Lon Chaney - the first of the great actors

In some ways, it’s only appropriate.  The first great actor should come out of the horror genre.  After all, the horror genre was the first great collection of films.  And it wasn’t just American films, either.  In fact, two of the best films of the silent era were German horror films – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu.  Then the genius seemed to travel across the Atlantic (literally, in the case of Nosferatu director F.W. Murnau) and great horror films began to bloom in the States.  At the forefront of that was Lon Chaney, one of the great actors in film history.  He also became one of the first great losses to film history when he died at the age of 47 of lung cancer in 1930, 81 years ago today.

I’ll tell you now this is not a history of Chaney’s career or a biography.  If you want a lot of good biographic information, a good place to go is here.  If you want a number of great pieces on Chaney, visit the Monkey over here.

I have known who Chaney was for a long time now, having watched my first Chaney film some 20 years ago – The Phantom of the Opera.  Thinking back, it was probably the first great silent film I ever watched.  I first watched it at a time when I was really getting into Phantom – I had tickets to see the musical in L.A. with Michael Crawford, I read the book to fulfill a school assignment, I watched the Claude Rains version, and I watched the Chaney version.  But it would be a long time before I watched any more.

That came years later, when I finally got a chance to watch The Hunchback of Notre Dame (again, because I had just read the novel).  I loved it – loved the film, loved the performance, thought it was a brilliant horror classic.  I would later put it on my list of the best horror films ever made.  It would make my list as the tenth best film of the 1920’s and would get nominations for the Nighthawk Decade Awards for Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Costume Design and Makeup (with Chaney’s makeup, done by his own hand, losing out only to his brilliant makeup in Phantom).  But then I also felt compelled to write about as the first of my “overlooked films” in my second Year in Film piece.  As I say there, I had originally planned to write about Chaney’s wonderful performance as Fagin in the 1922 version of Oliver Twist, but realized that Hunchback is unfairly neglected in the pantheon of writing about great films.

Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, recoiling in physical and emotional pain in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

I listed his performance as Quasimodo as the third best of the decade, three spots above his performance as Erik in Phantom.  This is because, even though Phantom is a slightly better film (and, rumored to have been directed by Chaney himself), it is Hunchback which in many ways is the definitive Chaney film.  What made Chaney such a great actor, one who could rise above the horror genre (which wasn’t even necessary – the films that Chaney was making in the horror genre were among the best films being made in the United States at the time) was his ability to portray not only horror and pain, but emotional longing.  Chaney had the ability to make us feel sympathy for these creatures.  He wasn’t just a creature of darkness like Lugosi and Karloff (and Chaney Jr.) would be.  He was someone who had suffered, usually for love.

Look at some of the roles that Chaney played – a magician who loses his wife and vows revenge in West of Zanzibar who eventually makes a self-sacrifice; a Russian peasant who undergoes torture to save a woman he has just met but instantly fallen for, whose tortured eyes later cause her to save his life even after he has attempted to sexually assault her in Mockery; an inventor whose wife is stolen from him and becomes a clown to overcome the pain only to watch the same man come attempt to steal away the young performer he has fallen in love with in He Who Gets Slapped.  Then look at the performance in Hunchback and Phantom again and look, not for the grotesque makeup and horror, but the very real human pain at the core of the performance.

Or look at Laugh Clown Laugh, which I already wrote about here.  Not only is there the heartbreaking story which he plays to absolute perfection, but there is the matter of the behind-the-scenes story.  Chaney realized that director Herbert Brenon was constantly teasing the 15 year old Loretta Young whenever he wasn’t around, so after that, he just about never left the set.

This is why Chaney would have made the perfect Dracula.  That was indeed the plan.  Carl Laemmle was insistent that Chaney play the famous vampire and even hired director Tod Browning for the film.  Browning and Chaney had made 10 films together, including four of Chaney’s best – the original, silent The Unholy Three, Outside the Law, The Unknown and London After Midnight.  Chaney would have been a magnificent Dracula.  Not because he would have done an amazing job with the makeup, which he surely would have.  But his performance would have encompassed much of what is great about the character of Dracula.  It wouldn’t have been a purely creepy performance like Lugosi, nor a sexually charged performance like Christopher Lee.  It would have presaged what Gary Oldman eventually did – a performance made of centuries of suffering.  Look at Chaney’s eyes in his films and you can see the essence of what his Dracula would have been.

So, there you have a bit about Chaney.  But how to go about introducing yourself to his fabulous body of work if you’ve never seen any of it?  Well, first of all, you should make sure that you get TCM so that if they have another day in the future like they did earlier this month you can catch his films.  There were several of his films that I had never seen before last week and I made certain that I DVR’d all of them and it lead to this piece.

Here is a quick guide:

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)  –  the best Chaney film.  It is in the public domain, so if your goal is simply to watch it, look almost anywhere on the Internet.  But if you want to watch a better print, you have to wait for November.  The Blu-Ray is available for pre-order here.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame  (1923)  –  the best Chaney performance.  It is also in the public domain and can be found easily online.  There are better prints to be seen, but you should look at this collection.  Not only would you get a copy of Hunchback (and Phantom), but it is a magnificent set of silent horror films – you get Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – two of the very few silent films better than Phantom.  You also get the very good The Golem and the John Barrymore Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The set isn’t going to have any extras, but to get six films of this quality on DVD for this amount of money is a fantastic bargain.

The Lon Chaney Collection

The Lon Chaney Collection  –  This was how I really got into Chaney.  It is also the advantage of working at a university.  I simply looked up what they had with Chaney and found this set at our media center and checked it out, quickly devouring it.  It consists of Ace of Hearts (1921), Laugh Clown Laugh (1928), The Unknown (1927) and the 2000 documentary Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces.  It also has the photographic reconstruction of London After Midnight, the closest thing we have to a copy of this great lost film.

The Warner Archive  –  Five of the films that I watched last week for the first time – He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Monster (1925), Mockery (1927), Mr. Wu (1927) and the remake of The Unholy 3 (1930), the only sound film Chaney ever made – it turns out were all recently released through the Warner Archive.  It also has the original, silent version of The Unholy Three (1925).  Mr. Wu certainly wasn’t great and I seem to have a much higher opinion of Mockery than most of the people on the web, but the two version of Unholy Three are definitely worth watching and I really enjoyed both He Who Gets Slapped (with a very beautiful young Norma Shearer) and The Monster (which has really great sets).  But, the Warner Archive is a bit of a mixed bag.  The downside is that the DVD’s have absolutely nothing extra on them – they are just prints of the film with a chapter stop every 10 minutes.  Also, because they are basically DVD-R’s (order the film and Warner burns it and mails it to you – no warehouse of unsold DVD’s), Netflix does not carry them, so they are much harder to find to rent (finding a good library can be very helpful here – ask your local librarian about how to use Interlibrary Loan).  But, they aren’t designed to be rented.  They are designed to be bought.  That’s the good thing.  Warner has massively opened the vault and released over 1000 films on DVD that weren’t available before.  And even better, it has prompted other studios to start doing the same thing.  Also, Warner seems to have partnered with TCM because many of the films that come out in the Archive end up airing on TCM and they are all available for purchase over at TCM.  I’m not certain the road that all these films Chaney made for MGM traveled to end up at Warner, but they’re available and that’s a good thing.

TCM  –  There are other Chaney films also available on DVD.  You can find several very good films that were on my list of the Top 100 films of the 1920’s, including The Penalty, Oliver Twist and Outside the Law.

But the key to remember is, even though I have given links to purchasing all of these, don’t forget about your local library.  Head there and look up Chaney and I’m sure you’ll find several films you can take home and watch without spending a dime or waiting for them to be shipped.

There is also A Man of a Thousand Faces, the 1957 biopic starring James Cagney.  As with any film biopic, there are considerable stretches that don’t bear much resemblance to the actual events.  Chaney was famous for noting that outside of the films there was no Lon Chaney.  The film is good, but certainly not great by any means.  It does have a very good performance from Cagney, who, like Chaney, had amazing physical gifts.

If you are interested at all in film, and if you are reading these pieces, I assume you are, you need to find the works of Lon Chaney.  Because Chaplin made so few feature films, Chaney was the best actor of the Silent Era.  The Silent Era is an important part of film history that is too often ignored.  Discover it and enjoy the Chaney films.  They are worth it.