Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Thousand Faces Lon Chaney's Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures by Michael F. Blake

This book supplements Mr. Blake’s classic biography “Lon Chaney The Man Behind The Thousand Faces,” the great character actor often incorrectly remembered today, thanks primarily to movie monster magazines and countless showings of his two most famous movies—“The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”—as a horror film star. It contains new information that came to light only after that book’s publication, which Mr. Blake felt was too important, and too extensive, to be condensed into a magazine article that only dedicated film buffs might read. This new information, obtained from the descendants of Alfred Grasso, Chaney’s business manager, includes letters, telegrams, and memos that shed new light on Chaney’s business dealings, and show how he was determined to avoid being typecast in a particular kind of role such as crippled gangsters (Chaney’s makeups were never a crutch, they were an important tool in his creation of the characters he portrayed), and that he actively sought material that could be adapted to the screen for him. For instance, it has long been believed that Irving Thalberg, MGM’s “boy wonder,” read Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” as a sickly child, when he was often confined to bed, and that he was behind its development as a film to showcase the talents of Lon Chaney when in fact it was Chaney himself who coveted the role and first sought the rights.

Besides this new material, this book focuses primarily on Chaney’s films, providing summaries and sometimes more detailed information about what went on behind the scenes, some are more detailed than others, like “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” buttressed by some biographical details, enough for the reader to understand what was going on in Chaney’s life at the time, but not in great depth unless new information has become available, and usually not enough to give a full, balanced portrait of the man himself. Detailed descriptions of his famous character makeups are also lacking, having been covered in the previous book, though there is a very interesting article by a dentist Chaney hired to create a unique set of dentures for his role as Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

If you are a fan of Lon Chaney and have already read Mr. Blake’s outstanding biography of this brilliant character actor and makeup artist, I recommend reading this as well, but, if you’re entirely new to the subject, I’d be hesitant to tell you to start here. This book really works better as a supplement to the previous one than as an introduction. 

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