Chaney, Lon was born on April 1, 1883 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States. Son of Frank H. and Emma Chaney. He was the child of deaf-and-mute parents. When Alonso was nine his mother was made an invalid by rheumatism. Inert, unhearing, and unable to reply, she was the first, tragic representative of the movie audience that Chaney had.
He became a traveling player and, by 1912, he drifted, broke, to Los Angeles and the Universal studio. Already, he carried a makeup box and liked to disguise himself, play jokes with false noses, and slip in and out of grotesque characters. Allan Dwan interpreted this as touting for work and began to use Chaney as an exotic heavy. His prowess with makeup often enabled him to play several parts within one film. From 1913 to 1917 he made over seventy films at Universal, from two- to five-reelers.
The directors he worked with included Dwan—Back to Life (13); Red Margaret—Moonshiner (13); The Lie (13); Discord and Harmony (13); The Embezzler (13); The Tragedy of Whispering Creek (14); The Forbidden Room (14); more often Joseph de Grasse—Her Bounty (14); Her Escape (14); The Threads of Fate (15); Maid of the Mist (15); The Stronger Mind (15); Bound on the Wheel (15); Quits (15); Grasp of Greed (16); The Mark of Cain (16); Place Beyond the Winds (16); and occasionally, Chaney himself—The Stool Pigeon (15); For Cash (15); The Oyster Dredger (15); The Violin Maker (15); and The Trust (15).
He hauled himself into public recognition as a San Francisco gangster at the time of the earthquake in Hell Morgan’s Girl (17, de Grasse), a melodrama in which Chaney was in love with a girl who loves someone else. His physical harshness often led to this theme of unrequited love, and it heralds a major theme of horror films whereby romantic and sexual frustration provoke misanthropic, demonic revenge. Chaneys ugliness is often interpreted as an effect of brutal society. In Phantom of the Opera, he says, “If I am a Phantom it is because man's hatred has made me so.”
In the next few years, he moved nearer the center of his own films, asserting himself as a star rather than a heavy'. That in itself was an innovation; the way in which Chaney’s stardom was so allied to mutation was a further novel tv. He made: A Doll’s House (17, de Grasse); and was von Tirpitz in The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin (IS, Rupert Julian); was encouraged by William S. Hart in Riddle Gawne (IS, Lambert Hillyer); and then met Tod Browning who gave him a part in The Wicked Darling (19). Universal was hostile to his claims for more money and Chaney went to Paramount for his first study in illusion; the sham cripple in The Miracle Man (19, George Loane Tucker). While there, he made two with Maurice Tourneur: Victory (19) and Treasure Island (20), in which he played George Merry and Blind Pew. He went back to Universal for Outside the Laic (21, Browning) in which he took two parts—a gangster and a Chinaman—and in which the Chi¬naman finally shoots the gangster. Clearly, the Jekyll and Hyde potential within metamorphosis was becoming evident.
After The Light in the Dark (22, Clarence Brown); Fagin in Oliver Twist (22, Frank Lloyd); All the Brothers Were Valiant (23, Irvin S. Willat); While Paris Sleeps (23, but actually filmed in 1920, Tourneur); and The Shock (23, Hillyer); he played Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (23, Wallace Worsley), an extraordinary immersion in deformity' and a great box-office success.
Chaney was now a major star, competed for by Universal and MGM. Irving Thalberg had admired him at Universal and eventually won him over to MGM. Chaneys work in the mid- and late- 1920s is now seldom seen. Yet he is surely one of the greatest imaginative artists of silent cinema, undoubtedly most stimulated by Tod Browning, but compelling under all circumstances: The Next Comer (24, Sam Wood); He Who Gets Slapped (24, Victor Sjostrom), a more conventional drama, about a scientist who becomes a circus clown when his wife leaves him; The Monster (25, Roland West); the very frightening The Unholy Three (25, Browning) in which he is a crook who dresses up as an old woman; The Phantom of the Opera (25, Rupert Julian), a true classic con¬taining one of the great horrific discovery scenes and in which Chaney moves with a stunning lan¬guor, as if he knew of Conrad Yeidt in Caligari; another Sjostrom drama. The Tower of Lies (25); The Blackbird (26, Browning), about a man who poses as brothers; The Road to Mandalay (26, Browning), as a one-eyed crook; a “straight” role as the sergeant in Tell It to the Marines (27, George W. Hill); Mr. Wu (27, William Nigh); as Alonzo the Armless in The Unknown (27, Browning); Mockery (27. Benjamin Christensen), another disguise story; superb as the detective and the vampire in London After Midnight (27, Browning); The Big City Sleeps (28, Jack Conway); West of Zanzibar (28, Browning); Laugh. Clown, Laugh (28, Herbert Brenon); Where East Is East (29, Browning); Thunder (29, Nigh); and his last film and first talkie, a remake of The Unholy Three (30, Conway).
His voice in that was as varied as his appearance, but he had cancer of the throat and died within a few months. Only forty-four, he had made over 140 films. He was to have played Draeula for Browning, a part that went to Bela Lugosi. It is perhaps the secret of his quality that Chaney could have played most of the parts taken by both Lugosi and Karloff, he had laid down the basis of horror. No one has surpassed his conviction.
Member Ferris Hartmann Opera Co.
Chaney has the sweet, slow stealth of a magician who lingers at the moment of revealing a transformation, to avoid any hint of trickery and to leave everything to poetic imagination. There is not a screen performer who so illustrates the fascination for audiences of the promise and threat of metamorphosis.To share in these plastic movements, to change our own lives, and to encourage the profound spiritual notion of our flexible identity.
Cinema has always depended upon the moment when screen creation and spectator begin to partake of one another. That description was not just the boast of a versatile makeup box, but one of the most alluring imitations to an audience. For the man in the cinema with the endlessly changing face is the spectator. Chaneys fluctuating appearance seethed with the audience’s lust for vicariousness.
The facts of his own life are as stark as the events of a scenario: they seem factually unlikely but imaginatively inevitable.
The story goes that he mimed his own experiences to entertain her. Perhaps that seems closer to the retrospective sentiment of the publicity machine than to actual family life. It may also be a sign of Chaneys discovering the imaginative truth in his own life. The facts of his screen work make it clear that he was a supreme pantomimist. That, again, seems unlikely, even if her plight made him conscious of the suffering in life, just as it created a yearning for miraculous cure or transformation.