Hearing Impairment Series-Disabled Legend Lon Chaney Snr.

Lon Chaney Snr. was born on 1 April, 1883 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA and died on 26 August, 1930, nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” was an American actor during the age of silent films. Lon Chaney Snr. was one of the most versatile and powerful actors of early cinema. Lon Chaney Snr. is best remembered for his characterisations of tortured, often grotesque and afflicted characters, and his groundbreaking artistry with film makeup.

Lon Chaney Snr. was born Leonidas Frank Chaney  to Frank H. Chaney and Emma Alice Kennedy; his father had mostly English and some French ancestry, and his mother was of Irish descent. Both of Lon Chaney Snr.’s parents were deaf, and as a child of deaf adults Lon Chaney Snr. became skilled in pantomime. Lon Chaney Snr. entered a stage career in 1902, and began traveling with popular Vaudeville and theater acts. In 1905, he met and married 16 year old singer Cleva Creighton and in 1906, their 1st child and only son, Creighton Chaney (a.k.a. Lon Chaney, Jr.) was born. The Chaneys continued touring, settling in California in 1910.

Unfortunately, marital troubles developed and in April 1913, Cleva went to the Majestic Theater in downtown Los Angeles, where Lon Chaney Snr. was managing the Kolb and Dill show, and attempted suicide by swallowing mercury bichloride. The suicide attempt failed and ruined her singing career; the ensuing scandal and divorce forced Lon Chaney Snr. out of the theater and into film.

The time spent there is not clearly known, but between the years 1912 and 1917, Lon Chaney Snr. worked under contract for Universal Studios doing bit or character parts. Lon Chaney Snr’s outstanding skill with makeup gained him many parts in the highly competitive casting atmosphere. During this time, Lon Chaney Snr. befriended the husband-wife director team of Joe De Grasse and Ida May Parke, who gave him substantial roles in their pictures, and further encouraged him to play macabre characters.

Lon Chaney Snr. also married one of his former colleagues in the Kolb and Dill company tour, a chorus girl named Hazel Hastings. Little is known of Hazel, except that her marriage to Lon Chaney Snr. was solid. Upon marrying, the new couple gained custody of Lon Chaney Snr’s 10 year-old son Creighton, who had resided in various homes and boarding schools since Lon Chaney Snr’s divorce in 1913.

By 1917 Lon Chaney Snr. was a prominent actor in the studio, but his salary did not reflect this status. When Lon Chaney Snr. asked for a raise, studio executive William Sistrom replied, “You’ll never be worth more than $100 a week.”

After leaving the studio, Lon Chaney Snr. struggled for the 1st year as a character actor. It was not until 1918 when playing a substantial role in William S. Hart’s picture, Riddle Gawne, that Lon Chaney Snr’s talents as a character actor were truly recognised by the industry.

In 1919, Lon Chaney Snr. had a breakthrough performance as, “The Frog,” in George Loane Tucker’s The Miracle Man. The film not only displayed Lon Chaney Snr.’s acting ability, but his talent as a master of makeup. Critical praise and a gross of over $2 000,000 put Lon Chaney Snr. on the map as America’s foremost character actor.

Lon Chaney Snr. is chiefly remembered as a pioneer in such silent horror films as, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and most notably, The Phantom of the Opera. Lon Chaney Snr.’s ability to transform himself using self-invented makeup techniques earned him the nickname of “Man of a Thousand Faces”. In an autobiographical 1925 article published in Movie magazine that gave a rare glimpse into his life, Lon Chaney Snr referred to his specialty as “extreme characterisation”.

Lon Chaney Snr also exhibited this adaptability with makeup in more conventional crime and adventure films, such as, The Penalty, where he played an amputee gangster. Lon Chaney Snr. appeared in a total of 10 films by director Tod Browning, often playing disguised and/or mutilated characters, including carnival knife thrower Alonzo the Armless in, The Unknown (1927), with Joan Crawford. In 1927, Lon Chaney Snr. co-starred with Conrad Nagel, Marceline Day, Henry B. Walthall and Polly Moran in the now lost Tod Browning directed horror classic, London After Midnight, quite possibly the most famous lost film ever. Lon Chaney Snr.’s last film was a remake with sound of his silent classic, The Unholy Three (1930), his only “talkie” and the only film in which he displayed his versatile voice. In fact, Lon Chaney Snr. signed a sworn statement declaring that 5 of the key voices in the film (the ventriloquist, old woman, parrot, dummy and girl) were in fact his own.

Although Lon Chaney Snr. created, in Quasimodo, the bell ringer of Notre Dame, and Erik, the “phantom” of the Paris Opera House, two of the most grotesquely deformed characters in film history, the portrayals sought to elicit a degree of sympathy and pathos among viewers not overwhelmingly terrified or repulsed by the monstrous disfigurements of the characters, who were merely victims of fate.

“I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice,” Lon Chaney Snr. wrote in Movie magazine. “The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since The Hunchback, such as The Phantom of the Opera, He Who Gets Slapped, The Unholy Three, etc., have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do.”

“He was someone who acted out our psyches. He somehow got into the shadows inside our bodies; he was able to nail down some of our secret fears and put them on-screen,” the writer Ray Bradbury once explained. “The history of Lon Chaney Snr. is the history of unrequited loves. Lon Chaney Snr. brings that part of you out into the open, because you fear that you are not loved, you fear that you never will be loved, you fear there is some part of you that’s grotesque, that the world will turn away from.”

Lon Chaney Snr.’s talents extended far beyond the horror genre, and stage makeup. Lon Chaney Snr. was also a highly skilled dancer, singer and comedian. In fact, many people who did not know Lon Chaney Snr. were surprised by his rich baritone voice and his sharp comedic skills.

Lon Chaney Snr. and his 2nd wife Hazel led a discreet private life distant from the Hollywood social scene. Lon Chaney Snr did minimal promotional work for his films and MGM studios, purposefully fostering a mysterious image, and he reportedly avoided the social scene in Hollywood on purpose.

In the final 5 years of his film career (1925-1930), Lon Chaney Snr. worked exclusively under contract to MGM, giving some of his most memorable performances. Lon Chaney Snr’.s portrayal of a tough-as-nails marine drill instructor in Tell It to the Marines (1926), one of his favorite films, earned him the affection of the US Marine Corps, who made him their first honorary member from the motion picture industry. Lon Chaney Snr. also earned the respect and admiration of numerous up and coming actors, as Lon Chaney Snr. was considered helpful towards new actors, showing them the ropes, and was always willing to talk to the cast and crew about his experiences between takes on films.

During the filming of Thunder in the winter of 1929, Lon Chaney Snr. developed pneumonia. In late 1929 he was diagnosed with bronchial lung cancer. Despite aggressive treatment, his condition gradually worsened, and 7 weeks after the release of the remake of The Unholy Three, he died of a throat hemorrhage. Lon Chaney Snr.’s death was deeply mourned by his family, the film industry and by his fans. The US Marine Corps provided a chaplain and Honor Guard for his funeral. Lon Chaney Snr. was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale, California, USA next to the crypt of his father. Lon Chaney Snr.’s wife Hazel was also interred there upon her death in 1933. For unknown reasons, Lon Chaney Snr.’s crypt has remained unmarked.

Lon Chaney Snr. as “Mr. Wu,” conducting an orchestra of women.In 1957, Lon Chaney Snr. was the subject of a biopic titled Man of a Thousand Faces, and was portrayed by James Cagney. Though much of the plot was fictional, the film was a moving tribute to Lon Chaney Snr. and helped boost his posthumous fame. During his lifetime, Lon Chaney Snr. had boasted he would make it difficult for biographers to portray his life, saying that “between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney Snr.” This was in line with the air of mystery he purposefully fostered around his makeup and performances.

Lon Chaney Snr. has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1994, he was honored by having his image designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, placed on a United States postage stamp.

The stage theater at the Colorado Springs Civic Auditorium is named after Lon Chaney Snr.

In 1929, Lon Chaney Snr. built an impressive stone cabin in the remote wilderness of the eastern Sierra Nevada, near Big Pine, California, as a retreat. The cabin (designed by architect Paul Williams) still stands, and is preserved by the Inyo National Forest Service.

Lon Chaney Snr.’s son, Lon Chaney, Jr., became a film actor after his father’s death, and is best remembered for roles in horror films, especially The Wolf Man. The Chaneys appeared on US postage stamps as their signature characters, the Phantom of the Opera and the Wolf Man, with the set completed by Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster and The Mummy.

Lon Chaney Snr. and his son Lon Chaney Jnr. are mentioned in the Warren Zevon song “Werewolves of London”.

Many of Lon Chaney Snr.’s colleagues held him in high regard and he would often give advice and help actors who were just beginning their careers. Lon Chaney Snr. was also greatly respected by the film crews and studio employees with whom he worked.

Following his death, Lon Chaney Snr.’s famous makeup case was donated by his wife Hazel to the Los Angeles County Museum, where it is sometimes displayed for the public. Makeup artist and Lon Chaney Snr.’s biographer Michael Blake considers Lon Chaney Snr.’s case the central artifact in the history of film makeup.

In 1978, Gene Simmons of the rock band KISS wrote a song about Lon Chaney Snr. called “The Man of A Thousand Faces” for his first solo album. Simmons had been influenced by the old black and white classic horror movies growing up in New York City.

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