Today would have been Lon Chaney’s 130th birthday (he died relatively young, of lung cancer, in 1930). Despite having been in approximately 160 silent films and earning a reputation as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” a nickname that was memorialized as the title of a 1957 Chaney biopic, his groundbreaking work in character acting grows more obscure with each passing year.
Chaney was so deeply immersed in the characters he portrayed that he was quoted as saying, “between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney” — making him something like the Gary Oldman of his time, rather than a flashier acting genius like Daniel Day-Lewis. He pushed the physical limitations of his body and revolutionized makeup in his grotesque roles as Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Erik in The Phantom of the Opera, but was also able to tap into the audience’s deepest desires and depict the tragedy of unrequited love in a way that moved viewers even while his makeup would terrify them. In honor of Chaney’s birthday and remarkable achievement, we’ve compiled a crash course in his most vital roles.
The Early Years
Born in 1883, Chaney grew up in Colorado and was raised by two deaf parents, so his nonverbal communication was especially advanced. He quickly realized his skills in pantomime and worked in Vaudeville until his wife, young singer Cleva Creighton, tried to commit suicide and created a scandal that forced him to look for work in a new field: film.
He started his screen-acting career in 1912, but it wasn’t until 1917 that Chaney had his first big breakthrough in The Piper’s Price with Dorothy Phillips and William Stowell. The three teamed up and went on to make 14 films in two years, with Chaney and Stowell alternating who would play the villain and who would play the love interest.
Hame Bozzam in Riddle Gawne (1918)
Many of Chaney’s films (including this one) were lost, so, unfortunately, it’s difficult to track his growth as an actor prior to his major successes. But Riddle Gawne, a Western starring William S. Hart, featured Chaney as a supporting actor and proved that he could, indeed, do wonders as a character actor. The fragment above, one of the few that survived, displays a quick snippet of one of his subtler roles.
The Frog in The Miracle Man (1919)
In a way, this was Chaney’s true breakthrough, because, for the first time, audiences could see his skills as a makeup artist. He played a contortionist gang member, and his initial audition for director George Loane Tucker was legendary as it supposedly left Tucker “shaken.” (Above, a photo of Chaney before and after his makeup transformation.)
Blizzard in The Penalty (1920)
Now here’s a real example of commitment to a character: for his role as an amputee gangster, Chaney, against his worried studio doctors’ wishes, bent his legs and essentially walked on his knees (which had buckets tied to them), with his lower legs tied back. The illusion was so convincing and so troubling for audiences that a clip (now lost) had to be released assuring that he did not, in fact, amputate his legs for the part.
Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
One of his most well-known roles, Lon Chaney’s Quasimodo required him to wear a 70-pound hump and so much body padding and latex that he could only walk slouched over. Having read the novel and marked up details about the protagonist’s appearance, Chaney sought to make his character as accurate to the original text as possible, and — as evidenced by the heartbreaking scene above — his mission was elegantly accomplished.
Paul Beaumont in He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
After suffering from betrayal in his career and love life, inventor Paul Beaumont suffers a particularly humiliating moment in which a baron slaps him and is inspired to take on a role in a circus as a clown who lets other clowns slap him. Beneath the heavy makeup, Chaney was still able to portray the sheer tragedy of the role, especially in the clip above, where Paul is stabbed and dies amongst the people who love him.
Professor Echo in The Unholy Three (1925)
Later made into a talkie in 1930 (Lon Chaney’s only speaking role), The Unholy Three tells the story of three carnival performers who disguise themselves as different family members and proceed to commit big robberies. Chaney’s role was that of a smooth-talking ventriloquist disguised as an old lady, making him something of an original Mrs. Doubtfire.
Erik in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
So terrifying was Chaney’s makeup for the deformed opera ghost that some audience members reportedly fainted and had to be carried out of theaters during the unmasking scene above. In the Gaston Leroux novel, Erik’s deformity was described as making his face look, quite literally, like the face of death, with yellow eyes and a hole for a nose. Chaney did his best to replicate this by adding spacing devices to flare his nostrils, taping the top of his nose up, and wearing false teeth with attachable discs to change the shape of his cheeks.
Alonzo the Armless in The Unknown (1927)
In this story, Chaney played a criminal posing as an armless circus performer named Alonzo the Armless. The twist is that Alonzo starts to fall for Nanon, his partner in the show, but struggles with his feelings for her. If she embraces him, he risks her feeling his real arms, which are bound to his torso. As you can see above, each and every the layer of this complicated character come through in Chaney’s performance.
Edward C. Burke/Man in a Beaver Skin Hat in London After Midnight (1927)
Playing a vampiric killer disguised as an inspector, Chaney wore sharpened teeth and monocle wire fittings, which gave him that chilling, glowing-eyes look. The film was the highest grossing collaboration between the actor and his frequent collaborator, director Tod Browning, who would go on to make the cult-classic 1932 horror movie Freaks.
Professor Echo in The Unholy Three (1930)
As mentioned above, this remake was Chaney’s first and only talking role, providing a brief hint at what the man known for his makeup and movements could have done with the additional tool of his voice.