LON CHANEY UNMASKED

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The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.

– From Oscar Wilde’s preface to
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY

The landscape of silent cinema had an embarrassment of riches when it came to talent (Chaplin, Keaton, De Mille, Murnau, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, not to mention the early works of Fritz Lang and Hitchcock), and those diverse artists had an allure that’s hard to fathom today because movies were so new; today, “celebrity” has a grossly narrow connotation. In the teens and ’20s, movie stars were indeed aptly named, they shone brighter than anyone. Yet even among these towering figures, one managed to stand tall in his own unique fashion – Lon Chaney.

Of course there are talented actors working today; we have huge stars whose names bring mammoth applause from crowds; the movies have been blessed with brilliant make-up artists who have left their indelible creations in the minds of the public (geniuses like Rick Baker, Michael Westmore, Tom Savini, and the late Stan Winston are only a few).

Lon Chaney was all of these.

How many actors today, be they on stage, screen, or television, can claim to so completely shape their characters? Chaney was famously labeled Hollywood’s “man of a thousand faces,” and while it is a fun marketing brand, it can be somewhat reductive, just as Hitchcock’s branding as the “master of suspense” downplays his contributions to the very grammar of cinema.

The characters were the important factor in Chaney’s roles, not a leading man’s vanity; it is most telling that even in films where he used minimal make-up, such as TELL IT TO THE MARINES, he still vanishes into his character. Indeed, a portrait gallery of his creations unveils an actor who made being unrecognized not just a selling point, but an artistic triumph.

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Chaney also had a say in precisely how his make-up would be lit and photographed (which was one of many sources of friction with PHANTOM OF THE OPERA director Rupert Julian), but it was far from just ego – Chaney prepared many of his make-ups on a wax mold of his face and he understood how it would best be represented on screen because he was, first and last, an artist.

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Just as Jack Pierce later did when creating the monster make-ups for Universal throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Chaney would prepare his creations out of the kit each day from scratch; today, make-up artists often will fabricate appliances beforehand to speed up the process, but Chaney had no such assistance. It’s doubly impressive knowing this hand-crafted approach, which is akin to making a new sculpture each day, had to be nothing less than perfect in order for the work to match what had been shot in the days or weeks prior.

We’ve become so accustomed to movies constantly slamming us over the head to tell us we’re being entertained, that it can be wonderfully refreshing to revisit a silent film and remember that any film’s primary goal, just like that of a great novel, is to involve us; faces and performances are keys to that, and Lon Chaney remains a giant because his characters, no matter how sinister or repulsive, still embrace us thanks to the humanity he brought out of them.

Though it’s been said so often it hardly needs repeating, it is perhaps impossible to talk about Chaney’s work without mentioning the great constant for his shadowy creations – they typically center around the peculiarly cruel condition of unrequited love. PHANTOM may be his most famous example, but arguably his most wrenching is the heartbroken but always smiling clown in LAUGH CLOWN LAUGH, a character who would give Pagliacci a run for his money; just as so many of Chaney’s creations (and so many of us) experience, the clown goes from discovering nascent love, and never thinking he’d ever need to find a cure for heartache, to the horror of knowing he’ll never find one.

Kevin Brownlow’s authoritative documentary LON CHANEY: A THOUSAND FACES (2000) is a treasure trove of info and insight on Chaney’s life and art, but one key insight therein comes from author Ray Bradbury, who was a worshipper of Chaney’s for as long as he could remember. Bradbury best summed up the pathos of Chaney’s performances – “[Chaney] brings that part of you out into the open, because you fear that you are not loved, you fear that you will never be loved, you fear that there is some part of you that’s grotesque, that the world will turn away from.”

On Halloween of 2005, I found myself in the balcony of Fort Wayne’s glorious Embassy theatre, where they showed THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with a live organ accompaniment. I’d seen the movie several times previously, but any movie needs to be seen in its native environment to really be appreciated.

When Mary Philbin unmasked the Phantom, seeing Lon Chaney’s signature creation on a giant screen was an experience; no one ran screaming from the theatre, as some patrons were alleged to have done in 1925 (Chaney and Universal wisely kept the Phantom’s look out of the publicity materials to torque up the anticipation), but it was still a revelation.

After all, creative people routinely put the best parts of themselves into their work, and it is far from reductive to say that creating a thousand faces which still live is the closest thing to immortality.

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Copyright (c) 2019 by Eric Peeper

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