Silent film star, horror legend, and pioneer of special effects make-up Lon Chaney died on this day back in 1930. He was just 47 years old.
Hollywood’s finest character actor was best known for his roles in films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. Chaney had an uncanny ability to transform himself into characters using makeup techniques he both developed and applied. A master at making his characters come to life, he was nicknamed the Man of a Thousand Faces.
Playing the role of the Phantom, Chaney achieved the title characters creepy upturned nostrils by attaching a strip of translucent material to the tip of his nose with spirit gum, he then ran a fine wire from that spot to an area he anchored under his bald cap. The constant pulling often gave him nosebleeds but this is just one of many stories proving, that with Lon, the adage great art comes from great pain was true… and that’s just the beginning.
In addition to transforming his face, Chaney would also adapt his body to roles. His hunchback Quasimodo was accomplished by a pair of huge shoulder pads and a series of leather straps, those items – along with a breastplate – comprised a full body harness of Chaney’s own design that forced a forward slump.
In the film “The Penalty” Chaney became a legless man thanks to bending at the knee and strapping his lower legs to his thighs, with bandages and belts under his customs wardrobe. The shoes that matched this look were leather “stump” shoes, custom made to fit his kneecaps.
During an interview Chaney was once asked about these great feats of physicality, with a reporter questioning, “Do audiences demand such torture, is it necessary for great acting?” Lon quipped, “Acting? This isn’t acting. This is truth. I’m not faking a bundle of straw on my back. I am a hunchback. I know how it feels. Let them know, too, in the audience. It may teach them compassion for such poor bewildered souls.”
On the set of the film, “Thunder in Winter” the look of falling snow was acheived by cascading cornflakes cereal down on to the actor. Apparently some of these breakfast bits lodged in the actor’s throat causing an infection to his esophagus which resulted in a hospitilization. While there, he underwent three blood transfusions and appeared to be recovering but suffered a midnight throat hemorrhage and passed away. His death shocked Hollywood. Physicians later announced the underlying cause of death was carcinoma of the bronchus. Lung cancer, but legions of fans insisted the silent film star was silenced once and for all because of that incident on set.
Either way, Lon Chaney was a man that truly suffered for his art.
(Associated Press) Beware Everything is Out to Get You. The Charlotte News. July 14, 1979. Charlotte, North Carolina
(Associated Press) Man of Thousand Faces Takes But One to Grave. Los Angeles Times. August. 27, 1930.
Rogers St. Johns, Adela. Love, Laughter and Tears: The Hollywood Story. December 10, 1950. The San Francisco Examiner. San Francisco, California
(WNS) Lon Chaney’s Death Recalls Stagehand to Star. August 27, 1930. Star Tribune. Minneapolis, Minnesota.