Ten Things You Didn’t Know: Lon Chaney Sr.

Compiled by Antoinette Rahn
He’s “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and one of the most prolific performer of the silent-film era. Enjoy a few fascinating facts about Lon Chaney Sr. and a clip from “The Phantom of the Opera”….

 

Lon Chaney Sr. – Movie Maestro

Lon Chaney Sr. _London After Midnight

American actor Lon Chaney Sr. on the set of London After Midnight, written and directed by Tod Browning. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

1 Long before the advanced movie-making magic of today, Lon Chaney (April 1, 1883-Aug. 26, 1930) approached acting with an incomparable ability to truly transform himself into characters that became legends of early cinema. Fusing his ability to apply movie makeup, tap into unfathomable feats of dexterity, and unparalleled commitment to the craft of storytelling, Mr. Chaney Sr. revolutionized character development. This was accomplished during a short 17-year career, which included appearances in more than 150 motion pictures (all silent films, with the exception of one ‘talkie’ — the remake of “The Unholy Three”).

2 Among Chaney’s most memorable performances were that of Quasimodo in the 1923 film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and Erik (the Phantom) in “Phantom of the Opera” (1925). However, Quasimodo was not Mr. Chaney’s first time as a hunchback. In his first recorded film role (1913) he played the part of Barnacle Bill, a fisherman who was hunchback, in “The Sea Urchin.”

Setting the Course for Move Magic 

3 An original stone lithograph one sheet (in Very Fine-plus condition) promoting the 1927 film “London After Midnight,” starring Mr. Chaney in the lead role of Scotland Yard Inspector Burke, realized $478,000 during a 2014 auction presented by Heritage Auctions.

4 Born Leonidas Frank Chaney to deaf parents, the Colorado-native’s earliest forms of communication included sign language, pantomime and exaggerated facial expressions. As his film credits reveal these well-honed skills were instrumental in his acting. *Prior to Mr. Chaney’s birth, his grandfather (Jonathan Ralston Kennedy) was involved in founding a school for the deaf in 1874. The school became what is today the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind.

Scarcity of Chaney Signed Memorabilia 

The Unknown one sheet

Movie one sheet promoting the film “The Unknown” (circa 1927), starring Lon Chaney Sr., which sold for $38,837 through Heritage Auctions in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

5 Not one to seek the limelight outside theater or film productions, items of memorabilia bearing a message from Mr. Chaney Sr. are scarce. However, during a 2010 auction presented by Profiles in History, a black and white portrait of him dressed as his character “Chuck Collins” from the 1928 film “The Big City,” with the inscription To Martha from Macon Always a friend Sincerely Lon Chaney, commanded $2,242.

6 Another segment of collectible with appeal to Mr. Chaney’s fans, as well book collectors and early film enthusiasts, are photoplay edition books. Most were published in tandem with films of the 1920s and 1930s, reprinting the original novel along with still images from the film. With so many films starring Mr. Chaney Sr. and other icons of this period considered “lost,” the photoplay books provide an opportunity to enjoy the storyline of these classic films, as well as intriguing dust jackets depicting scenes from the films, either in colorized photograph form, or as color art depicting main characters in a scene from the story. Most photoplay editions also include original film stills within the book’s interior.

Collecting Tip: Photoplay Books

[*From seasoned collector, film buff and numismatics expert and author Tom Michael: Photoplay editions can be found in antique shops, bookstores and at online auction sites including eBay with great regularity, and knowing what to look for makes a big difference. In most cases, books without

PhotoplayBook_LonChaneywb

Photoplay book of the 1924 silent drama film “He Who Gets Slapped,” starring Lon Chaney Sr. and Norma Shearer. The photoplay book was published in 1925. See No. 6 to learn more about photoplay books. (Book from the collection of Tom Michael)

dust jackets can be acquired for under $20, while books in original dust jacket command a wide range of prices from $25 to $5,000. Be careful when buying dust jacketed photoplays that look too good, as quality color reproduction scans of the dust jacket are often offered paired with original books. While collectible, the value of reproduction dust jackets is greatly reduced from an original.]

7 In his personal life, Mr. Chaney Sr., like most people, experienced near tragedy and triumph. His first wife was noted cabaret performer “Cleva” Creighton. The birth of their son in 1906 nearly ended in tragedy when the baby was born premature and unresponsive. Following unsuccessful attempts to revive the baby, reports state Mr. Chaney Sr. gathered up the child, hustled outside and immediately immersed him in the ice-cold waters of a nearby lake. The baby survived, and followed in his performer parents’ shoes. In 1939, using the stage name Lon Chaney Jr., he earned a New York Critics Choice Award for his performance of “Lennie” in the theater performance “Of Mice and Men.” He is best known for his iconic portrayal of Lawrence Talbot in the 1941 film “The Wolf Man.”

Beyond Stage and Screen

8 A gelatin silver matte portrait of Mr. Chaney as “Professor Echo,” from his only non-silent and ultimately his last film, “The Unholy Three” sold for $4,425 during a 2010 auction by Profiles in History.

LonChaney Sr._"The Big City"

Black and white portrait of Lon Chaney Sr. dressed as his character “Chuck Collins” from the 1928 film “The Big City,” with the inscription To Martha from Macon Always a friend Sincerely Lon Chaney, commanded $2,242. (Photo courtesy of Profiles in History)

9 Chaney Sr.’s talents and skills on the stage and screen also led to a few unique writing credits. The 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1929, includes Mr. Chaney’s input regarding the definition of motion picture make-up. In addition, his frequent performances of ‘outsider’ characters resulted in a significant fan base consisting of incarcerated individuals. This led Mr. Chaney Sr. to research and pen articles on the topic of treatment of inmates and prison operations (penology).

10 The “Phantom of the Opera” brought a flurry of positive reviews from the public and the press when it debuted in 1925. The New York World’s review of the film is an excellent example: “It is something of a pleasure to be able to sit back and hurl the word horrible at a motion picture star and still realize that the fellow is getting a dandy notice….If this boy (Chaney) doesn’t thrill you with his underground-kidnapping of the beautiful Parisian opera singer he will positively, and I guarantee it, send you home determined to leave the lights burning all night long.”

Sources

www.lonchaney.com, “The Films of Lon Chaney,” Heritage Auctions (www.ha.com), Profiles in History (www.profilesinhistory.com), PBS’ American Masters Film: Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces, blog.historygeo.com, “Colorado Biographical Dictionary.”

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