One of the most striking numbers in MGM’s 1929 musical The Hollywood Revue is a spooky romp entitled: “Lon Chaney’s Gonna Get You If You Don’t Watch Out!” But audiences didn’t at all mind being “gotten” by Chaney—at the end of the 1920s, the top male box-office attraction was not Chaplin or Fairbanks but the protean actor best known for playing twisted and deformed characters. Chaney’s success was due not so much to the excellence of his acting as to his incredible physical malleability, his endless patience with makeup experiments of his own invention, and above all, to that rare quality: creative masochism. Chaney could project an aura of sympathetic vulnerability that audiences could take to their hearts in spite of the beasts and brutes he played. AMMI’s monthlong retro includes 16 of his pictures, with a first-rate new doc on Chaney by the film historian Kevin Brownlow.
Both of Chaney’s parents were deaf. As a child, he learned to use his body to express emotion when communicating with them—excellent training for the future silent-screen actor. He later toured as a song-and-dance man and went to Hollywood in 1912. Although Chaney made nearly 80 features, his reputation has rested primarily on two films: Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925). (Both are being shown in newly struck prints.) These period romances—Universal’s two most celebrated silent productions—are somewhat creaky affairs, though Phantom contains the classic unmasking scene and a number of superb Ben Carré sets. It was Chaney’s collaboration with Tod Browning, a director with a near obsessive flair for the macabre, that proved a major influence on his career. Between 1919 and 1929, the two men worked together 10 times; the retro includes five of Chaney’s Browning flicks.
Chaney and Priscilla Dean are hard-bitten slum characters in Wicked Darling (1919), an engaging crime programmer; The Unholy Three‘s unholinesses are carnival refugees: ventriloquist Chaney in granny drag, a moronic strong man, and a malignant midget disguised as a baby (the superb Harry Earles, later star of Browning’s Freaks), who unite to execute jewel thefts. The picture, from 1925, approaches greatness in the mastery with which cruelty and laughter are combined. In Black Bird (1926), mysterious figures skulk around in the fog amid beautifully designed Limehouse sets where Chaney appears in a cryptic double role—a cruel underworld leader and his benign, misshapen brother are one and the same person. The actor’s remarkable transformation scenes, including the mind-boggling climax, are executed without trick photography.
The most uncanny of Chaney/Browning collaborations, The Unknown (1927) is a deliciously morbid Grand Guignol story set in a Spanish circus where apparently armless Chaney tosses knives with his feet at apparently frigid Joan Crawford. Added to the oddest story ever filmed by a major studio, Chaney’s rendition of corporal distortion surpasses his feats in other films. His body here attains a sort of baroque state of grace—he uses his feet as hands while drinking, smoking, gesturing emotions, even plunging his head deep in his toes in meditation. Chaney drags himself serpentlike across the floor through the preposterous but hugely entertaining tale of revenge and adultery, West of Zanzibar (1928), as a paralyzed magician who lives in an African swamp festooned with cannibals.
Chaplin and Chaney were the last of the major stars to stick to silent pictures. Chaney finally relented and appeared in his only talking film, Jack Conway’s remake of The Unholy Three (1930), in which the actor not only speaks, but does so in five different voices. Almost a carbon copy of—but not a patch on—the original Browning version, the movie was highly successful. Clearly, Chaney could have gone on to a fine career in “audible” films—had he not died of cancer, barely a month after its release.