The name Lon Chaney to those in the know will conjure up iconic images of the 1925 Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera and the eerie Man in the Beaver Hat in 1927 London After Midnight but many may not be aware of the fascinating story of how this versatile actor came to success.
The 1957 biopic staring the legendary James Cagney utilising all his acting ability to play Chaney is named Man of a Thousand Faces after the nickname the star gained for his ability to transform himself using make up and a vast imagination into almost anyone or any thing.
Although it may seem unbelievable his life was almost as dramatic as many of his films something Man of a Thousand Faces shows starting out with Chaney growing up with deaf parents which lead to him being constantly bullied because of their disability. His determination and talent led him to the stage where he had success as a clown and got into a relationship with singer Cleva Creighton played here by Dorothy Malone.
The pair struggled through a tough marriage due to her fears and prejudices in regards to his parents and although they had a son they soon became estranged building to a horrific night when Cleva came on stage during one of Chaney’s shows and drank acid in an attempted suicide.
From this moment on the movie tracks his rise and fall as he loses his son and heads for Hollywood in a bid to break into silent cinema. With his make-up skills he soon moves from extra work to becoming a star in his own right, right before tragedy strikes him and his family all over again.
Fascinatingly fewer liberties were taken with the movie than you may believe with the most outlandish moments turning out to be true and although the real Chaney hated the Hollywood lifestyle and was fiercely private the general story of his career remains true.
One factor that is at odds is his relationship with his son Creighton better known to horror fans as Lon Chaney Jr. who following in his father’s footsteps is famous for playing Larry Talbot the Wolf Man in several Universal pictures.
In the movie version of events the father happily hands over his legacy and make up case to his boy however in real life things where not so civil and Junior only accepted film work and changed his name when he hit rock bottom financially.
Very of its time modern viewers will wince at the sexism and racism displayed in the picture however in general the film tries to promote diversity and acceptance especially of the disabled community a theme highlighted by Chaney’s positive and poignant relationship with his parents and his fierce protection of them.
Because of his life facing adversity and bigotry Chaney also attempts to humanise the many monsters he portrayed imbuing them with a deep humanity other actors would ignore. This is seen when he plays Quasimodo in the 1923 version of the The Hunchback of Notre Dame however his own anger also emerges on set when his wife returns into his life.
A fascinating tale of a fantastic talent the hope is Man of a Thousand Faces new Blu-ray release from Arrow will inspire not only actors amongst its audience but also horror fans to go back and visit these forgotten films and rediscover Lon Chaney all over again.