The Most Fiendish Face in Movies

Lon Chaney’s power to terrify is timeless. Just ask Kenneth Turan, who takes the horror personally.

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Times Staff Writer
Feast your eyes, glut your soul on my accursed ugliness.
—"The Phantom of the Opera," 1925

One minute you're a fiend and the next . . . you're almost human.
—"West of Zanzibar," 1928

As an actor and a person, on-screen and on his own, Lon Chaney, the celebrated Man of a Thousand Faces, haunts my dreams, disturbs my sleep and troubles my waking moments.

Everyone knows his most famous face: the horribly disfigured Erik, the tortured, wretched Phantom of the Paris Opera. It's a face beyond nightmare, beyond imagining, one of the most terrifying images ever put on-screen, instantly recognizable on everything from rock concert posters to postage stamps. It's a face that expresses fury and despair, pleading and rage, that radiates emotions we have no names for and don't really want to know exist.

But to know that face is to know everything and nothing. For Lon Chaney was also a man of a thousand paradoxes, "the star who lived like a clerk," according to director Tod Browning, a determined loner, co-star Jackie Coogan once said, who "made Howard Hughes look like Pia Zadora." As befits a specialist not in monsters with human faces but in humans with monstrous ones, almost everything about him was an enigma, a contradiction or both.

Chaney was an important star, as big a draw as the silent era produced. In 1928 and 1929, the nation's theater owners voted him the No. 1 male box-office attraction. His "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" was Universal's top-grossing film of 1923, as "The Miracle Man," his breakthrough role, had been for Paramount in 1919. When MGM announced the seriousness of his final illness in August 1930, so many people called to donate blood that the studio had to take on extra telephone operators. When he died a few days later, at age 47, every studio in Hollywood suspended work for five minutes in his honor.

He was also deeply respected by his peers. Burt Lancaster recalled one of Chaney's moments as "the most emotionally compelling scene I've ever seen an actor do." Joan Crawford, all of 23 when she co-starred with Chaney in "The Unknown," considered him "the most intense, exciting individual I'd ever met, a man mesmerized into his part." When he acted, "it was as if God were working, he had such profound concentration."

And yet one of the great Chaney paradoxes is that although his work is part of every actor's lexicon ("I want you to be big—Lon Chaney big," Stanley Kubrick told Vincent D'Onofrio during the filming of "Full Metal Jacket"), as a performer he is sui generis, without descendants, a star unlike any other before or since.

Part of the explanation for this is that Chaney achieved stardom by taking roles that are almost too strange to characterize or even talk about comfortably, let alone imagine anyone attempting today and achieving anything beyond cult or fringe status. He was not a horror star—the genre did not really exist until "Phantom" helped create it—but rather an exceptional character actor who made a habit of playing singularly unnerving individuals. It was not a boast when the trailer for "The Big City" claimed that "no one on the screen today can equal Lon Chaney for the thrill of the unusual." It was a fact—and still is.

Even putting aside the death's head Phantom and the misshapen Hunchback, Chaney's choices give pause. Versatile enough to take on two roles in the same film (one of his characters even kills the other in "Outside the Law"), the actor was a shape-shifter, capable of savagely murdering his own daughter or playing his own sweet grandmother with equal panache. He was an armless man in "The Unknown," and a double amputee in "The Penalty." Hard to miss was his predisposition for playing grotesques, seemingly villainous people who were crippled, scarred or mutilated, with the fantastically paralyzed being his specialty. It's no wonder that one of the era's catchphrases was "Don't step on that spider, it might be Lon Chaney."

Because there was no precedent for this kind of acting, Chaney's performances absolutely terrified his audiences. Moviegoers regularly fainted and stifled screams, and a London carpenter who saw Chaney as a vampire in "London After Midnight" just before murdering a housemaid and then attempting to slit his own throat claimed in court, to good effect, that a hallucination of the actor had driven him mad.

Words such as "vile," "grotesque," "macabre" and "bizarre" appear and reappear in reviews of Chaney's films. One critic said his work in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" created "a Quasimodo such as can only be imagined under the stress of a peculiarly vindictive nightmare"; Variety called it "murderous, hideous and repulsive." Reviewers were not at all sure that this was a good thing, but no one doubted the actor's effectiveness, then or now.

So where did this singular talent come from? Why did it strike such a popular chord in its day, yet leave no traces on contemporary film? This despite the fact that Chaney remains the most frightening of screen presences, someone whose films leave me so shaken that to watch them after the sun goes down is to risk, as the Phantom's inamorata Christine did, "a night of vague horrors, tortured dreams."

Answers to any Chaney questions are difficult to come by. For one thing, we don't have access to the entirety of his output, and likely never will. Biographer Michael Blake, who knows as much about the man as anyone living, says that of the 158 films Chaney made (from his one-reel debut in "Poor Jake's Demise" in 1913 to his only sound film, "The Unholy Three," in 1930), perhaps 47 or 48 survive in complete or partial form. For another, Chaney was a man who sought to hide in plain sight, who insisted that "between pictures there is no Lon Chaney."

He was a celebrity who rarely gave interviews, who disliked autographs, personal appearances and answering fan mail (he made an exception for men behind bars), and who even famously turned his back on the camera in a 1925 newsreel showcasing MGM's stars. He did not go to premieres, did not socialize with his Hollywood peers and mocked studio publicity requests for personal details by pointedly commenting, "I can just hear them saying, 'Eat Lon Chaney's favorite cereal and look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.' "

Some of this reticence can be put down to shrewd showmanship, to an actor savvy enough to realize that revealing too much of oneself was "like pulling the beard off Santa Claus." But the more one learns of Chaney's history, the more one comes to believe that this is only part of the story. For this is an actor who once boasted that he would "fix it so nobody else will write my biography after I'm gone." Even his vacation spot of choice fit this arm's-length pattern: a stone cabin (designed for him by celebrated L.A. architect Paul Williams) in a roadless section of Inyo National Forest so remote that the only way in was by pack train or on foot.

Since Chaney's private life was just that, the rare personal glimpses of him by contemporaries are revered by devotees as if they were splinters from the true cross. Biographers argue over whether there was any hidden darkness in Chaney, and use words such as "withdrawn," "secretive," "uncommunicative" and "dour." Yet as always, there is considerable evidence to the contrary as well. Though he likely was, as "Phantom" cinematographer Charles Van Enger said, "one person that you did not want to see mad," he was also something of an instinctive socialist who once refused to work overtime because it would have cheated the film's extras of one more day's pay. Young actresses he worked with, such as his "Hunchback" co-star Patsy Ruth Miller, invariably remembered him as "extremely kind, thoughtful and protective."

What emerges, on one level, is the picture of a complete professional who had little patience for studio shenanigans. When he responds to a query about "Where East Is East" co-star Lupe Velez with a curt "She's behaving herself," when he writes of Universal Studios that "I am not going to stand for any of their foolishness or stalling," it seems as if one is hearing the genuine, irascible voice of the man himself.

Yet on another level it is impossible not to see Chaney as a man who learned through a difficult life to hide both his identity and his emotions when he was off-screen. It's a classic self-protective stratagem, but it also may have helped him—perhaps even forced him—to more effectively channel his feelings when he was on camera.

Leonidas Chaney was a performer virtually since his birth, on April 1, 1883, in Colorado Springs, Colo. Both of his parents were deaf, and in the fourth grade he dropped out of school for three years to care for his bedridden mother, becoming her link to the outside world and in the process honing his impeccable pantomime skills. He was even said to have what deaf people call a "deaf face"—"you communicate everything with it," says biographer Blake, "because you don't have the ability to speak or hear."

As a young teenager Chaney was drawn to the stage, and he spent close to a decade touring the West in a series of subsistence-level musical comedy companies. He met and married the 16-year-old singer Cleva Creighton, and they had a son, Creighton Chaney (the future Lon Jr.), but soon the family resumed touring. It was a difficult, hardscrabble time that Chaney disliked talking about, except for an aside that "barnstorming had sickened me with the acting side of the profession." His son was more forthcoming, remembering that "as a last resort, Pop could always break into a dance in front of any of them old-time bars and get enough nickels and pennies to buy some food."

The marriage became troubled, but no one expected what happened next. On April 30, 1913, during Chaney's performance at the Majestic Theater in downtown Los Angeles, Cleva went into the wings and attempted suicide by swallowing a vial of bichloride of mercury. She lived, but was never able to sing again.

In a bout of fury, Chaney cut Cleva out of his life. He more than divorced her—he never saw or spoke of her again, left her all of $1 in his will and told their son that Cleva had not survived the poison. (Lon Jr. would not find out the truth until after his father died.) The actor then married a chorus girl named Hazel Hastings, herself divorced from a legless man who ran a San Francisco cigar counter, and eventually let it be believed that she was Lon Jr.'s mother. In the insular world of traveling theater, however, Cleva had caused enough of a scandal to make employment difficult for her former husband, which likely led to Chaney's decision to try his hand at the movies.

After years as a journeyman, he got his breakthrough role in 1919 with "The Miracle Man," in which he played a con artist called the Frog, famous for his ability to contort his body into ungodly postures. Only a few minutes of the film survive, but seeing Chaney crawling in twisted pain toward a faith healer called the Patriarch is still as compelling as when Exhibitors Trade Review marveled at this "ghastly deformed mass of flesh faked for the purpose of exciting pity."

It has to be said that Chaney was a perfect match for his era, a kind of genius who came out of and thrived in a society likely to appreciate what he could do. It was a time when physical aberrations were more present, before advances in medical technology and changes in public attitudes altered the natural and psychological landscape. It was also the post-Great War era, and at least one critic has suggested that Chaney's characters were "a way in which the effects and consequences of World War I—the mass mutilation of men's bodies and the return of these men to society"—could be dealt with on-screen.

Going hand in hand with this reality was a kind of unashamed sentiment, a willingness to give way to sensation, that characterized the silent film experience. Audiences were especially susceptible to Chaney's gift for playing heartbreak and horror, pathos and menace. He connected things that audiences have lost the habit of connecting—the grotesque and the tender, if you will—and his fans loved him for it.

That Chaney holds and terrifies us today bespeaks the breadth and depth of his gift. A man of palpable physical strength, he could be subtle and graceful, known to his audience by the delicate movements of his fingers and hands. Uniquely Chaney's as well was a thorough knowledge of the art of makeup. Working out of a simple fisherman's tackle box now in the collection of Los Angeles' Natural History Museum, Chaney became such a master ("It's an art," he said, "but not magic") that he wrote the entry on the subject for the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. No one could figure out how he created his clouded blind eye in "The Road to Mandalay" until Michael Blake discovered that the actor had a local optician make a cosmetic version of the then-all-but-unknown contact lens, to completely cover his real eye.

Nothing was allowed to stand in the way of his desired effects, including what his son characterized as "agonies." "Sometimes it would bleed like hell," said cinematographer Charles Van Enger, referring to the wires that contorted Chaney's nose in his "Phantom" makeup. "We never stopped shooting. He would suffer with it."

Playing criminal mastermind Blizzard, "that cripple from Hell," in "The Penalty," Chaney went further still. To convincingly portray a man who'd had both legs amputated by a negligent surgeon, Chaney had his own strapped behind him, ankles close to thighs, and bound in leather stumps, adding to the illusion with clever use of oversized clothing. The pain was so intense that Chaney couldn't bear to wear the stumps for more than 10 or 20 minutes. Yet he was so absolutely believable that the film ended with a coda, now lost, of Chaney walking on his own legs to prove to audiences that he was a performer, not a real-life amputee.

While the full extent of the pain Chaney endured is open to debate, the conviction he brought to these roles is inarguable. Created not by makeup or physical contortions, his intensity came from a very deep place, pulled from those dark, forever unknown depths whose existence he refused to acknowledge.

The actor always insisted, as he did to "Hunchback" co-star Miller, that "you don't have to live the part, just act it. The point is not for you to cry; make your audience cry." But it is not possible to see Chaney in the best of his roles without believing that in his own way he did live them. Perhaps against his will and maybe even without his knowledge, Chaney was a Method actor before the term existed, someone who had an innate connection to the yearnings of his monstrous characters. "He'd say, 'Virg, make me look frightening and repulsive, but at the same time make the audience love me,' " cinematographer Virgil Miller told film historian Scott MacQueen. "He always wanted to be loved." It is the reason his work refuses to become dated, even if other aspects of his films do.

Watching Chaney can be a kind of personal exorcism. Uninterested in being merely frightening, the actor collapses the distance between the audience and the screen, between us and them, insisting that we have empathy for the horror by making us complicit with it. No one has described the complex web of emotions this man creates better than lifelong Chaney fan Ray Bradbury, interviewed in Kevin Brownlow's comprehensive documentary, "Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces":

"He was someone who acted out our psyches," Bradbury explains. "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." Truly, "the history of Lon Chaney is the history of unrequited loves. He brings that part of you out into the open, because you fear that you are not loved, you fear that you never will be loved, you fear there is some part of you that's grotesque, that the world will turn away from."

Bradbury's words remind me that Chaney has the hold on me he does, scares me the way he does, in part because I take horror personally. I am susceptible to the genre's darkness, likely to feel overwhelmed by its power, incapable of viewing it, as many seem to, as a way to dispel the boredom of a bland world. The world is far from bland to me, and horror does not linger on the surface of my mind. It goes deep inside.

Because Chaney, too, seems to connect with his material on a profound, unspoken level, he pulls me into his world. When he is on-screen I feel, paradoxically, like both the person being scared and the person scaring others—and that is a terrifying combination. As Bradbury says, to see Chaney is to feel that one may yet become the person the world will turn away from in horror and fear.

Outlasting even Greta Garbo, Chaney resisted sound films, but he turned out to be so good in "The Unholy Three," his first talkie, that he swore to a notary that the five voices used by his character were all his. The final Chaney paradox was his death of bronchial cancer at age 47 before he could make a second. "Man of Thousand Faces," read the headline on the full-page Los Angeles Times obituary, "Takes But One To Grave." Lon Chaney is buried in a crypt in Forest Lawn in Glendale. It is unmarked.

Now Playing

The UCLA Film & Television Archive's "Lon Chaney/Tod Browning: The Unholy Two" continues screening through March 12. The remaining Chaney films in the series are "The Black Bird," "Outside the Law," "The Phantom of the Opera," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "West of Zanzibar," "The Road to Mandalay," "The Unholy Three" (1925 silent version) and "He Who Gets Slapped." For more information, call (310) 206-FILM or visit

Kenneth Turan is a Times film critic and the author of "Never Coming to a Theater Near You." He is writing a biography of Lon Chaney.