We here at Universal Monsters Universe have profiled the famous faces behind the classic monsters such as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Claude Rains among others. We’ve also featured two famous make-up artists, Jack Pierce and Lizzie Yianni-Georgiou. Back on April 1st, Universal Monsters Universe acknowledged the birthday of the man who put monsters and monster make-up on the map, Lon Chaney, Sr.
Leonidas Frank “Lon” Chaney was born on April 1, 1883 in Colorado Springs, Colorado to Frank H. Chaney and Emma Alice Kennedy, both of whom were deaf. Because of this, Lon became an expert at pantomime. Jonathan Ralston Kennedy, Chaney’s maternal grandfather, founded the “Colorado School For the Education of Mutes” now known as the “Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind.” Chaney began stage acting in 1902, traveling with vaudeville and other acts. In 1905, he met and married Frances Cleveland “Clava” Creighton. In 1906, they had their only child, a son named Creighton Tull, who would later be known as Lon Chaney, Jr. In 1913, Clava tried to commit suicide by swallowing mercuric chloride but failed. However, she ruined her singing voice. They divorced that year and Chaney began to pursue a career strictly in film.
Chaney had been working for Universal Studios but in very small silent film parts. In 1915, he married Hazel Hastings and they stayed together until his death. By 1917, he had become a steady actor in Universal films but when he asked for a raise, executive William Sistrom told him, “You’ll never be worth more than one hundred dollars a week.” Chaney left Universal to seek out other film opportunities. In 1919, he would star in Paramount Pictures’s silent film, The Miracle Man where his acting prowess and make-up skill would gain true fame.
In 1923, he would reunite with Universal and star as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, one of his most famous performances and make-up jobs. He made himself up as the deformed, grotesque Quasimodo and gave such a performance that the character was more loved then repulsive. Chaney would follow up his Hunchback performance with 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera, where he played the monstrous-looking Phantom. Chaney wrote about his macabre characters in a 1925 magazine saying, “I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. 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.” These two characters would set the precedent for all monster movies and make-up to follow.
From 1925 until his death in 1930, Chaney worked with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and received honorary membership from the United States Marine Corp for his work in Tell It to the Marines. Lon Chaney, Sr. died of a throat hemorrhage due to lung cancer on August 26, 1930 at the age of 47. He was a well-respected actor who was also a skilled dancer and comedian. He starred in hundreds of films and his make-up skills would earn him the nickname, “The man of a thousand faces.”
(Joe Grodensky – @JoeGrodensky)