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October 11, 2011

The Mike's True Heroes of Horror (4/10) - Lon Chaney, Sr.

Some people say that you never forget your first time.  I certainly didn't when I started looking through the candidates for my list of True Heroes of Horror.  Though there are plenty of people I know more about and plenty of people who have spent more time in the forefront of the horror verse in the past 80 plus years, but I couldn't possibly end this list without adding the name of...
Lon Chaney, Sr.
Who is Lon Chaney, Sr?
Leonidas Frank Chaney was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado on April Fools' Day of 1883.  He was born to two deaf parents, which meant that he learned to communicate without words at a young age.  He began a stage career in 1902, and met and married his first wife, Cleva, in 1905.  His seventeen year old bride gave birth to their only son, Creighton - more on him later - a year later, but things wouldn't stay so rosy for long.

In 1913, the couples' marriage was on the rocks, and Cleva attempted suicide at the theater, setting loose a scandal that led to divorce and the end of both of their stage careers.  Lon moved on to film, and began to make his mark in the latter part of the decade - before becoming one of the screen's biggest stars in the 1920s.  Sadly, Chaney was cut down still in his prime via lung cancer in August of 1930, ending his life and film career at age 47.
Lon is most known for....
Being the silent screen's biggest horror icon.  His use of makeup effects to disfigure his own face made him a star, which led him to his highest fame in the mid '20s.  The most iconic image of Chaney comes from 1925's The Phantom of the Opera, in which he shocked audiences as the title character of Gaston Leroux's novel long before the musical adaptation.  More on that later too.
Other Horror Hits....
Chaney managed to act in 161 films in his 47 years, and many of them are still recognizable names in the horror lexicon.  Hits like Phantom and The Hunchback of Notre Dame have plenty of name value - not to mention ties to Broadway and/or Disney - and Chaney led many other well regarded films.  I will admit that I'm not as experienced with Chaney's films as I should be - I've seen those famous ones and a couple others - but what I have seen from the man has always exceeded expectations. And there's also the big pink elephant in the room whenever it comes to Chaney, Sr. - London After Midnight.  The now lost film - which is responsible for the harrowing image above - is pretty much the Roanoke Colony of horror films.  Its mystery has intrigued thousands, and rightfully so - because that thing looks creepy.

My favorite of the films I've seen (that isn't Phantom) is most definitely The Unknown, a 1927 bit of sleaze that teamed the star with director Tod Browning and future star Joan Crawford.  In fact, I once used the film as an example of just how talented "The Man of 1000 Faces" was.  But, honestly, that has very little to do with why Lon's on this list.  (Also not the reason he's here - but totally awesome - is the fact that his son, Creighton Chaney, grew up to be Lon Chaney, Jr. - who would star in three of my favorite films, The Wolf Man, High Noon, and Spider Baby.  He was a contender for this list too, but his father won the spot.)
So, Why's Lon Chaney, Sr. here?
For the record, I'm pretty sure that my parents are the smartest people of all-time.  I'm not exactly sure what possessed them to do it, but when little baby The Mike started asking for scary movies, they gave him The Phantom of the Opera.  I'm not sure how many kids of the '80s first experienced horror via a silent film, and I don't entirely remember my first time watching the film - but I know that it set the tone for my life in horror that followed.  Yes, my beloved The Blob and Creature From the Black Lagoon also stole my heart around the time of second grade, but it was Chaney's Phantom that was my first approved piece of horror cinema.

Considering I was the kid who memorized The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree before I was 3 years old (best book ever, man!), I was pretty willing to try to read my horror on screen.  And the choice was a fantastic one, because the film wasn't entirely scary but had the moments that just make a kid go "WHOA".  I mean, think about every little kid you know. Do they like Cars or Up because of the plots?  Do they read into the full story.  NO.  They know what it's about, they know how it ends, and they know there are parts of it that make them go "OH MOMMY THAT WAS AWESOME!"  And then they spill their Cheerios or pee their pants.  And that's what Phantom of the Opera was to me.

The thing that made Little The Mike go whoa? Lon Chaney being a disfigured monster.  And I loved it.  I like to think that I was smart enough as a little chum to recognize the sympathetic side of the Phantom's plight - that he was really not that bad, that he was trapped in his ways by his looks - but I'm betting in retrospect that I probably just sat there and stared at the Phantom's surprising face.  And loved it.  
This version of the unmasking actually comes from a 1929 re-edited version of Phantom, but I think both versions are pretty much amazing.
But it's not just nostalgia that propels the senior Chaney on to this list - it's the fact that that moment in Phantom when the mask comes off and The Mike was introduced to his first on-screen monster is still pretty much fantastic.  It's a moment that never, ever gets old.  I seriously think it might be the best individual scene in horror history.  Mary Philbin (who, if we're being honest, was kind of a fox) does the Christine Daae thing perfectly, sneaking up, getting curious, removing the previously polite fellow's mask - and then stuff gets real.  Chaney does that silent shriek thing you see above that makes his face look like an evil Pez dispenser, Philbin gets terrified, and poor Erik - who just wanted to play Don Juan Triumphant on his underground piano - loses his cool.  It's just 100% fantastically done by director Rupert Julian and his two cast members, and I don't know if anything else in the horror wold can top it.

I'm pretty sure that the cinemagoer of 1925 - much like Little The Mike - had never seen anything that represented horror quite like Chaney did when that mask came off.  And I'm pretty sure the world is better because of it.  I don't want to make this all about one scene in one movie - Chaney's wowed me in several films and I'm sure he will keep up the charm as I keep digging into his career - but I can't understate just how much I really love The Phantom of the Opera and this one perfect scene.  In about 20 seconds of action, represents a gigantic part of the horror loving foundation that keeps me going on my quest to keep horror alive in my own way.
Lon Chaney Sr. remains one of my true heroes of horror for simple reasons, but sometimes the simplest answer is the right one.  Plenty of horror icons have come and gone since - I've already mentioned some this month, and I'm sure I'll mention more by the end of it - but his silent control of the horror genre demands as much attention as I can give it.  If you haven't seen what Chaney could do, I'm kinda worried that you haven't seen what horror cinema can be.

1 comment:

Andreas said...

This is dead-on, and I love how autobiographical it is. Because I had a very similar experience: I'm not sure if Phantom was my FIRST horror movie, but I certainly saw it before I could read, and even before that, I saw the unmasked face on the pages of horror encyclopedias sitting around our house.

So in short, we both had smart parents who gave us the gift of horror at an early age through Lon's still-scary face. I feel bad for any little kids who don't get exposed to it!

Far as I can see, it's the best way to start out in life.