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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Lon Chaney Died 76 Years Ago Today

The monster magazines used to trumpet, Lon Chaney Shall Not Die!, and they were right, to the extent that still reproduction kept the man’s image alive, but for those of us confined to unimaginative television markets, the possibility of this silent actor turning up on our home screens was remote at best, other than an occasional glimpse on Fractured Flickers. It was TCM and laser discs that brought Chaney out of his archival refuge, and even though a number of the films were letdowns (particularly the MGM vehicles), there was no argument as to Chaney’s truly unique position in film history. He died August 26, 1930. Kevin Brownlow’s excellent documentary provides first-hand recollections from then-impressionable boys whose mourning over the loss persists to this day (and most of them would have to be in their eighties, or more, by now). Did they identify with Chaney as society’s truest pariah? Other stars dabbled in the role of outcast (recent subject James Dean among them), but you knew these guys could have any girl they wanted if their innate movie star appeal were switched on. Chaney’s the real Miracle Man who never played celebrity. He was the working man’s actor (note the cap in this portrait --- looks like he’s headed for work at a construction site) who declared there was no Lon Chaney after those stage lights went down.

Just to make the separation with Hollywood complete, he used to take vacations deep in the woods. Surviving home movies have an austere and rustic quality you’d never get from present day stars on holiday. When Lon, Jr. was apparently still-born, his father scooped up the infant and rushed him outside to a near-freezing mountain stream, where he induced breathing by immersing little Creighton in the water. Chaney was one actor who understood something (maybe too much) about real life. His kind of hardship was very nineteenth century, and it’s still a shock to look upon that weathered face and realize this man died when he was only forty-seven.

So what was his secret? In an era of celebrity that played at being aloof, he was genuine. Authentic Chaney autographs are about as plentiful as feathers on a frog. Fake ones are offered daily by dauntless e-bay hucksters --- I’ve seen a few signed with felt tips. Well, if collectors are gullible enough to buy these, why not just add Have a Nice Day with a smiley face and be done with it? Folks in the twenties reserved a special place in their complicated psyches for Lon. Writer David Skaal (all his books are great) says Chaney evoked memories of the Great War and the horrific injuries inflicted during that. Others maintain he brought the forbidden pleasures of a travelling freak show into neighborhood theatres. It’s probably some of both, plus a lot of unwholesome explanations nobody’s yet thought of. A casual look at The Penalty will give you all the sick you need --- this 1920 corker can still shock viewers today with its unbridled depravity.

The Chaney mystery is abetted in no small way by the unavailability of his films. So many good ones are lost. Books have been written about movies we’ll probably never see. I know some guys whose first request in the afterlife will be a screening of London After Midnight, followed by, perhaps, A Blind Bargain. Any unseen footage of Chaney is like a rope of pearls. When they found an odd reel of the otherwise lost Thunder, it was an experience akin to entering Tutankhamun’s tomb. Somehow it’s appropriate that much of Chaney go missing. We can look at surviving stills and dream of the miracles he wrought. Based on expectation we’ve developed over intervening decades, the features would almost certainly be disappointing, so maybe some of his mystique is best left to our imaginations.


Anonymous Mike Mercury said...

John - another outstanding blog entry! You cannot have too much Lon Chaney, in my opinion. I've never even seen some of these photos before (the PHANTOM and HUNCHBACK shots especially - very different to the ones that normally appear for these films).

The late lamented Silents Majority website had hundreds of first-class Chaney photos, amongst others - all of which disappeared when the site became defunct in 2002. A sad loss.

As Lauren Bacall says in THE BIG SLEEP: 'I liked that - I'd like more'!

8:30 AM  
Anonymous Mike In Ohio said...

It's amazing how many rare autographs of early film stars became plentiful overnight with the advent of such venues as eBay. Lon Chaney Sr. for one has always been a "tough" autograph mostly due to his reclusive nature. Most of the good Chaneys I have seen over the years have been high quality original MGM portaits of him from "Tell It To The Marines". They are always inscribed, signed in blue fountain pen. Chaney must have liked the way he looked in uniform. The only other good signatures I have seen are autograph pages. These are also very rare as Chaney didn't like going out much. Bottom line is, if it's a scene still from one of his films such as "Phantom" or "Hunchback" it will almost certainly be a forgery. Why sign portraits to Tell It To The Marines?? My guess is that he looks more like his real self than just about any other film he ever made. Just a guess though.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Mariana said...

Here you can see him with Renée Adorée in Chinese costume:

5:33 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi John, I'm a lifelong Chaney fan. I just stumbled across this post and it's great! Thanks for the pictures as well as the thoughtful commentary. You are SO right about The Penalty. It's a sure cure for those who think the 20's were innocent. Mutilation, graphic murder, prositution, female slavery, nudity (!), open references to drugs and addicts, communist revolution on the streets of San Fran, corrupt cops, not to mention veiled sexual weirdness (with that under-the-piano stuff) and a druglord named Blizzard-- gee, I wonder what he was selling? Brilliantly twisted and twistedly brilliant. Thanks for the fun post and long live Lon,
Richard Day Gore

6:27 PM  

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