The Hall of Hams # 19: Lon Chaney, Jr.
The Hall of Hams is my series on some of my favorite actors who have brought the art of melodramatic acting into the modern era.
Today is the birthday of good Creighton (1906-1973). If you haven’t already gleaned this, this series is about evenly divided between artists we genuinely admire, and those we merely have a humorous affection for. Lon Chaney, Sr. (whom we will be posting about in a few weeks) would be among the first type; Lon Chaney, Jr. is among the second. Contrary to what studio publicity departments and breathless fan ‘zines have trumpeted for decades, Chaney the son really did NOT inherit any of his famous father’s histrionic gifts. For a time, he worked as a business executive. When his father died in 1930, he began to pursue his dream of acting for films, at first under his own name, then after 1935, as Lon Chaney Jr – – because that’s good box office.
Onscreen, Chaney the Younger seemed awkward and slow-witted, a graceless and ungainly lummox without apparent charm or class. He was well cast in a couple of Hal Roach productions: Lenny, the mentally retarded brother in Of Mice and Men (1939), and a caveman in One Million B.C. (1940).
Today his best remembered role is probably the title character in The Wolf Man (1941), a film which has many virtues, but regrettably Chaney’s performance is not among them. One can’t help but be a little embarrassed for the United States in the film. English aristocrat Larry Talbot ships off to the States to go to college for a couple of years and returns to the family estate as — that? (We’re not up to the wolf yet. I’m talking about the lumbering oaf with the California accent, whom inexplicably looks, sounds and acts like a garage mechanic. His father is the dashing and articulate Claude Raines. Chaney’s character is said to be “handy with tools”, a character detail no doubt devised by the producers to explain why this member of the landed gentry resembles a janitor. (Perhaps he is a janitor — he seems to be wearing coveralls when he turns into the werewolf.)
This said, thanks largely to kickass screenplay and direction The Wolf Man was a huge hit, jumpstarting a whole new era in the history of Universal Horror. Chaney was at the center of it all, the only actor ever to play at least some variation on each of the famous monsters in the Universal Horror pantheon: The Wolf Man, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and (the son of) Count Dracula, in over close to a dozen films. At the same time, Universal starred him in a series of “Inner Sanctum Mysteries”, a series of soporific melodramas doubling as gothic murder mysteries adopted from a radio show. For these, the studio attempted to make him look suave by adorning his face with a pencil thin mustache, and dressing him in smoking jackets and ascots, but it was the proverbial “lipstick on a pig”.
Chaney was much better cast (as he was in film and tv throughout the 1950s and 60s) in Westerns. His rough-hewn voice and appearance made more sense playing ranch hands and lawmen (although he was occasionally also cast as Indians, unfortunately). High Noon (1952) is the best known of his western turns, but there were many dozens.
And, as the major studios steered away from gothic horror in its mainstream releases, Chaney continued to exploit his family name in countless low budget movies. Spider Baby (filmed 1964, released 1968) is one of the more interesting of these. One of the last made in the “old black and white”, it is also one of the first of the “new horror” (abandoning the supernatural; the “monsters” here are a family of murderous maniacs). Spider Baby is also one of the last films in which Chaney speaks. Towards the end of his career, throat cancer robbed him of his voice. Although he still continued to act. His last (rather sad) appearance is as a mute laborotory assistant in Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971).
As any fan of the Lonster knows, one of the few emotions he does well (in fact he does it almost exclusively) is “tortured”. It is the keynote of his performance in The Wolf Man. And he does it a lot here. In The Indestructible Man (1956), he plays an innocent man who not only survives his encounter with the electric chair, but emerges — how shall we say? — enhanced. There are worse ways to spend a wintry sunday than watching it!
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc