By Fred Muenz
Frank and Emma Chaney of Colorado Springs, Co. were both deaf. Frank was a barber and Emma was a teacher at the Colorado School for the Education of Mutes, a school for the deaf founded by her father. Their son, Leonidas Frank “Lon” Chaney was born in April, 1883. Although able to hear, young Lon learned to communicate with his parents in pantomime, using his hands and face to express a variety of emotions.
Lon’s initial exposure to the theater came in his early teens when he worked as a prop boy in a local opera house. His first stage appearance came in an amateur play in 1902, at age 19, after which he joined a traveling musical comedy troupe where he honed his skills as a comic actor and dancer. In 1905, the now 22 year-old Chaney met a 16 year-old singer, Frances Cleveland “Cleva” Cheighton. The two traveled and performed together and were soon married. In 1906, Cleva gave birth to a son, Creighton Chaney, who later became known in films as Lon Chaney Jr. The Chaney’s continued to tour until finally deciding to settle in California in 1910. Marital problems developed and on April 30, 1913, Cleva went to the Majestic Theater in Los Angeles, where Lon was managing the show, and attempted suicide by swallowing mercuric chloride. The suicide attempt failed, but Cleva’s vocal cords were permanently damaged and her singing career was finished. Soon after, Lon filed for divorce and was awarded custody of his son. The scandal which followed, however, forced him to leave the theater and look for work in the growing film industry.
In the early days of movies, make-up was usually relegated to beards and moustaches used to denote the villains. Even when it was used, it was usually heavy stage make-up which did not translate very well to film. There were no specialized make-up artists, and actors were expected to do their own make-up. Chaney’s skill at make-up gave him an advantage over other actors. He became a favorite of casting directors who knew that he could transform himself into virtually any character. In some films his make-up transformations allowed him to play dual roles. (His make-up skills were so renown that in 1929 he was asked by Encyclopedia Britannica to write their article on make-up). By 1917, Chaney was a well regarded character, but his salary did not reflect his position. When he asked for a raise, he was told “you’ll never be worth more than a hundred dollars a week”. Angry, he left Universal Studios and struggled for a year before being signed by Paramount Pictures for his breakout role in THE MIRACLE MAN (1919). In the film, Chaney plays a contortionist who is part of a gang of swindlers pretending to be faith healers. Posing as a severely disabled man, he crawls toward the bogus faith healer while his limbs straighten and he regains the ability to walk. His performance showed his great adaptability and made him the top character actor in Hollywood. In THE PENALTY (1920), he played a double-amputee gangster by creating a leather harness with stumps which strapped his legs behind him and allowed him to walk on his knees. His two best remembered films, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925), demonstrated his remarkable ability to create character make-up which were faithful copies of the author’s description. Sadly, in 1929, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and died, at age 47, in August, 1930. At the time of his death, Lon Chaney had completed only one sound picture, THE UNHOLY THREE (1930), in which he had created the voices of five different characters and was also the film’s make-up artist. Today’s remarkable movie make-up is largely Lon Chaney’s legacy.
ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.