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Lon Chaney Sr.
The Man of a Thousand Facets

Lon Chaney, Sr.

Lon Chaney, Sr.
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Oh, sorry. That's the Man of a Thousand Faces.

Or maybe we weren't so far off after all. There were many facets of Lon's career that made him one of the most famous actors of the silent film era.

One of the facets left unanswered, though, was how Lon would have fared in the new era of sound. Out of over 150 movies, Lon made only a single "talkie". That was his last movie, released in 1930.

True, there were some silent films produced on into the mid-1930's, but for all practical purposes the silent era was over by 1929. And when old films started showing up on television, only a few silent pictures - such as those with Charlie Chaplin - were regularly viewed by modern audiences.

Then how was it possible that millions of kids throughout the mid-20th century and who had never seen any of Lon's movies saw him as the iconicest of horror movie icons?

Well, the fame of the Man of a Thousand Faces got a shot in the arm in 1957 with the release of the film called (what else?) The Man of a Thousand Faces. This was what is now called a "biopic". That is, it's a film loosely based on the life of a celebrity (sometimes very loosely based). Jimmy Cagney, mostly famous for his gangster roles, played Lon.

But what really pushed Lon into the consciousness of the post-WWII generation was when the first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland hit the stands. That was in 1958. The editor, Forest J. Ackerman, was a big Lon Chaney fan, and he began running articles that promoted Lon as the quintessential horror actor. By the 1960's there was scarcely a kid who didn't know who Lon Chaney was. Even today you'll see pictures of Lon's most famous characters blazoned across many a t-shirt.

But Lon Chaney was and remains something of a mystery man. You can find his real name listed variously as Alonzo or Leonidas or even Alonzo Leonidas. But all sources agree he was born on April 1, 1883 in Colorado Springs.

Lon dropped out of school early (the fourth grade is the usual story) largely we hear because his mother had developed serious arthritis and needed constant care. Lon's upbringing was unusual in another aspect as well. Both parents were deaf and mute. It was his need to communicate by gesture and facial expressions that are usually credited with his developing his ability to assume varied character expressions and gestures.

Lon's dad worked as a barber, and as a kid Lon learned carpet laying and wall-paper hanging. He also worked part time as a guide for tours to Pike's Peak - by no means a bad job for a young man. Then at age 12, Lon found employment as a stagehand at a theater where his older brother, John, was part of the crew.

In the late 19th century performing arts were very much part of daily life. With no television, movies, or Internet, live performances and sporting events were the only real passive entertainments (other than reading). Also if you wanted to hear music of any quality it had to be live music. Every town had at least one theater and many had their own production companies. In 1901, John formed such a "stock" company and began to tour. Lon went with him.

Theater work was not easy then (and it isn't easy now). The accommodations were often minimal, and the theaters were cold, drafty, and only the most luxurious provided the actors with dressing rooms. But Lon seemed to like the life.

When playing in Oklahoma City in 1905, the company hired a new actress. This was Francis Creighton who everyone called "Cleva" (the "i" in her name is apparently correct not a misprint). She was only 15 years old at the time and - amazingly and apparently with parental approval - she and Lon were soon married (some stories say it was only three days after they met). In 1906, a son, Creighton Tull Chaney, was born also in Oklahoma City.

Again the commonly told story is that Creighton was premature, weighted only 2 pounds, and was apparently born dead. But Lon took the baby to the nearby Belle Isle Lake and held him in the frigid water. The shock got Creighton breathing and he later grew to a strapping 6' 3" and 200 pounds.

The story does seem a bit pat and some doubt it happened. But Lon's great-grandson did some research and found that the weather and conditions on Creighton's birth date were particularly cold and harsh. Certainly Creighton told the story himself so it may very well be true.

Lon and John eventually found work in Los Angeles at the Olympic Theater. The hours were long (seven days a week and seven shows a day), but at least this was Los Angeles. Even then LA was an actor friendly town.

In the meantime Cleva's career had taken off and she had established herself as a popular singer. This may have caused some sour grapes with Lon who was still pretty much a small time player. He began to insist Cleva focus on being a mother to their son and less a singer. This led to fractious scenes and shouting matches and at one point Cleva stormed into a theater where Lon was working and swallowed poison.

Of course, Cleva was rushed to a hospital. But as soon as Lon learned she would survive, he had nothing more to do with her. Their marriage officially ended in 1913 or 1914 (the year varies with the source), and Lon assumed custody of Creighton

As for Cleva, her career was over. The poison had irreparably damaged her voice. She later remarried and lived until 1967.

Lon found raising a son on his own wasn't easy. Realizing it would be best if he found employment requiring less travel, Lon decided to try for something in the fledgling film industry. Most films where shot on a sound stage and in back lots, and even location scenes were often filmed in the area. So working for a film studio would reduce (but not entirely eliminate) his time away from home.

Another oft-told story is that Lon told his son that Cleva had died. If so we can understand that when Creighton later learned his mother was still alive he remained angry with his father for some time. That he spent time at a boarding school didn't help the father-son relationship either. But in 1915 Lon married a young lady named Helen Hastings, and Creighton moved back home.

Exactly how Lon broke into the film industry isn't clear. He said he simply read that Hollywood was paying five dollars a day for men who could ride horses. At the time his horsemanship was rudimentary, but evidently it was good enough. Lon got the job and in 1910 we find him for Universal Studios.

Lon appeared in all kinds of films. His first picture may have been The Honor of the Family in 1912. Unfortunately, there's doubt the actor was really Lon, and since the film is now lost we can't tell now anyway. A more definite "first" film was "The Ways of Fate" in 1913. But in any case we know Lon's film career lasted from (about) 1910 to (definitely) 1930.

From then on out Lon had steady work and at the time five dollars a day was a quite good wage. Despite his rugged - even craggy - features, his face was unusually mobile, and was well suited for the exaggeration of gesture and expression needed in the early films. But best of all, he showed a deft hand with make-up. At that time there were no make-up departments per se and the actors had to handle any required facial rearrangements themselves. Many actors got along simply by slapping on the odd mustache or beard (male actors, of course), although the false beard or mustache often looked exactly like a false beard or mustache.

Lon, though, spent hours working out how to change his appearance to fit the roles. He didn't limit his study just to the rudimentary features. Sometimes he spent days studying the real-life counterparts of the characters he was to play. He soon acquired a reputation as a make-up wizard.

In 1915 alone Lon was in over 30 films and up through 1918 he had parts in 35 more. Then in 1919 he played in The Wicked Darling directed by Tod Browning. Tod, as all movie buffs know, would later direct Bela Lugosi in Dracula. Tod and Lon would collaborate in a number of pioneering films, but it was in a 1919 non-Browning film that Lon caught his big break. This was The Miracle Man where he played one of a group of con-men.

By 1920 Lon was one of the leading actors in Hollywood, and in 1923 with the release of The Hunchback of Notre Dame he became a legend in his own time. Before then Lon's ability as a make-up artist was certainly appreciated by the film producers and the audiences. But in The Hunchback of Notre Dame Lon produced such a grotesque and yet sympathetic character that he was suddenly the Man of a Thousand Faces.

By the mid-1920's Lon could name his own price. If a producer balked at Lon's stipulation of, say, $1500 a week, but then couldn't find anyone else, he might called Lon again. He would then learn the fee was upped to $2000. If the producer then again looked elsewhere but later called on Lon, he found that with each call, Lon increase his fee by $500. Eventually everyone learned that it was best to pay Lon what he asked for in the first place.

In 1925 Lon starred in his most famous film, The Phantom of the Opera. As happened with so many old pictures, the digital age led to its revival. You can bet that more people saw the Phantom after 1990 than in the years right after it's release. The film is now available in a number of editions, and a is the 1925 black and white version when restored for clarity and sharpness, is the best.

Lon's make up avoided prosthetics and rubber masks which reduced expression and facial mobility. Most of the face you see in the movies is actually Lon's but altered and distorted. He never did divulge his exact techniques, so if you read how he created the face for, say, the Phantom of the Opera, it's largely speculation. It may be informed speculation, it may even be correct, but it's speculation none the less.

After The Jazz Singer was released in 1927, the rapid demise of silent pictures caught everyone by surprise. In two years, they were truly a thing of the past. Lon himself went "talkie" in 1930 with a remake of The Unholy Three. There Lon played a ventriloquist and to the surprise of many, he had an excellent speaking voice. Of course it's easy to forget that Lon, like many silent film actors, had years of stage experience. In the movie he supplied three other voices - including that of an old women (actually it was Lon's character in disguise). His performance was well-received and people anticipated the Man of a Thousand Faces would end up as the Man of a Thousand Voices. But suddenly, unexpectedly, and hardly a month after the film's release, Lon died.

In the film The Man of a Thousand Faces Lon - that is, Jimmy - succumbs to a throat malignancy while in his home and surrounded by his family. Although he had tried to discourage his son from becoming an actor, he now gives his make-up kit to Creighton. Lon then writes a "Jr." after his name, and hence, passes on the baton.

As is typical for real history, what really happened depends on who does the telling. For one thing, Lon died in a hospital not at his home. And though one account agrees that Helen and Creighton were both there, another says that only Helen was present. Yet another researcher stated that Lon was attended only by a nurse.

But one thing we do know is that Lon didn't pass on his make-up kit and dub Creighton "Lon Chaney, Jr." At that time Creighton was working in a water heating business with no hint he would be an actor.

Lon Chaney, Sr. - Creighton Tull Chaney

Creighton Tull Chaney
Among the Big Four with ...

The news of Lon's death made front page news across the world. But with only a single talkie to his credit, it's likely that he would have faded out except among silent film buffs.

So what happened?

Now we said that Lon's fame was bolstered with the release of The Man of a Thousand Faces. But that just begs the question. If no one was watching his films, why would a movie about Lon's life be a hit?

Well, that's because Creighton did indeed go into acting. And yes, he took the name Lon Chaney, Jr. Lon, Jr.'s years in Hollywood lasted through the Golden Age of Films and even stretched well past the rise of television. He appeared in over a hundred movies and over 60 television shows. Everyone knew who Lon Chaney, Jr. was.

And if there was a review or write up about Lon, Jr., inevitably the reporter would mention that he was the son of "famous silent film actor and the Man of a Thousand Faces" Lon Chaney, Sr. So the public might not be watching Lon, Sr.'s films, but they not only knew who he was and were well aware of his importance in the film industry.

Boris Karloff

... Boris ...

Although today Lon, Jr. is largely remembered from his work in horror movies - The Wolfman remains a quintessential classic - he received some of his best reviews when he played Lenny in "Of Mice and Men" (Burgess Meredith starred as George). Originally Lon, Jr. and Burgess first appeared on Broadway and then starred in the 1939 film. You may read that Lon, Jr.'s performance was nominated for an Academy Award but sadly that's not true. The picture, though, did receive nominations for Best Picture, Best Musical Score, Best Sound Recording, and Best Black and White Cinematography.

Far from Creighton adopting his dad's monicker at Lon, Sr.'s bedside, he did his best to avoid it. In his early films he was billed under his real name. But as he explained to an interviewer in 1935, "I finally gave in, because I have a wife and two children to whom I owe a good living. I tried for three years to make a go of things without capitalizing upon dad's name. But the cards have been stacked against me. If I had only myself to think of, I would battle it out to the end. But I'm getting older every year and I don't think it's right to make my family suffer just so I can fight for a principle."

Lon, Jr. was one of the Big Four of Horror Movie Stars of the 1940's through the 1960's. But he also played characters other than monsters. One of his later (and not entirely typical) performances was on an episode of The Monkees. There Lon, Jr. played a not-too-smart bank robber named Lenny (the satire is obvious) who with his smarter partner, George (played by an uncredited Len Lesser), were waiting for "The Big Man" to show up so they could split the loot. Then when the Big Man finally showed up it was a tough talking lady played by Rose Marie. Of course, in the end the bad guys (and gal) got hauled off to jail and the Monkees went on their way. All in all, Lon, Jr.'s comedic performance was pretty good.

Generally liked by his co-workers, Lon, Jr.'s drinking could get out of hand. He later developed throat cancer (he did smoke a lot) but ultimately he recovered. His last movie was filmed in 1969 and he died in 1973 at age 67.

Vincent Price

... Vincent ...

As to what caused Lon, Sr.'s, death on August 26, 1930 at age 47, well, you can take your pick. An obituary written the day after he died said the cause was lobar pneumonia from anemia. Another story printed the same day said it as a lung hemorrhage. Still another telling says it was a throat hemorrhage.

Most modern references, though, cite cancer, either throat or lung. Of course, none of these causes are necessarily mutually exclusive. But it's unlikely, as yet another source indicated, that the ultimate cause was from throat irritation because Lon performed as the ventriloquist in The Unholy Three. Possibly it was the then ubiquitous habit of smoking - and there are photographs of Lon taking a puff - that was the ultimate cause.

Peter Loree

... and Peter.

Lon was buried, as are so many of Hollywood's celebrities, at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. He's in the Great Mausoleum, Sanctuary of Meditation, Niche C-6407. And the story that his grave is unmarked - as photographs show - is apparently true.

And Lon, Jr.? Well, you won't find his grave. No, he wasn't cremated and his ashes scattered. Instead, he donated his body to science and ended up being dissected by medical students at USC.

References

Faces, Forms, Films: The Artistry of Lon Chaney, Robert Anderson, A. S. Barnes and Company, 1971

"The Man of a Thousand Memories", Dick Hyland, New Movie Magazine, November, 1930 pp. 45, 90, 104. Issues appear on the Internet Archive.

Lon Chaney: Actor, Film Actor (1883 - 1930)", Biography.com.

"Lon Chaney: The Man of a Thousand Faces", American Masters, Public Broadcasting System, October, 2002.

"Man Of A Thousand Faces: A Skullduggery Spotlight On Lon Chaney, Sr. (1883 - 1930)", Skullduggery. A nice web biography of Lon.

Lon Chaney, Jr.: Of Mice and Werewolves", Lloyd's Beware of the Blog, A good webstite that discusses the life of Lon Chaney, Jr. and how the film the Man with a Thousand Faces compared with what we really know. Naturally there's quite a lot about Lon, Sr. as well.

"Man of Thousand Faces Takes But One to Grave", Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1930.

"Lon Chaney Dies: Wife at Bedside", The World, New York, August 27, 1930.

Lon Chaney", Internet Movie Data Base.

Lon Chaney, Jr.: Horror Film Star, 1906 - 1973, Don Smith, McFarland, 1996.

"Lon Chaney, Jr.: Actor, Film Actor (1906 - 1973)", Biography.com.

"On the Screen", Dan Thomas, Battle Creek Enquirer, p. 19, February 27, 1935.

"Lon Chaney", Find A Grave, 2001.

"Lon Chaney, Jr.", Find A Grave, 2000.

"Francis Cleveland 'Cleva' Creighton Bush", Find A Grave, 2012.

"The Best Movies of 1957", Ranker Film.

"Secrets from Lon Chaney's Oklahoma Odyssey", Sam Henderson, Daily Oklahoman, November 14, 1982, Archived at NewsOK.

"Monkees in a Ghost Town", Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Rose Marie, Lon Chaney Jr., Len Lesser (uncredited), October 24, 1966, The Monkees, Internet Movie Data Base.

"Oklahoma's Wolf Man: Lon Chaney Jr.'s State Roots to be Explored in Book", Jimmie Tramel, Tulsa World, Oct 30, 2016.