“He was great, not only because of his God-given talent, but because he used that talent to illuminate certain dark corners of the human spirit. He showed the world the souls of people born different from the rest, because he himself was born of parents who were different.”
– Irving Thalberg on Lon Chaney.
This was the reaction of MGM’s brilliant young Executive to the death on August 26, of 1930 of Lon Chaney, “The Man of A Thousand Faces” as he was dubbed by that time. Mr. Thalberg was certainly right – Chaney did indeed come from people who were different. For that reason he was able to imbue his characters with life and a certain sympathetic pathos which always enabled audiences to see the sadness beneath the monstrous exterior. And thus their fate was not just the killing of a monster, but a tragedy which at once pulled at his audience’s heart strings, while relieving their tension. And he managed to accomplish this to a very high degree with his masterful performance in “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925, pictured above).
“They’ll take notice of you..”
Lon Chaney was born on April Fools Day (the 1st) in 1883 in Colorado. His father, Frank H. Chaney, and his mother, Emma Alice were both deaf/mutes. As the child of deaf/mute parents, Chaney became skilled in the use of pantomime at an early age. He would use this ability to amuse his mother who was frequently bed-ridden. He worked at Universal Pictures from 1912 – 1917, playing small bit parts and character roles. He got very good at applying make-up – disguising his appearance to get parts which he wouldn’t otherwise have gotten. As he would years later advise a young Boris Karloff, this had been the secret of his success: “Find something no one else can or will do and they’ll begin to take notice of you.”
Chaney Makes Them Scream with “The Phantom of the Opera”
By 1925, Chaney had long since found that “something”, establishing himself as a man who would endure any physical hardship in search of his character, regardless of the demands of the makeup. He had shown in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923 – above) that he could wear pounds of make up and physically disfiguring shoulder pads to completely assume his character’s appearance. And as his Producer for that venture, Carl Laemmle was very happy with the critical and financial success of that venture, he was anxious to repeat it with another story set in Paris, featuring a monstrous antagonist.
Laemmle found what he was looking for in Gaston Leroux’s eerie 1910 mystery – “Le Fantome de l’Opera”, about a disfigured man lurking beneath the Paris Opera House. For this role and this man, this tortured soul living in the catacombs beneath the Opera House, Chaney wanted the man beneath the mask to resemble a
human skull. He came up with a device which drew his mouth back at its corners, which also had prongs attached to a very unsightly set of jagged teeth (pictured above, Chaney tries them on for size). Added to that, he had another implement which pushed up the tip of his nose, and inserted into his nostrils to pull them apart. He had circles of celluloid in his mouth to emphasize high cheek bones. And to top this all off, Chaney placed a domed wig of skin with stringy black hair parted n the middle and hanging lifelessly down each side of his face. The resulting scene, which comes late in the film wherein the Phantom’s would-be protege’, Christine, played by Mary Philbin, pulls back his mask, thus revealing his hideous visage caused women to scream, and men to faint. It also caused a huge sensation and must certainly rank along with the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) as one of the two most classic moments in all of horror movie history. It can be seen on a YouTube video clip by clicking on the highlighted words “The resulting scene” above. You have almost certainly seen it yourself. If not, you should certainly rent it, watch it and…. SCREEEEEEAM!! Not a bad way to spend Halloween night, eh??
Chaney as “The Phantom of the Opera” = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ChaneyPhantomoftheOpera.jpg
Chaney as “the Hunchback of Notre Dame” = http://www.goldensilents.com/stars/lonchaney.html
“A Pictorial History of Horror Movies” by Denis Gifford, Hamlyn Publ. Group Ltd., London, 1973