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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

THE REEL REALS: Lon Chaney


Leonidas Frank Chaney with his mini-makeup case
Born April 1, 1883

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has known me for four seconds (exactly four), that Lon Chaney-- in my humblest of humble opinions-- is the greatest person who has ever inhabited the planet earth. (That includes you, Jesus. Pft. Showoff). Lon was a cinematic warrior. His incredible talent and his many, many faces (allegedly 1000), were as diverse as his audience appeal. What bridged his heroes, anti-heroes, cripples, ghouls, fiends, and heart-broken torch bearers together was the uncanny skill, integrity, and honesty with which he made them materialize. His characters were, more often than not, tragic martyrs, burning on a pyre of destroyed illusions, unrequited loves, and irreparable scars with which the brutal knocks of life had informed them.

This was his art. Formulation. Even when he played the hardest of hard-bitten criminals, he never left their humanity absent from their motivations. Rome wasn't built in a day; no man became a liar or a thief by happenstance. In the same way that Lon would only answer the fan mail of the outcast and underdog prison inmates, he saw the poetry and the devastation of Mankind's heart. So, in his mutilated Quasimodo or Erik the Phantom, their is a profound depth of feeling and vulnerability that a lifetime of emotional depravity had built within them. In his conniving crook of The Shock, The Penalty, and Victory, there is a hardened core surrounding an insecure and self-protective victim-- in various stages of disarray-- actually quite desperate to be loved. In The Black Bird or Outside the Law, there is a bitter chip of sexual resentment and thirsty revenge present in his demeanor that is only worn by those to whom life has been most cruel. In Shadows and Mockery there is a childlike innocence exposed, that which is housed in all men but is often too deeply entrenched to be uprooted and freely offered to his fellow man.


Lon as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Lon is a continuing force of nature. His allure and his inspiration-- to actors, makeup and special effects artists, artists, and fans-- continues due to his intense and unrepentant, even self-flagellating indulgence in his performances. Viewers peer into the worlds he created-- and he THRIVED on each challenge-- and they see only the man, no matter what shape, size, or moral or immoral intent he possesses. The basis of this naked and gutsy transcendence was humility.

Lon's education in preparation for both acting and becoming a man came from his parents-- both of whom were deaf and, therefore, taught their son and his three siblings to communicate solely through physical expression, be it a slight shift of the eyes or facial contortion or through the digital specifics of sign language. He also grew up with the fiercely protective nature demanded of one growing up with "abnormal" parents. A sensitive but intensely proud and defiant child, he deflected ignorant prejudice and would continue to do so his whole life. In his eyes, all men (and women) were created equal and, as such, his entire theatrical and cinematic career was devoted to translating the many facets and nuances of each individual's beauty, flaw, and humanity.

Lon in the lost film A Blind Bargain,
 in one of his two roles in the film.

It took one viewing of the play "Richard III" in his hometown of Colorado Springs for him to choose his occupation. As soon as he was old enough, he and his elder brother John set out traveling on the theatrical circuit, with Lon's immovable determination maintaining his staying power through thick and thin long after John and many other gave up. He also found love and the worst kind of heartbreak. His first marriage to Frances "Cleva" Creighton, a singer whom he met and wed on the road, ended in notorious tragedy. Struggling with marital quarrels, the pressures of life in the entertainment business, rumors of Cleva's extramarital dalliances, her increased addiction to alcohol, and both of their stubborn natures, led to their divorce... But not before Cleva dramatically drank a bottle of mercury bi-chloride backstage at one of Lon's performances in an overly dramatic suicide attempt. Once Lon learned that she would survive, he took their son Creighton (Lon, Jr) and with his stage reputation ruined, set his sights on the possibilities opening up in Hollywood. (He would later find happiness with wife Hazel Hastings. Poor Cleva was never able to sing another note, a fact Lon never knew).

Starting out as an extra, Lon used his well-honed makeup skills to draw various filmmakers' attention and sllllooowwwly but surely established himself as one of the most popular and most beloved stars of the day. Few in the industry could ever understand his box-office appeal. He was attractive but not typically handsome. His characters were abstract and often crude. He did not promote happy endings. His biggest fan, perhaps, was constant collaborator and director Tod Browning. What. A. Team. What Lon offered was truth. He was a pre-pre-method actor. His crawl to fame in The Miracle Man as the con-artist posing as a "saved" cripple shocked and impressed audiences, and they would continue to be amazed by his craft until his premature death at the age of 47. The chain-smoking chameleon would pass away from throat cancer in 1930, right after he made the seamless transition to the talkies with the remake of his earlier film The Unholy Three.

Why so glum, chum?

New generations continue to be enthralled with this instinctual genius. What we continue to find in Chaney that we adore is Trust. You can sense the care he gave every performance, you admire the imagination he used to give it life, and you see reflections of yourself exorcised and set free by him that you may not have even wanted to admit were there. Chaney was a simple man with an extraordinary talent performing the most outlandish of jobs. But he never saw it that way. He just saw the first part. Just a man. Just some guy, who seemed to care a Hell of a lot more than everybody else. I mean... Damn...
Happy Birthday, ChameLeonidas. Your mama didn't raise no Fool.

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