Tuesday, 22 December 2015


Lon Chaney was voted the top male box office star by theatre exhibitors for the two consecutive years of 1928 to 1929 – an even more impressive achievement when you consider that by that time talking pictures had begun to render silent films virtually obsolete. (The same accolade was given to silent screen female star Clara Bow).
Chaney was very resistant to move over into ‘talkies’. Many silent era actors feared that sound would expose their vocal shortcomings. In his case it seemed to be as much about giving up some of his mystery, and let’s not forget his unique label of the ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’, a badge of pride that owes itself to expressing character solely through his physical talents. He needn’t have worried though. His voice test passed with flying colours – Lon’s background in theatre may have helped with diction and developing a rich voice that would have been missing in those whose pre-screen experience hadn’t given their natural voices the benefit of training . Vocally he has the deep, rough-hewn authoritative sound reminiscent of his contemporary Walter Long - as well as looking not unlike him. This match between his voice and the brooding masculinity of his screen personas was a blessing. There are those who couldn’t make the transition.

THE UNHOLY THREE (1930). Lon’s fears were overcome by Universal deciding to make his first talking role a remake of 1927’s THE UNHOLY THREE. The familiarity of the material helped, as well as the shortened development time by using much of the original silent version’s script. There was also the encouragement offered to him of a $50,000 bonus promised by MGM on completion. As it turned out, Chaney needed every enticement available to get through the shooting day. By now he was suffering in secret from the early stages of lung cancer that would shortly take his life after the filming was completed.

THE UNHOLY THREE is a mixture of improvements and failings on the original film. The only returning members of the team were Chaney and Harry Earles as the diminutive Tweedledee. Tod Browning was replaced as director by Jack Conway, owing to the former’s recent flop THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (1929) causing him to leave MGM and go over to Universal. Ironically, part of the problem with the remake is in the reliance on sound. The audio track is muddy, which makes Earles’ and especially Ivan Linow’s dialogue (as Hercules) hard to make out. In Linow’s case, this is exacerbated by his awkward delivery and Latvian accent giving unintentional amusement when he menaces Chaney with the memorable threat:  "How would you like to have me suck you one...just for luck?". 

There's also the remake version of the huge ape, which unlike the original one, (a trick-photographed real normal-sized ape) was now a blatantly obvious man-in-a-monkey-suit which harks back to the Laurel and Hardy comedies like THE CHIMP, thus providing unintentional amusement.

Lila Lee’s Rosie has some of the ballsy quality of Mae Busch but sorely lacks her vulnerability, coming across as phoney by comparison when she breaks down in melodramatically demonstrated tears at possibly losing Herman (a too-unbelievably sappy Elliot Nugent for her).

Where the sound aspect benefits is in allowing Chaney to show his vocal versatility to match his physical range. In this remake, audiences can now hear him impersonate the genteel old Mrs O’Grady’s falsetto as well as parrots and other voices. Such was his skill at this that he had to sign a legal document as part of publicity to attest that all voices attributed to his character were actually performed by him. The court climax and denouement are also more credible, not only because Chaney takes the witness stand as Mrs O’Grady and is revealed to be really Echo by the prosecution, but also in the aftermath he is on his way to jail when he says goodbye tenderly to Rosie – in the silent version he escapes any consequences by being unconvincingly acquitted.

Chaney’s first talking picture was a success, and as a studio who at first knew nothing about his tragically-advancing cancer. MGM planned a number of follow-on projects. The most intriguing of all was the negotiation between them and Universal to allow him to be loaned out to the latter for what would have been DRACULA (1931). This sadly never came to fruition and may not have been granted anyway due to MGM’s understandable investment in Chaney’s stardom themselves while under contract. If it had, Bela Lugosi’s Broadway success in the role might have been his sole opportunity for fame – and of course there will always be the alluring speculation as to how Chaney would have played the role.

After a short family stay at his beloved log cabin in the Sierra Nevadas, Lon Chaney died in hospital on August 26th 1930. His fame was great enough that all studios observed a moment of silence in his honour. His fans were shocked as most people had not even known of the great actor’s illness.
Over successive decades, Lon Chaney faded somewhat from public memory, apart from compilations which narrowed his reputation somewhat by focusing on his ‘horror’ performances in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. I’d like to close by paying tribute to three elements that have aided in restoring him to prominence and a more truthful view of the range and influence of this supremely talented actor.

MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957). By no means an unflawed film, this is nevertheless a valuable movie biopic that paints a sympathetic and respectful portrait of Chaney as an artist. Cagney is superb in the role, albeit noticeably too old, and yet deftly replicates Chaney’s younger days in variety clowning scenes using his own background as a stage performer. (One noteworthy issue with the film is the contrived ending on Lon’s death-bed where for movie audience sympathy Lon adds ‘Jnr’ to the name on his make-up case before passing it on to his son Creighton. Neither father nor son may have welcomed this in real life as Creighton very unwillingly and much later succumbed to taking Chaney’s professional name out of career desperation).
The stand-out scenes for me are his miraculously healed con-artist in THE MIRACLE MAN, unlocking his ‘crippled’ body in a careful and committed tribute to the spirit of Chaney’s work rather than attempting a slavish copy – and the enjoyable sequence where he sits down and sets to work making himself up to fit the day’s studio call-sheet announcement for a scarred Lascar pirate. I’m sure Chaney would have relished this no-nonsense honouring of his famous work ethic and huge talent.

Secondly, there is Michael F Blake’s colossal life-long research into Lon Chaney’s legacy, the second of whose marvellous books A THOUSAND FACES helped me immensely in background research on Chaney’s life as I watched each of his films. I believe the Cagney film was what may have initially sparked his interest in the actor.

Finally, Mr Blake is a welcome contributor to the terrific documentary LON CHANEY: A THOUSAND FACES (2000 – TCM Movies) narrated by Sir Kenneth Branagh. This is available on social media and also the lovely Masters of Cinema Bluray/DVD release and contains a wealth of knowledge and great use of Chaney’s film clips.

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