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Saturday, 28 January 2017

SHOCKED INTO LIFE: An introduction to Lon Chaney Jr

"I was all black and not breathing when I was born. My father ran out of the house with me and broke a hole in the ice in a nearby lake, and dunked me in time after time until he revived me." In April 1965 Nashville’s daily newspaper The Tennessean reported this sensational anecdote in an interview with an actor whose relationship with his father would forever be one of almost supernaturally dramatic influence. Whether or not it was true (the interviewee’s own son claims not), the story of how Lon Chaney Jr was shocked into life by his father is a great metaphor for his struggle and revival in the shadow of a great man.

Relationships between fathers and sons have always been potentially rich soil for drama. Elia Kazan’s 1955 film East of Eden and Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949) focus on the paradoxical hard road when a son tries desperately to be his own man whilst still needing the approval of his dad. Eugene O’Neill’s searingly autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) magnifies this conflict with the added competitive jealousy of both generations of men sharing the same profession: the faded, tyrannical, still-roaring elder lion of the theatre and his physically weaker youngest scion trying to live up to a name that may be as much a curse as a blessing. This play in particular would have resonated tremendously with Lon Chaney Jr whose very name was a mantle forced unwillingly upon him.

Lon Chaney Jr was born Creighton Tull Chaney on February 10th 1906. His father was at the time a journeyman repertory theatre actor who hadn’t yet thought of a Hollywood screen career. The boy’s name was the surname of his mother Frances Cleva Creighton, a fellow actor who met Lon Chaney as a sixteen year-old chorus girl while on tour with the Columbia Comic Opera Company .
Lon supported his young family and toured with various musical comedy shows to make ends meet. 

As Lon's slavery in the salt-mines of repertory continued into his late-twenties, his home life was another source of strain. His and Cleva’s marriage became rocky when she emerged as a cabaret singer of distinction, becoming their company’s prima donna. Lon no doubt suffered some professional jealousy as many actor couples can do between themselves, not to mention perhaps a traditional masculine pride hurt at being eclipsed by her while he laboured at the lower levels. The combination of this plus Cleva’s increasing alcohol addiction (later inherited by their son) eventually destroyed their relationship, resulting one night in a suicide attempt when she drank bichloride of mercury while Lon was on stage. One she had recovered, Lon divorced her in 1913, but this left a taint of professional scandal that would not go away, as well as permanent ruin to Cleva’s singing voice. Theatre producers were fearful of employing Lon with such a past. This, and not professional ambition, was the impetus for Lon Chaney seeking film work in Hollywood.

Creighton was brought up with two underlying sources of tension connected to his father. The most poignant was the discovery that his mother was still alive after years of being told by Lon that she had died. Allegedly after Lon senior died, Creighton traced her house and attempted to re-connect with her but the story goes that she pretended to be someone else on answering the door to avoid the painful reunion.

The most lasting familial clash was over Creighton’s desire to follow in his old man’s footsteps as an actor. By 1916, Lon was busy enough in movie work and a settled second marriage (to Hazel Hastings) to have Creighton live with him again full-time. Whilst it’s common for even successful show-business parents to dissuade their children from entering such a harsh and precarious profession, Chaney senior went a step further. He enrolled Creighton in a technical institute to train instead as a plumber, unwittingly repeating his own enduring of parental influence as Lon’s own father insisted on him learning a trade as a painter and decorator. Whether Lon’s quashing of his son’s ambition was out of any concealed competitiveness or the tough love of a parent’s concern, his living impact upon Creighton was tragically cut short when he died in 1930 from lung cancer aged just 47. Creighton had to suffer not only this loss but also his first career which foundered in the crippling hardships of the Great Depression.

There was nothing to stop Creighton now from returning to his real professional love of acting where for the next decade he toiled in the undistinguished lower levels of contract work as various heavies and bit parts for low-budget outfits like Republic and Mascot studios. In 1935, times were so hard that he reluctantly bowed to agent pressure and changed his name to the more marketable Lon Chaney Jr. To his credit, he would never otherwise have traded on his father’s name; James Cagney’s noteworthy biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) spoils its ending with the sentimental fiction of Chaney senior willingly gifting his make-up box to his son with ‘Jr’ added to the inscription. 

Despite the reluctant name change to a perceived recognised ‘brand’, the new Lon Chaney Jr found it made little difference to his opportunities. To make ends meet he added stunt work to his skillset, performing everything from cliff falls to driving horses into rivers, which presumably was in demand for Poverty Row westerns and action film serials. Between 1937 and 1939 Chaney Jr churned out many unremarkable movies under a two-year contract at Twentieth Century-Fox who apparently only kept him on because he never asked for a raise come renewal time.

It was while being this cost-effective though not career-effective good soldier that a major break came to Chaney from outside the movie industry. He bagged the seminal role of Lennie Smalls in the Los Angeles theatre transfer of the Broadway hit based on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Suddenly he struck gold as a talent in his own right playing the slow-witted yet lovable giant who fatally cannot control his brute strength. Fortunately for us his affecting performance is preserved in a tremendous film version directed by Lewis Milestone in 1939. For fans who’ve only ever seen Chaney’s horror roles he is a revelation, fully committing to the role’s heart-breaking, doomed innocence and misguided power reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster. Burgess Meredith also makes a wonderful compassionate counterpoint to him as his diminutive best friend George.

The part of Lennie arguably typecast Chaney in audience’s minds for the rest of his career and yet there are much worse fates for an actor - like anonymity. As we will explore, his imposing physicality and feeling for victimhood would serve him busily if not always as illustriously as the overall legacies left by Karloff and Lugosi.He also came to prominence when Universal needed a younger actor than they who could handle without complaint the rigours of long make-up sessions and shooting schedules in arduous parts.   Such qualities in fact earned him a double distinction: as the only actor ever to make a Universal horror icon entirely his own (no other star but he played The Wolf Man from origin film to the Abbott and Costello spin-offs), and the sole actor to inhabit everyone else’s monster franchise – as (son of) Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and in sequels to the Mummy...

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