Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Lon Chaney The Man Behind The Thousand Faces by Michael F. Blake

To celebrate Halloween, I am reprinting my review of this biography of one of my favorite actors--Lon Chaney. Although he is best remembered today for his roles in horror films, contrary to popular belief, Lon Chaney was not a horror movie actor, he was a great character actor capable of playing many roles in many genres, including westerns, melodramas, and gangster movies; had he not died just as sound films were coming in, he might even have surprised us by doing musicals as he once sang and danced on the vaudeville stage. Being brought up by deaf-mute parents, speaking sign language with his hands and facial expressions, gave him an advantage many silent screen performers did not have. There is an eloquence, an expressiveness, about Lon Chaney that no other actor, in my opinion, has ever matched. I hope you will enjoy my review and perhaps watch some of his films available on dvd or clips on You Tube. I've provided Amazon links to the ones I've seen and I recommend them all.

This cartoon was published as a tribute to Lon Chaney and his many roles and clever makeups after his death in 1930.

Although it's hard to read in this scanned image, the verse on this cartoon reads:

Little Miss Muffet
Sat in a buffet
Eating dill pickles and pies
Along came a spider
And sat down beside her,
'Twas Lon Chaney in a disguise.

This is the first full-length biography to be published about the most brilliant character actor of the silent film era, Lon Chaney, best remembered today for his amazing makeup and his starring roles in the "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Writing a biography of Chaney is an impressive feat in itself. He was a private man, promoted by the Hollywood studios as a "man of mystery" to explain his persistent refusal to play the Hollywood game and provide fodder for the fan magazines and gossip columns. Chaney gave few interviews and was determined to keep his private life private. He was dedicated to his art and fully immersed himself in his roles, but the movies were primarily a job to earn a living for him. He was a man who came from humble beginnings, the son of deaf mute parents, who worked as a wallpaper hanger and carpet layer before succumbing to the allure of the stage and his fascination with how actors used greasepaint, nose putty, and false hair to transform themselves. His first marriage, to Cleva Creighton, ended unhappily after his wife's career as a cabaret singer, her drinking, socializing, and presumed infidelity with her customers, and a botched suicide attempt in which while standing in the wings of the theatre her husband was then managing she downed a vial of mercury bichloride, thus permanently damaging her vocal cords and putting an end to her singing career. Chaney was granted full custody of their son, Creighton, the future actor Lon Chaney Jr., and eventually remarried, and remained so, quite happily, until his death in 1930 from throat cancer.

Mr. Blake, whose childhood interest in Chaney was sparked by the biographical film "Man of a Thousand Faces" starring James Cagney as Lon Chaney, became an ardent fan and collector of Chaney memorabilia, and himself grew up to be a makeup artist. He spent years researching this book and does a wonderful job of dispelling the many myths that have grown up around Lon Chaney over the decades. The book is also full of fascinating information about the history of makeup in the movies and how Chaney created his extraordinary creations to help bring his characters to life.

See the real Lon Chaney in action on dvd and the bio pic that has inspired so many to pursue careers as movie makeup artists.

No comments: