Monday, April 8, 2013
This weekend I am participating in a Chaney (Sr. and Jr.) Blogathon, hosted by the sites Movies Silently and The Last Drive In. This is my post for Lon Chaney Sr. I wrote it earlier this year on Chaney's birthday, and it represents what the senior Chaney means to me personally.
Lon Chaney is of course best known for being The Man of a Thousand Faces. His unique makeup skills enabled him to play a range of legendary characters, including the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Chaney is considered the first horror film star but he really wasn't--his roles were not in the realm of the supernatural. The Phantom, the Hunchback, and all the other grotesques Chaney gave life to were human beings, no matter how strange they may have looked. That is the true genius of Chaney--his performances were larger than life but they were real. No CGI-induced monstrosity could match the power of Lon Chaney.
What gets forgotten whenever Chaney is discussed is how most of his characters were not after power, or riches--they were after love. In just about every role he played, Chaney is hopelessly in love with a young, beautiful woman. Even when Chaney is portraying a "normal" person--such as the Marine sergeant in TELL IT TO THE MARINES--he's in love with a woman he knows he cannot win. Lon Chaney wasn't a horror film star, but he was the ultimate example of cinematic unrequited love. Chaney was always losing out to some younger, "proper" leading man. Most of those leading men were pretty lame. The best example of that is Norman Kerry, who co-starred with Lon in three famous films--THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and THE UNKNOWN. Kerry had a wimpy moustache, slicked back hair, and a permanent smirk on his face. I've read that Kerry never took movie work seriously, and he and Chaney didn't get along. So I always wondered why Chaney worked with Kerry so much....surely a big star like Chaney could have gotten someone else if he had wanted to.
Then I realized that Chaney knew a guy like Norman Kerry made him look good. Even in 1920s, audiences more than likely thought about Kerry the way people do today. Chaney's so-called monsters were actually the good guys--the ones people really wanted to see win, the ones people wanted to see find happiness. Chaney may have played men who were considered ugly, but they also had more verve, charisma, courage, and native intelligence then just about anyone else in the cast. I said in an earlier blog post that Chaney's Phantom was the ultimate romantic hero. You could easily say that Lon Chaney was one of the great movie romantic heroes, period. If love is the most powerful, and the most destructive, of all emotions, then no actor proves this more than Chaney. In movie after movie, Chaney loves with all his heart and soul, and he usually winds up either destitute or just plain dead.
No other actor personified the tragedy of personal rejection better than Lon Chaney. I think that's why his legacy will go on and on. His legacy is more than just creating a bunch of cool-looking freaks--it's a legacy of creating a link to the deepest and most heartfelt of all human emotions.