phillips Tobacco Cardit’s hard for us to understand today the extent to which the stars drove the studio 1926 Theatre Program advertising Lon Chaney in "The Penalty"system during the silent era (and well into the sound age). A Lon Chaney film was guaranteed to be an experience: what make-up will he be donning in this film? Which masterpiece will he be recreating for the big screen? How many layers deep into our subconscious fears and desires will he be tapping into this time out?

Lon set the standard for horror movie-making and acting; even his famous son Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man, 1941), could never escape the shadows of his famous father, despite the fame he reached with films like (Of Mice and Men in 1939 and High Noon in 1956). It should also be noted that another one of our great masters of horror – Bela Lugosi – might not have reached the level of stardom he did had Lon lived longer – Lon was slated to play Dracula when he died, thereby giving Bela his most famous role ever.

It may be hard to seek out Lon Chaney’s films today, but a new flood of interest in him in the 1950s has given us Universal’s The Man of a Thousand Faces (1957, with James Cagney playing Lon), and diehard fans can seek out a magazine launched in 1958 called “Famous Monsters of Filmland;” each issue had at least a page devoted to Lon, called “Lon Chaney Shall Not Die.” Thanks to the magic of the movies, he never will.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.