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the History of Horror Movies - the 1920s

Leonides Chaney was born in 1883. Being the child of deaf parents, Lon learned sign language and pantomime at a young age. This would suit him well when he embarked on a career in theatre and vaudeville. By 1903, Lon was acting in small plays and on one tour through Oklahoma City, Lon met Frances Cleva Creighton, a young actress and singer who he would marry later the same year. Together they would tour in plays and vaudville shows, eventually winding up in California where Lon became the stage manager of the Majestic Theater. By 1913, the marriage was in a shambles and Cleva, in a fit of rage, entered the Majestic Theatre and on stage swallowed a vial of mercury bichloride. The suicide attempt failed, but it forever ruined Clea's vocal cords and thusly, her career. They divorced the following year.

above: Lon Chaney applies make-up for one of his roles

Around this time, Chaney began acting in films and as an experienced makeup man, he put this talent to good use as a contract player for Universal Pictures. He gained in popularity during the next few years, however - unable to secure a raise, he left Universal in 1918. In 1919, he landed a role in the Miracle Man for Paramount.

In the Miracle Man, Chaney is a con man who plays a phony cripple that pretends to be cured by the title character played by Joseph Dowling. Chaney used his ability as a contortionist to twist his body into the cripple so that he could unwind for the camera. The role got rave reviews and Chaney was on his way to becoming a star.

Chaney was also becoming known for being able to take on such roles, use his own make-up to achieve new faces and able to with stand what must have been excruciating pain in some films. The Penalty in 1920 is one of these films where Chaney had his legs bound tightly behind him so he could appear to be a double amputee below the knees. This reportedly led to broken blood vessels in Chaney's legs.

By 1923 Lon Chaney was star billing and he landed the role of Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Using his own make-up techniques he entirely changed his appearance. He wore a 50 pound hump on his back and a harness that would prevent him from standing up. The film was a huge success and Universal began looking for another horror property for Chaney to star in. They found it in 1925 with the Phantom of the Opera

Phantom of the Opera, directed by Rupert Julian, was everything gothic horror was about. Grand Guignol Theatre. It featured a beautiful opera star played by Mary Philbin and a mysterious Svengali named Erik played by Lon Chaney. The film contained what up to that time was possibly the most horrific scene ever filmed, the unmasking of the Phantom. This classic scene (pictured below) is noted as the true birth of movie horror. During this scene women allegedly fainted or ran from the theatre from fright.

above: the famous unmasking scene from Phantom of the Opera
left: the original Belgian movie poster for Hunchback of Notre Dame 1923

Chaney who had by now become known as "the Man of a Thousand Faces" was now one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood and he continued to make his mark on such films as the Unholy Three (1925) where he played 3 roles; Road to Mandalay (1927); Mr Wu (1927) as both a young Cinaman and his ancient Grandfather co-starring the sexy Anna May Wong; the Unknown (1927) with a young Joan Crawford and While the City Sleeps (1928). In 1930 he starred in his final film, a remake of the Unholy Three with sound. The film revealed Chaney had a rich voice perfectly suited for sound films..

During the filming of the Unholy Three in 1930, Chaney developed throat cancer, which would lead to complications of a throat hemmorage and he died on August 26, 1930. According to most film historians, Lon Chaney was slated to star in the Dracula movie that was to be soon underway directed by Tod Browning who also directed some of Chaney's best films. One can only wonder what the Man of a Thousand Faces could have done with this role or Frankenstein, another film he was reportedly slated to star in. To this day, the Man of a Thousand Faces is one of the most important figures in horror film history.

above left: lon Chaney as the Hunchback of Notre Dame 1923
above right: London After Midnight 1927
right: Lon Chaney circa 1925
bottom left: as the Phantom of the Opera 1925
bottom right: the Unholy Three climactic scene 1925
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