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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

June 20, 1993|Kenneth Turan

LON CHANEY: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces by Michael F. Blake (The Vestal Press , P.O. Box 97, Vestal, N.Y. 13851-0097: 394 pp. $29.95; 394 pp.) Maybe he didn't have a thousand faces, but he had plenty. And no actor before or since has brought more emotional force or believability to a more unnerving collection of roles, everything from legless criminals and mad scientists to the painfully human monsters of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "The Phantom of the Opera" (see above), than this most diffident and enigmatic of stars. For though he was as popular an actor as the 1920s saw, Chaney was rarely interviewed; he was a loner, co-star Jackie Coogan remembered, who "made Howard Hughes look like Pia Zadora." He felt more affinity with grips and stagehands than his fellow actors (director Tod Browning called him "the star who lived like a clerk"), and the personal tragedies of his life seemed to make him more reclusive.

Michael Blake, himself a makeup artist and major Chaney fan, has spent six years researching this biography, doing a very thorough job of interviewing surviving relatives and co-stars and tracking down probably every review the man's films (only 40 of his more than 150 screen appearances survive) received. As might be expected, Blake is especially good at explaining exactly how Chaney used makeup to create looks so disturbing that sometimes even the extras were afraid to look at him. Finally, though, it is the more than 120 vivid photographs, many never published before, that make the profoundest impression, showing an extraordinary actor whose like we are unlikely to ever see again.

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