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The Most Fiendish Face in Movies

Lon Chaney's power to terrify is timeless. Just ask Kenneth Turan, who takes the horror personally.

February 19, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is a Times film critic and the author of "Never Coming to a Theater Near You." He is writing a biography of Lon Chaney.

Feast your eyes, glut your soul on my accursed ugliness.

--"The Phantom of the Opera," 1925


One minute you're a fiend and the next . . . you're almost human.

--"West of Zanzibar," 1928


As an actor and a person, on-screen and on his own, Lon Chaney, the celebrated Man of a Thousand Faces, haunts my dreams, disturbs my sleep and troubles my waking moments.

Everyone knows his most famous face: the horribly disfigured Erik, the tortured, wretched Phantom of the Paris Opera. It's a face beyond nightmare, beyond imagining, one of the most terrifying images ever put on-screen, instantly recognizable on everything from rock concert posters to postage stamps. It's a face that expresses fury and despair, pleading and rage, that radiates emotions we have no names for and don't really want to know exist.

But to know that face is to know everything and nothing. For Lon Chaney was also a man of a thousand paradoxes, "the star who lived like a clerk," according to director Tod Browning, a determined loner, co-star Jackie Coogan once said, who "made Howard Hughes look like Pia Zadora." As befits a specialist not in monsters with human faces but in humans with monstrous ones, almost everything about him was an enigma, a contradiction or both.

Chaney was an important star, as big a draw as the silent era produced. In 1928 and 1929, the nation's theater owners voted him the No. 1 male box-office attraction. His "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" was Universal's top-grossing film of 1923, as "The Miracle Man," his breakthrough role, had been for Paramount in 1919. When MGM announced the seriousness of his final illness in August 1930, so many people called to donate blood that the studio had to take on extra telephone operators. When he died a few days later, at age 47, every studio in Hollywood suspended work for five minutes in his honor.

He was also deeply respected by his peers. Burt Lancaster recalled one of Chaney's moments as "the most emotionally compelling scene I've ever seen an actor do." Joan Crawford, all of 23 when she co-starred with Chaney in "The Unknown," considered him "the most intense, exciting individual I'd ever met, a man mesmerized into his part." When he acted, "it was as if God were working, he had such profound concentration."

And yet one of the great Chaney paradoxes is that although his work is part of every actor's lexicon ("I want you to be big--Lon Chaney big," Stanley Kubrick told Vincent D'Onofrio during the filming of "Full Metal Jacket"), as a performer he is sui generis, without descendants, a star unlike any other before or since.

Part of the explanation for this is that Chaney achieved stardom by taking roles that are almost too strange to characterize or even talk about comfortably, let alone imagine anyone attempting today and achieving anything beyond cult or fringe status. He was not a horror star--the genre did not really exist until "Phantom" helped create it--but rather an exceptional character actor who made a habit of playing singularly unnerving individuals. It was not a boast when the trailer for "The Big City" claimed that "no one on the screen today can equal Lon Chaney for the thrill of the unusual." It was a fact--and still is.

Even putting aside the death's head Phantom and the misshapen Hunchback, Chaney's choices give pause. Versatile enough to take on two roles in the same film (one of his characters even kills the other in "Outside the Law"), the actor was a shape-shifter, capable of savagely murdering his own daughter or playing his own sweet grandmother with equal panache. He was an armless man in "The Unknown," and a double amputee in "The Penalty." Hard to miss was his predisposition for playing grotesques, seemingly villainous people who were crippled, scarred or mutilated, with the fantastically paralyzed being his specialty. It's no wonder that one of the era's catchphrases was "Don't step on that spider, it might be Lon Chaney."

Because there was no precedent for this kind of acting, Chaney's performances absolutely terrified his audiences. Moviegoers regularly fainted and stifled screams, and a London carpenter who saw Chaney as a vampire in "London After Midnight" just before murdering a housemaid and then attempting to slit his own throat claimed in court, to good effect, that a hallucination of the actor had driven him mad.

Words such as "vile," "grotesque," "macabre" and "bizarre" appear and reappear in reviews of Chaney's films. One critic said his work in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" created "a Quasimodo such as can only be imagined under the stress of a peculiarly vindictive nightmare"; Variety called it "murderous, hideous and repulsive." Reviewers were not at all sure that this was a good thing, but no one doubted the actor's effectiveness, then or now.

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