More Than A Thousand Faces
ichael F. Blake has compiled an excellent Hollywood reference resource in his encyclopedic The Films of Lon Chaney. This large volume will serve fans of Lon Chaney, the extraordinary, Protean actor of the early American cinema who starred in over 100 films. Most of Chaney’s films were silent films produced during the infant stage of filmmaking.
Blake begins his volume with a forward and short bio of the celebrated Man of a Thousand Faces. Lon Chaney, known for his uncanny acting ability, was known to appear for casting calls already adorned in extremely convincing make-up and often uncomfortable, hand-made prosthetic devices, to suggest a missing limb, hump, or eye. Throughout his career, he played heavies, gunsels, villains, heroes and clowns. However, he is most remembered for his ghoulish and eccentric performances, as evil Orientals, maimed freaks and ghouls. He became so adept at his craft, his skills are still admired and studied to this day. Blake’s book serves as a handy encyclopedia, not as a detailed commentary on the personality, eccentricities, or the personal life of Chaney.
Little is said about his controversial relationship with his wife and the subsequent tumultuous break-up with the mother of his son. Lon Chaney Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps, though with far less success. The father’s name had made him heir apparent to the Kingdom of Horror films, but the versatility and talent just weren’t there. Lon Sr.‘s relationship with his deaf parents would also have made for interesting reading. Chaney’s biographical data is covered more thoroughly in Blake’s previous writings, A Thousand Faces and Lon Chaney.
Most of Chaney’s early films are replete with pedestrian plotting and a lack of gimmickry, or the special effects that we find so common in the filmmaking industry of today. These films reflect the preferences of the viewing public at the time, and are filled with little more than Puritan moralizing, and illogical plot devices as do many films of the early filmmaking era.
In Blake’s book, each of Chaney’s films are featured in a simple format, listing the typical information needed by film fans, critics and historians. Production dates, number of reels, length, Director, scripting credits, principle cast members, occasional production notes, production cost, profit and loss, and the availability of existing prints, are presented with a sterile plot synopsis and reviews paraphrased from the journalistic world of the era, ranging from 1913 to Chaney’s untimely death in 1932. A sample entry:
Big U/Universal 1 Reel. Released: November 23, 1916.
Director: Not Credited.
Scenario: Not credited.
Lon Chaney, Pauline Bush, Murdock MacQuarrie
Lon, a member of the Northwest Mounted Police, is in love with a little girl of the woods. He is accused of a breach of duty and, rather than have the morale of the corps suffer, he Submits to the false evidence. Later he is vindicated.
The Universal Picture Code Book lists the film release date as November 10, 1916. There is an interesting debate about this picture since Pauline Bush was no longer working at Universal at the time of the film’s release. It’s possible that this picture was filmed earlier and it’s release was delayed for some unexplained reason. Or the movie may have been originally released under a different title, then re-released as Accusing Evidence. There is no review in any of the trade journals for this title.
This particular excerpt exhibits the scholarly nature of the book. Most of the early entries contain the same type of information, though often present more details. To Blake’s credit, the latter entries in Chaney’s career are far more substantial. In general, the book offers the reader a “just the facts, Ma’am” format indicative of any legitimate encyclopedic reference book with little editorializing.
As Blake takes the reader/researcher into the mid-1920s, Chaney’s gifts become more apparent. Chaney’s ability to metamorphose into a staggering array of odd and grotesque characters, begins to take center stage. The actor’s popularity and respect grew from film to film, but it is apparent he offered a superior performance even in what could be considered “inferior” films.
Recently viewing the classics [The Unholy Three (both the silent and “talkie” versions), The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Monster, The Unknown and the definitive The Phantom of the Opera] brought the enigmatic Chaney to life for me, in ways that a standard bio and/or an encyclopedic reference could not. Particularly striking was his performance in The Unknown. He plays an armless gypsy, with designs on the attractive daughter of the circus owner, where he is employed. Chaney strapped back his arms and learned to use his feet for some tasks normally reserved for one’s hands. Though some of the tricks are “doubled”, his performance as a contortionist is remarkable. The Films of Lon Chaney offered insight and background information for each of the films and increased the pleasure of viewing them.
Chaney’s work as the tragic Hunchback of Notre Dame is thought to be secondary to the portrayal by Charles Laughton in 1936, but Chaney’s characterization of The Phantom of the Opera can be considered the pinnacle of his career and his performance remains unmatched to this day.
The trade paperback sports three sections devoted to production stills, from many of Chaney’s more notable films. These pictures are wonderful and rare. The encyclopedia will serve many fans and researchers alike as a valuable reference tool. Readers will undoubtedly find that possessing background knowledge on the life of Lon Chaney will make using this book much simpler and will provide the researcher (or fan) with a more efficient method in which to locate information.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article