“(Lon Chaney) was someone who acted out our psyches. He somehow got into the shadows inside our bodies; he was able to nail down some of our secret fears and put them on screen.” So wrote science fiction author Ray Bradbury about Lon Chaney, one of the greatest stars of the silent screen. Bradbury also pointed out that “the history of Lon Chaney is the history of unrequited loves.”
Ingmar Bergman once said that the cinemas greatest accomplishment has been its ability to conquer the human face. He pointed out that if you sit in a chair across from someone and have a dialog while simultaneously filming them that when you view the footage you would see things the naked eye could never see. And no one ever gave the cinema more faces to conquer then Lon Chaney, “The Man With A Thousand Faces.”
It’s been said that Universal Pictures, Chaney’s studio for much of his career, tried to hide his face from the public. That simply isn’t true. There are plenty of publicity photos of Chaney sans makeup. Truth is, he frequently appeared with little to no prosthetics. Yet there’s no question that his mastery with makeup, which he himself designed and applied, was a key to his genius.
Had he opted to simply work behind the scenes as a makeup artist he would have surely been the Rick Baker of his day. But instead he used his makeup prowess almost exclusively on his own face. Yet he never used it as a disguise. He used it as an extension of his performance. When an actor puts on a costume they often can’t help but start to act like the character they’re portraying. Peter Mayhew, the actor who plays Chewbacca, had no acting experience whatsoever when he was cast as the massive wookie. He was cast simply because he was the tallest person in London that George Lucas could find. But once he put on that massive suite of yak fur Maywhew insists, “Chewy transformed me.”
Lon Chaney was born in Colorado Springs on April Fools Day of 1883 (make of that what you will). His maternal grandfather founded the Colorado School for the Education of Mutes, which still exists today as the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. Both of his parents were deaf and mute, therefore he grew up fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). Later in life his mother was afflicted with arthritis and could no longer sign. She had to use her eyes to communicate with her son. All of this would prepare him for the yet-to-be invented cinema where his gifts for pantomime would be second to none.
Chaney originally performed in vaudeville and later with traveling stock theater companies. Apparently he had a very good speaking and singing voice. He also was a choreographer. The theater is also where he learned the art of makeup design. When he started acting for Universal pictures in 1912 his gift for transforming his face and body through makeup and pantomime slowly but surely lead to his ascent as one of the studios top performers.
His gift for physical transformation was extraordinary. In The Penalty, a pitch-black crime drama, Chaney played a paraplegic. To master the effect he had his shins tied up behind him. In Shadows he gave one of his most moving performances as an elderly Chinese immigrant. Yes, his makeup is extraordinary but it was his ability to play a frail old arthritic man so convincingly that really made his performance so unforgettable.
His two most famous roles were arguably Quasimodo in Universal’s lavish film version of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and as Erik, the deformed composer/madman living underneath the Paris Opera House in The Phantom of the Opera (1925). For the later he created what was arguably his most iconic face, one that seemed to resemble a cross between a skull and Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Yet even when his face wasn’t heavily made up Cheney’s physical acting was so powerful that he was all but unrecognizable from film to film.
It was in between Hunchback and Phantom that Irving Thalberg, Universals brilliant 24 year-old head of production, moved across town to Culver City to head a new studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM. The studio had recently been formed when Metro Pictures, a studio owned by the theater giant Lowes, Inc., merged with independent producers Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer. While the individual studios already had several films in production, including Erich Von Stroheim’s monumental opus Greed, Chaney had the honor of starring in the first film produced entirely at MGM, He Who Gets Slapped.
In the film Chaney plays a scientist named Paul Beaumont who, along with his wife (Ruth King), is living as a guest in the home of the nobleman Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott). While living under the Baron’s patronage, Beaumont formulates a theory about the origins of man. He plans on revealing his findings before the French Academy of Sciences but the day before he is scheduled to give his lecture, his wife steals Paul’s paper and passes it on to the Baron. The next day at the Academy the Baron addresses the faculty members. Paul believes that the Baron will introduce him. Instead he takes credit for Paul’s research. When Paul stands up and cries of plagiarism, the Baron slaps him in front of the entire audience of professors. There are few human actions more contemptuous then a slap, nor more humiliating for those on the receiving end. The Academy members proceed to laugh at Paul. When he returns to the Baron’s home he learns that his wife was having an affair with the Baron (this was well before the Hollywood production code was put into effect). She refers to Paul as a clown and the Baron casts him out.
Five years pass. Taking his wife’s insult as a virtual suggesting, Paul joins what the title card refers to as “a small circus outside of Paris”. It doesn’t look very small, seeing as how it boasts a cast of sixty clowns. Paul, now unrecognizable under his grotesque clown makeup, has become the star attraction. He is billed as “HE who gets slapped”. Every night the cast of clowns sits around the circus ring as HE (everyone refers to him simply as “HE” from then on) recreates his humiliation at the Academy, with his fellow clowns acting as academics, slapping HE when he says such things as “I will prove that the world is round.” The audience loves the act and HE seems to get a sort of masochistic relief from the humiliation.
Another one of the circus’ star attractions is Bezano, a gallant bareback rider played by John Gilbert, arguably Hollywood’s second biggest romantic lead after Rudolph Valentino. One day a beautiful young lady applies to be Benzano’s assistant. Her name is Consuelo (Norma Shearer, one of the biggest stars of the silent/early sound era. Also the future Mrs. Irving Thalberg). She is the daughter of an impoverished Count (Tully Marshall) and clearly intends to be the breadwinner. A gentle soul, she befriends HE. At one point he gives her a small pillow shaped like a heart. She sews it into his costume behind a patch that covers HE’S actual heart.
Not surprisingly, HE falls in love with her. Alas, so does Bezano. In many a Beauty and the Beast tale there has been a third party that thwarts the romantic ambitions of the protagonist. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame it was Phoebus, the Captain of the Kings Guard who wins the heart of Esmeralda over Quasimodo. In The Phantom of the Opera there is Raul, the Viscount that interferes with the Phantom’s romantic ambitions. Here we have Bezano. He and Consuelo do indeed fall into quite idealized love, which is emphasized during a scene where they escape to the countryside for an afternoon rendezvous. Lovers embracing in a sundrenched field might seem terribly passé today, but during the silent era such unabashed sentiment and romance just gelled better then it does today.
At one point HE tries to confess his love for Consuelo. She responds by dismissing his amorous claims as a joke. She then slaps him ever so gently. One look at the clowns face and you know that this slap stung worse then any other.
Then at one performance, whom should HE see in the audience but that hated Baron? As if that’s not enough, he is trying to make advances on HE’S beloved Consuelo by sending her beautiful jewelry. Consuelo isn’t buying it, but her father is. The Count, concerned entirely with financial gain and not at all with his daughter’s happiness, announces that she is to marry the Baron after that night’s performance. To say the least this arrangement does not jibe with Consuelo, or with HE. Now he has two targets for his rage, the Baron and Consuelo’s uncaring father.
The movie comes to one of the wildest climaxes you’re ever likely to see in the movies. I won’t describe it in full but I will say that it includes a lion. This was, after all, the first true MGM film. Samuel Goldwyn had actually been using the lion in his logo since 1919. It was Howard Dietz, the movie exec and part time lyricist (among his credits are the songs that appeared The Bandwagon with Fred Astaire) who incorporated the beast by creating the famed title card with the slogan “Ars Gratia Artis” (a Latin saying meaning “Art for Arts Sake”) written about the bas relief circle that surrounded the great jungle cat. Incorporating a lion into the film must have seemed like an excellent way to promote the new studio.
He Who Gets Slapped was directed by Victor Sjostrom. A Swedish filmmaker, he was one of the pioneering filmmakers in his native land, responsible for such acclaimed films as The Sons of Ingmar (1919) and The Phantom Carriage (1921). During the twenties, Hollywood studios were recruiting many filmmakers from Central Europe, including such masters as Michael Curtiz, Ernst Lubitsch and William Wyler. Sjostrom might have been Scandinavian but he was clearly influenced by the German Expressionist films that had caused such a sensation in the 1920’s. The film does indeed have a sort of nightmarish quality to it (Cheney himself once said that there was nothing more terrifying then a clown after midnight). In a nod to Sergei Eisenstein the dramatic action is punctuated by cutting to such surrealistic images as a chorus of clowns walking around the rim of a spinning globe. Sjostrom later returned to Stockholm. Towards the end of his life he enjoyed some international fame as an actor, playing the aging professor in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Wild Strawberries (1957).
Chaney continued to thrive throughout the silent era. Then sound came in. He made only one sound film, a remake of his 1925 classic The Unholy Three. In both films he plays a sinister ventriloquist. For the 1930 sound version Chaney got to use his vocal talents for the first time. Both he and everyone involved with the movie swears that he “threw his own voice” when making his ventriloquist dummy talk.
Would Chaney have made a smooth transition to sound? Some stars like Laurel and Hardy, Greta Garbo and his own He Who Gets Sapped co-star Norma Sheerer (another leading lady who played opposite Chaney was Joan Crawford, playing a very sexy gypsy in The Unknown). Yet there were many who didn’t make the transition. Some like Emil Jennings and Clara Bow suffered because their heavy accents (in his case German, in her case Brooklyanese) made them difficult to listen to. Others like Buster Keaton so fully built their persona around their pantomime gifts that when the voice was added it killed the illusion. As mentioned before, Chaney had a perfectly good speaking voice, but after nearly two full decades of using his hands, face and the rest of his body to convey emotion, there was a good chance that having him speak would end up being intrusive.
We’ll never really know. Chaney died from complications of lung cancer shortly after filming The Unholy Three. He was slated to play one of the most iconic horror characters ever, the bloodsucking title in Dracula. After his death Universal decided to take a chance on an unknown Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi, who had appeared on Broadway in a stage version of Bram Stokers novel (it’s been rumored that Lugosi was a clown in He Who Gets Slapped, though this has never been confirmed). He of course gave one of the most iconic, and often imitated, performances in movie history.
Chaney has his successors. Boris Karloff met Chaney when he was still a struggling actor. Chaney gave the Englishman some sage advice. He told him to find something that no one else can do, and then do it better. He seems to have taken Chaney’s advice to heart when he starred in Frankenstein. And like Chaney he brought a sense of pathos to this otherwise frightening creature.
Chaney’s son, Creighton Tull Chaney decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. Changing his name to Lon Chaney, Jr., he achieved his first great critical acclaim playing Lenny in the 1939 film version of Of Mice and Men, opposite Burgess Meredith as George. But his greatest fame came at his fathers old studio, Universal, where he played the title character in The Wolf Man. Yes, Chaney, Jr. was pretty damned scary (well, he was to kids in the forties) when he played the hairy canine sapien, but it’s his scenes when he’s NOT wearing makeup that we really see his acting prowess at work. He genuinely does not want to become a werewolf.
If there is any actor today who I would call the legitimate heir to Lon Chaney it would be Andy Serkis, the English actor who, through the magic of motion-capture technology, gave an unforgettable performance as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films, as well as playing the title character in Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong and as Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He’s made a number of appearances in films without the aid of motion capture, most notably as punk rock pioneer Ian Dury in the biopic Sex, Drugs & Rock & Roll. But like Lon Chaney and his make-up, Serkis doesn’t allow the digital rendering of his performance render him invisible. Quite the contrary. He inhabits his roles just as any other actor in the movies does. When asked in an interview if it’s difficult to act in front of a blue screen wearing a blue body suit covered with reflective sensors, Serkis simply replied that “acting is acting”.
No one has ever tried to remake He Who Gets Slapped and frankly I don’t think anyone should. It’s a unique film that uses the lack of spoken words to its advantage. Indeed, Chaney always used the gold of silence to his advantage. He could say more with his eyes and his hands then any actor could with their vocal chords. Chaney remains, in the mind of this author and numerous film historians, the ultimate movie actor.