Blogathons, Silent Film, Tributes To Classic Stars

The Lon Chaney Sr Blogathon: The First Character Actor And His Portrayal Of Disabled And Disfigured Characters

Lon 3This is my entry for the blogathon being co-hosted by myself and Ruth at Silver Screenings. I have wanted to do something to honour the talents of Lon Chaney Sr for a while now. I was overjoyed when Ruth agreed to co-host this event with me to honour Lon. 

Lon Chaney Sr is one of my all time favourite actors. He was such an intense actor and his every move on the screen drew and kept your attention. Lon could also convey more to us with a single look than any line of dialogue could ever convey. I also strongly feel that his performances haven’t dated like some others from this era unfortunately have. His performances are very natural and are not theatrical. I consider Lon to have been the first real character actor to have ever appeared on film.

Lon always acted differently in each role, he played someone different each time he went before the camera. Lon also seemed to take great pleasure in becoming the characters who he was given to play. I actually consider him to be the greatest character actor there has ever been in films because he disappeared so completely into the characters who he played.   

I often get a bit bored with some actors after a while, because they always seem to just play variations of themselves on screen, with Lon however, each performance he gave was different. In so many of his films you can’t even recognise him. The ability to so convincingly disappear into a role is the mark of a good actor or actress in my opinion, if they can convince you of something and make you completely believe they are the characters they are playing then they’ve done a great job. Lon always convinced.

Lon Chaney Sr was known as “The Man Of A Thousand Faces”. He gained this name because he didn’t merely act, but because he was so convincing in the roles he took on that he disappeared into them. He was also quite often buried beneath layers of extraordinary makeup which he himself created and applied, even when he wasn’t made up, he remained one of those actors whose face never seemed the same from one role to another. He was also a very emotive actor and he really made audiences feel what his characters were going through on screen.

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Lon as Quasimodo. Screenshot by me.

I really love his makeup for The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923). He did a terrific job of creating Quasimodo’s facial deformity. I especially love the swollen eye and the disfigurement on the lower lip.

Lon also put himself (yet again)through great physical discomfort to play this role. It is a very physical role too, and he does lots of climbing and scenes where he is jumping and swinging off of things, he also captures Quasimodo’s physical effort and discomfort when walking. 

I also quite like his makeup in the film Shadows (1922). In this film he made himself up to be a Chinese man called Yen Sin. I have to say that while I find such a casting decision to be very unfortunate (why not hire a real Chinese actor for the role?)unlike Mickey Rooney’s absolutely atrocious portrayal of a Chinese man in Breakfast At Tiffany’s,Chaney’s portrayal actually does come across as being quite believable. He does a terrific job through his body language of conveying this characters very humble nature. I also like the stoop and dragging walk that he gave to his character. Lon brought Yen Sin to life and he didn’t play the man as a caricature.  

Lon was also especially good at portraying characters who were disabled, disfigured, or who were unlucky in love. He played these people in such an empathic way that he made us feel their pain, their desires, their rage, and also their very deep sadness. He could convey so much to us about them through facial expressions or a single glance.

Although Lon also played many able bodied characters throughout his career, it is the disabled and disfigured characters he played that he is best remembered for by audiences today. He makes us connect with these characters, and he makes us feel for them and experience what they are going through.

I also admire him greatly for the tremendous effort that he went to in order to portray disabled and disfigured characters. Forget actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Marlon Brando going the extra mile for their roles, because they have nothing on what Lon put himself through when he took on a role!  

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Lon as Blizzard, a double amputee, in The Penalty. Screenshot by me.

For example, in The Penalty (1920) Lon had his legs lifted up behind his back in a special harness. He then inserted his knees into two leather stumps, this then created the effect of him being a double amputee with leg stumps.

Lon taught himself to walk on his knees in a way that appeared natural during his scenes. This was extremely painful for him to endure during filming. I think the pain and discomfort certainly paid off though because it looks like he is a real amputee when you watch this film. 

The Penalty is also an interesting film because of Lon’s character, Blizzard. He is a man who has been left as a double amputee after a surgical mistake. Blizzard has become a powerful criminal and he is (quite understandably)a very bitter man who tries to dominate those around him. Blizzard is interestingly never presented as being someone left helpless or dependent on others because of his disability though; he is instead shown as being very independent, self-sufficient, strong and determined. He is also depicted as sometimes getting violent with those who displease him. The film features one of Lon’s best ever performances in my opinion. 

Lon famously created and applied his own makeup for many of the film characters he played. He had his own makeup kit, which he carried around with him in a fold out leather case. With the help of his makeup, Lon could make himself look old, frail, scarred, rough, ugly or scary. His makeup, coupled with the physical way he used his body in roles, is what makes him unique as an actor in my opinion. He alone decided how his characters should look and act and he alone got to create and apply that look. 

One of the most famous of all his makeup achievements was for the 1925 film The Phantom Of The Opera. In this film Lon plays the hideous masked phantom of the opera. The most famous scene in that film is the scene where the phantom is unmasked. He looks so scary that even the camera goes out of focus slightly when he is unmasked, it’s almost as though the camera is afraid of him too. He really did a remarkable job with the makeup I think.

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Lon as The Phantom. Screenshot by me.

I love his makeup for this character because he looks so gaunt and scary. His eyes are sunken and he looks in some ways like a skeleton. His nose is also extremely disfigured and stretched. It is a startling sight when you look at it. I like that he also plays the phantom as being very graceful and athletic physically.

Lon makes for quite a commanding screen presence in this role. He is totally terrifying and his hideous makeup helps a great deal. I also like how Lon ensures that we both fear and pity the phantom at various points throughout the film because of how he plays the role.

Lon’s portrayal of the phantom also allows us to see how emotionally tortured this man is. Lon manages to convey to us just how angry and sad the phantom is because he can’t even show his own face in public. 

Lon Chaney Sr was born in Colorado, on April 1st, 1883. His birth name was Leonidas Frank Chaney. He was exposed to disability at an early age because his parents, Emma and Frank, were both deaf mutes. His parents had met and fallen in love at a deaf school that had been founded by Lon’s grandfather in 1874. That school was The Colorado Institute For Mutes. The school still exists today under its current name of The Colorado School For The Deaf And Blind.

Lon could hear and speak normally. He learnt from an early age how to speak to his parents using a combination of sign language, facial expressions and pantomime. These skills served him well later when he became an actor, as he really had the ability to get his characters emotions and intent across to his audience.  

I have no proof of this being the case, but I never the less firmly believe that Lon’s regular access to two disabled people ensured that he grew up to have a greater understanding of, and a great compassion for, people in real life who were disabled and disfigured. To him there was nothing odd or frightening about his parents disability, they were simply his parents who were two people who just happened to be deaf. I feel that in some way he felt he should do what he could to make disability more present in everyday life and to help make people see disabled people for who they are, instead of ignoring them or acting awkwardly around them. 

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Blizzard out and about in The Penalty. Screenshot by me.

When Lon portrayed disabled and disfigured people on screen he played them in a way that showed audiences that these people were just like everyone else.

Lon’s films also show us that the disabled and disfigured can work, create, fall in love, and most importantly can exist just fine along with able bodied people.

Lon also depicts the incredible courage of these people in not hiding away from the rest of society. The people he played are often shown as trying their best to get on with their life as normal.

Lon also showed us the unique abilities that some disabled people can have, such as using other limbs to compensate for the loss of hands for example, as seen in Lon’s performance as the armless Alonzo in The Unknown

It’s also important for us to remember that in the era that Lon played these characters, disability and disfigurement were very much seen as being taboo subjects for many in society. Mentally ill and disabled people were often sadly shut away in homes and put out of sight and mind.

After WW1 ended there were also thousands of veterans returning home from the trenches; these men were suffering from terrible disfigurements and wounds and other people in society were quite shocked and frightened by how they looked. The films of Lon Chaney Sr gave a national and international face to disability and disfigurement. 

Lon’s portrayals of the disfigured and disabled brought all these people and their issues right out into the open for everyone to see. I think that making films featuring characters living with these issues was something that was very daring and brave for Lon and the directors to do at the time.   

Another thing Lon Chaney Sr was able to do so brilliantly, was to be able to convey to us the desperate longing of a character who was unlucky in love. In The Unknown, Laugh Clown Laugh, Tell It To The Marines and He Who Gets Slapped, Lon is able to show us just how much these very different men love women who, for various reasons, they can’t have and how they all end up loving these women from afar.  Unrequited love is a difficult pain to bear. I think that Lon does a super job of conveying his characters longing for the love they so desire. Watch his face in these films because the longing and pain over love are written clearly all over his face. 

In 1926, Lon Chaney made a film called Tell It To The Marines. He called it his own personal favourite film from amongst those that he made. In recognition of his remarkable and totally convincing performance as a tough as nails Marine Sergeant, Lon would become the first actor to be made an honorary US Marine. I thought that was so lovely the first time I read about this as that is a great honour to be given indeed. His being awarded like that speaks volumes to me about how much his performance must have resonated with the men who served in the armed forces at the time.   

In The Unholy Three (1930), Lon appeared in what would sadly end up being his final screen role. This would also be his first and only sound film. At the time he made this film he was very ill, and he was diagnosed with the lung cancer which would sadly kill him just a few months later. In his final film he delivered not one, but five excellent vocal performances. 

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Lon’s final film scene in The Unholy Three. Screenshot by me.

Had Lon lived, then I think he would have done very well as an actor in sound films. I think he could have been quite good in the gangster films of the 1930’s. He had a tough and intense look that would have suited gangster and Noir films well. His voice was very deep and strong and I can see no reason why he couldn’t have easily fit into sound roles. He also demonstrated in his final film that he had plenty of vocal talent as well as his physical acting skills. I’m sure that he would have also done well in radio productions.  

I find his final scene in The Unholy Three to be very moving. As Lon’s character says goodbye to some fellow characters, he is in a way saying goodbye to his film audience too. His final line in the goodbye scene is “That’s all there is to life. Just a little laugh, a little tear”. This line sums up his career to me. Throughout his career Lon Chaney Sr made us cry, he made us laugh, and he also showed us what it was to be human (to experience joy, sorrow, pain, tragedy etc)and he made us feel his characters emotions right along with him. Lon showed us that everyone has feelings and that everyone will experience happy and sad times in life. In life you will laugh, you will cry, and sometimes you may even do both at the same time. Lon Chaney shows us that everybody hides a pain as they go through life.

Lon is one of my favourite actors and he is someone who I dearly wish I could have met. I find him to be a fascinating individual and also a man who was well ahead of his time. I think he would be quite touched to see how his performances and makeup achievements are still admired and beloved today, over one hundred years after his death.  Thanks for all you achieved, Lon. Thanks also for giving disabled and disfigured characters a presence in cinema.   

What are your thoughts on Lon Chaney Sr?

Join myself and Ruth on the 5th and 6th May. Over these two days we will have more posts for you celebrating the life and career of Lon Chaney Sr.

 

 

 

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10 thoughts on “The Lon Chaney Sr Blogathon: The First Character Actor And His Portrayal Of Disabled And Disfigured Characters”

  1. Well said. I’ve seen more of Lon Chaney Jr.’s films than Sr.s (only a few), but even those few were enough to make me agree with you completely. Interestingly enough, Jr.’s first screen role was in 1931, picking up where his father left off (though Sr. wasn’t keen on Jr.’s becoming an actor, from what I read).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think this is one of your finest articles, Maddy. Your admiration for Lon Chaney and enthusiasm for his work shines through beautifully.

    Long before I saw Lon in the sound version of The Unholy Three, I was convinced I had heard him speak – so powerful were his performances.

    Very much looking forward to the blogathon this weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fab essay, Maddy! Thank you for sharing all this research with us.

    You make a good point about Lon’s portrayal of disabled characters, which certainly wasn’t done then – and things haven’t really improved much since, no? I also liked that you talked about his being made an honorary Marine. Apparently, MGM arranged for a US Marine from San Diego to play “Taps” at the studio on the day of his funeral.

    Great idea for a blogathon! I’m already learning quite a lot. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Ruth. I agree with you about the portrayal of disabled and disfigured people. What annoys me is that so many films and series don’t really focus on the personality of disabled characters, instead the focus is on them being disabled, almost as if their disability is what defines them, rather than their personality. Lon was certainly ahead of his time in trying to show people that disabled people are just like everyone else.
      I didn’t know that about his funeral. What a lovely thing to do.
      Thanks for agreeing to co-host with me. I can’t wait for day 2!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for a great article and also for co-hosting a fantastic blogathon. As much as I love Phantom Of The Opera and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, I’m so glad you also wrote about The Penalty which I find to be absolutely fascinating and powerful. My understanding is that it was that film which launched him into greater notice and placed him into better and larger roles. It is definitely one of his finest roles. I also agree with his incredible talent and sensitivity to others who were disabled is derived from the experience of his own parents. Additionally, I also feel that it lent weight to his abilities as an actor in terms of communicating and extending himself to understand others – thus the art of an actor to react to a situation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much. Glad to see some more love for The Penalty, I think that may well be his best performance.

      He was such a one of a kind actor. I love his ability to make us connect with the many varied characters he played. I admire him greatly for his portrayal of the disabled and disfigured, and I like how he made audiences see beyond the physical with afflicted people and see the person inside.

      Like

  5. Lon is my favorite silent film actor, and I know he will never disappoint me, no matter the role he was playing. Indeed, he put something new and different in every performance. And I agree with you that growing up with deaf parents made him a more tolerant and compassionate person towards disabled people.
    Thanks for hosting this great event!
    Kisses!

    Liked by 1 person

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