April 1, 2008

Lon Chaney 125th

On this day, April 1, in 1883, Leonidas Chaney was born. As Lon Chaney, he was a superstar of the silent movie era, literally a household name. Famous for devising his own intricate makeups, Chaney specialized in colorful character parts and gruesome villains, playing blind pirates, scarfaced gangsters, arm or leg amputees, elderly Chinese, would-be vampires, mad scientists, and even a little old lady.

In 1927, when Dracula wowed Broadway and barnstormed across America, Hollywood studios swooped in. Talkies were on the immediate horizon and the popular supernatural play was a hot movie commodity. Right from the start, conventional wisdom had Lon Chaney as the obvious, near inevitable choice for the part. Chaney’s home studio, the powerful MGM, vied with the smaller Universal Pictures for the rights.

Although he was a MGM star, Chaney’s two most famous pictures, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), were made by the actor while on loan to Universal. Now the studio hoped to bring Chaney and Dracula together and took the lead, securing the services of Chaney’s favorite director, Tod Browning. And then tragedy struck. Suddenly, shockingly, Chaney was dead, a victim of throat cancer. He was only 47 years old.

MGM dropped out of the Dracula sweepstakes and Universal went on to make the film in 1931 with the stage Count, Bela Lugosi. It was a massive hit, and the papers proclaimed Lugosi as “the new Lon Chaney!”. Universal’s publicity department associated Lugosi’s name with a long list of projects including a remake of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and, of course, Frankenstein. When that one fell to Boris Karloff, he, in turn, was given the “heir to Lon Chaney” mantle. Then again, most any actor who happened to play a villain in any movie made in the thirties had a good chance of being ballyhooed as “the next Lon Chaney”. The Man of a Thousand Faces had cast a long shadow.

In the March 1964 issue (number 27) of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, editor Forry Ackerman engaged in a bit of alternate history: Imagine a “mirage world” where the great Lon Chaney had lived on to play the classic Monsters of the early sound era. Illustrator George Barr was given the challenge of blending Chaney's distinctive features with the early Frankenstein Monster test makeup by Jack Pierce. Note the “clamped horns” on the forehead. (See a photograph of Karloff in the test makeup here).

Barr’s pen and ink work is superb, but the artist understood the irony of his assignment, writing, “It seems the whole point of Lon Chaney’s make-ups was to completely disguise himself — and now we’re trying to make him recognizable thru disguises he never wore! Strange.

The problem with alternate history is that once you introduce a new twist, you open up countless new possibilities. If Chaney had survived, perhaps Dracula would have been a MGM film. Chaney might not have made a Frankenstein at all, and if he had, being celebrated as a makeup genius, it seems he would have created his own vastly different take on The Monster. Considering how very faithful Chaney had been to the descriptions of Victor Hugo and Gaston Leroux for the Hunchback and the Phantom, his Monster might have had the skeletal face, long hair and enormous stature that Mary Shelley evoked. And, of course, with Chaney around, there would be no Jack Pierce, no Lugosi, no Karloff, and certainly no Lon Chaney Jr. as Lon Sr. was adamantly opposed to his son entering show business.

It's fun playing "What If?", but changing just one thing changes everything.

George Barr is a Master among fantasy and science fiction illustrators. His elegant art has graced countless books and magazines. There’s much to enjoy on Barr’s official website, The Enchanted Thingamajig.


rob! said...

considering there's been movies made of Ed Wood, Bettie Page, even Seabiscuit!--fine subjects all--its about time someone made a new Lon Chaney bio-pic, or maybe a "Lon and Lon, Jr" bio-pic.

Wich2 said...

Dear Pierre-


Lon tended to look to original texts for inspiration, so a DRAC or FRANK he did would've leaned towards Stoker & Shelley.

BUT, most informed scholarship says that those projects were Uni's, and that MGM wouldn't have loaned Lon out anyway (if he even WANTED to go back there, wish I doubt!)

-Craig W.

Anonymous said...

The link to the Karloff test makeup still is mising.

L. F. Chaney said...

Thank you for this wonderful article commemorating my 125th birthday! However, it was my son, not I, who portrayed Dr. Frankenstein's monster — and against my wishes, as I did not want him to become an actor. Also, under contract with M-G-M, it is unlikely that I would've played Dracula, unless the studio acquired the rights to the picture. My next scheduled flicker was "Cheri Bibi"; but, sadly, you all know what happened instead.

Again, many thanks.

Pierre Fournier said...

Thanks, Anonymous. Link fixed!

L.F.: Happy 125th! Nice of you to drop by, see you on MySpace!