Chaney, Alonso "Lon"

Chaney, Alonso “Lon” (1893–1930)

(pop culture)

Alonso “Lon” Chaney, the actor known for his numerous extraordinary characterizations in over 100 silent movies during the first decades of the twentieth century, was the first actor to play a vampire in an American feature-length movie. He was born on April 1, 1893. Both of Chaney’s parents were deaf, and during most of his early life his mother was bedridden. Chaney developed his skill as a silent movie actor by communicating to his mother through mimicry and gesture every day. He was still a boy when, in 1901, he began his acting career on the stage. He played a variety of roles and became fascinated with makeup and its interaction with characterization.

Chaney’s first film role was in 1913 in Poor Jake’s Demise. Then Universal Pictures signed him to an exclusive contract (for $5.00 a day), and through the rest of the decade he assumed roles in over 100 films. He was first promoted as a star in 1919 when he played a fake cripple in The Miracle Man. He went on to his greatest successes as Quasimoto in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and in the title role of The Phantom of the Opera (1925).

Chaney worked on occasion with director Tod Browning. Their first collaboration was in 1921 in Outside the Law. Browning’s alcoholism prevented their steady association. It was Chaney’s second encounter with alcoholism; earlier he had divorced his wife and taken custody of their son because of her addiction to the bottle. In 1925 Chaney signed a long-term contract with MGM. Soon afterward he again teamed with Browning to do The Unholy Three. He would return to Universal only once, for The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

In 1927 Browning and Chaney teamed for the last time in London After Midnight. Chaney played a double part as a vampire and a police inspector from Scotland Yard. As the police sleuth, Chaney initiated a scheme to uncover a murder. He assumed the role of a vampire in order to force the real murderer to reveal himself. Once that occurred, Chaney took off the elaborate makeup and revealed himself as the inspector.

Although London After Midnight turned out to be his only vampire role, this was almost not the case. In 1930 he made the transition to sound in a new version of The Unholy Three, directed by Jack Conway. Meanwhile Browning had moved back to Universal, which had finally attained the film rights to Dracula. The studio announced the reunion of Browning and Chaney for the film. Unfortunately, Chaney had developed cancer, and before he could even be signed for the part he died on August 26, 1930. In 1957 his life was brought to the screen in Man of a Thousand Faces with James Cagney in the title role.

Sources:

Blake, Michael F. The Films of Lon Chaney. Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 2001. 304 pp.
———. A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney’s Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures. Lanham, MD: Vestal Press, 1995. 398 pp.
Flynn, John L. Cinematic Vampires. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Company, 1992. 320 pp.
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