IM this article to a friend!

October 30, 2002

Lon Chaney remembered as a master of silent disguise

From: Oregonian, OR
Oct. 30, 2002


The very title of the documentary tells the story: "Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces."

Film historian Kevin Brownlow produced and directed tonight's 90-minute "American Masters" tribute, which will remind viewers of "The Phantom of the Opera," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and many other films in which Chaney disappeared behind masterful makeup -- which Chaney devised, developed and applied himself.

For Leonidas Frank Chaney (1883-1930), an acting career was both a surprise and a natural evolution. It was a surprise because, despite his fame, he was a deeply private man. He liked to say that, between pictures, there was no Lon Chaney.

Yet he was so drawn to the theater that he left home at 17 to work backstage, soon working his way to the front of the curtain.

The home he left was peculiarly suited to an actor. It was a facility for deaf mutes run by Chaney's parents, both of whom were deaf mutes. He grew up speaking not at all at home but communicating through sign language and facial expression. Indeed, those in the audience who were deaf or lived with deaf people said that Chaney had a "deaf face." Chaney feared sound films and made just one, "The Unholy Three" (1930), despite a fine character voice.

But he was made for silent films.

He grew up communicating in every way but vocally. In her last year his mother was bedridden with rheumatism so severe that she could no longer use her fingers for signing. But she and her family still communicated.

The paradox of Chaney's career is that he was gifted at communicating through facial expressions but often altered his appearance drastically with makeup and other tricks.

A chief commentator in the documentary is Michael F. Blake, who is so fascinated by Chaney that he has written three books on the master of disguise.

While Blake reveals interesting details of Chaney's life, he spends a lot of time debunking popular myths. Like many other silent film stars, Chaney is fading from public memory, but those who do remember him recall hearing that his makeup and body changes were so painful that he was probably a masochist.

Chaney wasn't a masochist, Blake says, and his makeup was almost never painful. He did endure pain playing a legless man who walked in leather holsters on his stumps, but that was the exception. His hump when he played Quasimodo was not a 70-pound plaster burden, and his twisted contortions were simply an acting skill. He was not, as many thought, double-jointed. He was simply a dedicated actor.

Brownlow assembled a good group of commentators -- a challenge for a subject who died so long ago. They include Horror expert Forrest J. Ackerman; Orson Welles in old film clips; novelist Ray Bradbury; Lon Chaney Jr.; grandson Ron Chaney; Boris Karloff's daughter Sara; novelist Budd Schulberg, whose father was a power in early Hollywood; and the voice of Loretta Young, whom Chaney had protected from an abusive director.

Brownlow also has some old-timers who describe seeing Chaney in first-run films.

Chaney made several films with Tod Browning and was scheduled to make another after "The Unholy Three," but Chaney, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer at age 47 just a month after his last film was released. Chaney had already agreed to make five films. For Browning he intended to play the title role in "Dracula."

Well over half of Chaney's work is gone, and much exists only in fragments. Some of his films were simply destroyed -- like those of other actors -- when the studios retrieved the silver to make new film.

Even so, Brownlow includes clips from more than three dozen films showing Chaney's special skills as a makeup artist and physical actor. In an age when Douglas Fairbanks and others featured their acrobatic skills, Chaney held his own. He also had a dancer's grace and -- from years of speaking through them -- surely the most eloquent hands in film history.

The commentaries and clips from Chaney's films create a strong curiosity about the man of the thousand faces. It's a pity the curiosity is so difficult to satisfy. Ted Mahar; 503-221-8228:

© 2002 All Rights Reserved.