This month marks our second Horror Icon, again it’s an extension of the Baron’s Crypt Horror Icon segment, while not appearing each month it allows one to enjoy those that we cover, July 12th marks the date of Lon Chaney’s death in 1973, 45-years-ago. His life’s work showing all the vast characters he portrayed, then those he worked with such as Price, Haig, Abbott and Costello, and countless others, therefore as the anniversaries passed on without much fanfare, we at The Horror Times, reflects on his career and influence on the fans.
Who was Lon Chaney Jr.?
Well first, if you never heard of the name Chaney then most likely you’ve never seen any of the famed Universal Studios classic monsters, especially since Jr. is the son of the famed makeup artist and actor of even more classic horror tales, of the same name. He was born in February 1906, delivered premature and stillborn to parents Lon Chaney and Cleva Creighton, his father plunged him into an icy lake and shocked him to life, recall the year, lack of proper medical attention and the situation. His mother thought her son might be a deaf mute, because his quietness as a baby, and since Lon senior’s parents were deaf mutes. However, the banging of pans and pots their child, Creighton Tull Chaney, cried easily. His father forbade his involvement in the film business, though noted at 6-months old appeared on stage with his parents, nevertheless made his son live in the Spartan discipline, a very simple life, lack of personal items, this extending from the hard time and life they endured as a struggling vaudevillian to meager existence of an actor. His parents often argued, complained about finances and other issues, as a result his mother at the Majestic Theatre in Los Angeles, California, where Lon worked made a public suicide attempt swallowing poisonous corrosive mercury bi-chloride that failed to kill her, but ruined her vocal chords and put an end to her career. His father gained sole custody of him, who tried to raise him and work at his career, unable to strive equally in both he placed his son in boarding schools, but not before learning key makeup tips and important life lessons. Jr. trained in the trades, namely for plumber, metal and farm worker, always tough labor jobs apprenticeship, though secretively longed for the silver screen.
In, August of 1930, Lon Sr. suddenly passed on his son starving for any whiff of success, entered into the cinema life where he worked as a stuntman, at RKO Pictures under his birth name. He worked many bit roles in every possible genre from comedies to westerns for many studios namely Commodore Pictures, Ray Kirkwood Productions, and Paramount. Much conjuncture occurs when changed from Creighton to Lon, some insisted a producer insisted he change his name to cash in on the fame of the name while others state it came Universal Studios pressure eager renewal of the monster and horror flicks. I lean to the first theory, as he earned the lead role in Of Mice and Men in 1939, playing a hulking character named Lennie. This character likely linked him permanently in the stereotypical monsters to following his entire career.
What makes him a horror icon?
Universal Studios first had him star in Man Made Monster (1941), as Dynamo Dan the Electric Man, a role originally intended for Boris Karloff, which had a new batch of fans clamoring for him, and later that same year, earning the incredible role of Lawrence Talbot in The Wolf Man. The notable scenes came from an outcast son trying to gain his father’s acceptance (art reflecting real life) and the famed transformation sequence recalled fond memories of his father’s makeup expertise. Much to his disappointment he learned due to union rules he could not do his own makeup for the role. Shortly after the role the studio which made is father famous with films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), now had their new horror star. While he starred in many horror movies, he holds a special place in the Horror History for any monster fan, portraying the four major roles the Mummy, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein and Dracula, at this point, no one else achieved this luxury in a very short span of time, accomplished by 1943. This fact alone makes him a Horror Icon, however he tried and did at times shake the monster moniker, by playing character roles a trait he learned from his father and served well throughout his career. Especially in 1952, when he earned the part of Martin Howe in phenomenal Drama-Thriller High Noon (1952) which starred Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly.
Chaney Jr played Kharis the Mummy in The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) (a role he play two more times). Then again in 1942, he starred in The Ghost of Frankenstein, his first time playing the monster, before finishing the incredible ability to portray Dracula in Son of Dracula (1943). He continued to pump out low budget horror for several years before becoming popular once more with another generation of fans in 1957 when Universal released the monster movies to television and the legendary Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine focused on his films. This led to Universal releasing a Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) a film biography with some fictionalized Hollywood embellishment of Lon Chaney, and deeper connection to the fans that the son could speak volumes about his father.
In later years, he battled throat cancer and chronic heart disease among other ailments after decades of heavy drinking and smoking, which led to his death, eerily similar to his father. His final horror film came from director Al Adamson called Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). Chaney portray curiously enough a mute henchman (as his vocals thoroughly ruined), an interesting circle in his family, recalling that his grandparents were mute too. On July 12, 1973, Chaney died, but his memory and life’s work lives for the fans to thoroughly enjoy and pass on his contributions to future generations of horror fans.
Why should horror fans of today care?
Simply these movies never fall out of favor with the fans, everything related to the Universal Monsters sells quickly and often, vast collections of items, and in August 2018 likely the unlimited Blu-ray package for the fans of this incredible time in Horror History unleashes itself. It’s called Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection on 24 Discs, and the demand for it appears on every horror fan’s wish list. The werewolves of today owe credit back to Chaney Jr’s portrayal in The Wolf Man, a man who tries to help others only becoming a damnation to all in society, a role reprised by many actors in the industry. Another well-known actor, Sid Haig speaks about him often and how he wanted to be treat just as another actor, not with the pomp and circumstances, just average, especially about the film Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told (1967), which Chaney sung the quirky theme song.
Like father like son… a troubling relationship, but in death equal Horror Icons, both shining examples of how different paths in life led them to enduring horror careers and lasting monsters for the fans to always enjoy.
List of Selected Filmology:
- Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971)
- Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told (1967)
- Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967)
- Gallery of Horror (1967)
- House of the Black Death (1965)
- Witchcraft (1964)
- Face of the Screaming Werewolf (1964)
- The Haunted Palace (1963)
- The Devil’s Messenger (1961)
- The Alligator People (1959)
- The Cyclops (1957)
- The Black Sleep (1956)
- Indestructible Man (1956)
- The Black Castle (1952)
- Bride of the Gorilla (1951)
- Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
- House of Dracula (1945)
- The Frozen Ghost (1945)
- House of Frankenstein (1944)
- The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
- The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)
- Ghost Catchers (1944)
- Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
- Son of Dracula (1943)
- The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
- The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)
- The Wolf Man (1941)
- Man Made Monster (1941)