Lon Chaney Sr.
April 1, 2013
If you couldn’t tell who a compelling movie character was, it was probably LON CHANEY (Leonidas Chaney, 1883–1930) — master of disguise and symbol of attractive outlaws and sympathetic outcasts. For an artist who could be anyone, he was the distinctive first of many lines. He was a superstar character-actor in a golden age of leading men, an idol for the scarred and broken Americans who came back from — or simply came through — the First World War. A century before no one knew you’re a dog on the internet, the moviegoing majority would joke of some passing spider, “Don’t step on it, it might be Lon Chaney”; and decades before persona became a standby of our popular vocabulary, the “Man of a Thousand Faces” championed the possibility of being anyone while simultaneously being no one else. Modern-day body modification promises the potential of transformation and the liberation from imposed standards of acceptable identity — or the ability to perfectly conform to them, with a public though still implicit acknowledgment of the agony and sacrifice involved in either choice. Chaney put himself through a torture-chamber of temporary adjustments — painful prosthetics, contorting harnesses — to make you believe that he was phantom, “hunchback,” vampire. This was method-acting for the viscerally visual silent-movie era he dominated, a portrait of earthly pain that made him a living allegorical canvas of what burdens us. Chaney often portrayed phobic bogeymen and master villains; his peak years paralleled those in which Americans cheered superstar real-life gangsters’ exploits. They must have been tapping a common yearning to shatter social convention; audiences rooted for the outside world’s wrongdoers and Chaney’s wronged misfits in the secure assumption that the forces of order would put them down — while maybe shedding a secret tear. Chaney’s were the characters who lurked in the dark wings and briefly, blazingly stole the scene — an anybody who became all of us.
READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Psychonaut (1874–1883) and Modernist (1884–93) Generations.