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Lon Chaney Sr.

Lon Chaney’s life started out unlike any other actors. Born to deaf-mute parents he soon learned the value of pantomime, a skill that would earn him a special place in Hollywood history. Being teased by children at school hardened him to the true nature of a sometimes cruel world and allowed him to later become an actor with a weird sense of humor and a strong bend toward realism.

Coming to Hollywood and struggling with getting a job as an extra he soon learned how the studios worked. They set out a board that day with the types of people they needed. From those waiting to be cast as extras they choose people who best looked like the character.

One day they would be looking for a man with a scar down his face. Chaney noticed several in the group and the one with the most livid scar was taken. The next day the studio wanted a man with one leg, another a man with a patch. They wanted elderly men, men with tattoos and other marks. Whatever the script called for, the call-board asked for.

Chaney had become a master at makeup years earlier and he soon realized that what the studio was looking for he could transform himself into. Every morning he would read the board, sit down on the bench and proceed to make himself into that character. His transformation was so complete he began to get work regularly. The man hiring him had no idea that he was hiring the same man every day thanks to Chaney’s masterful makeup skills.

In time, MGM studio head, Irving Thalberg realized that the same man who had played a one legged pirate was the same man who’d had a gash down his cheek the week before. Appreciating Chaney’s strong acting talent as well as his magical skills with paint, putty and spirit gum, he signed Chaney to a full contract. There would be no more call lines and no more extra work. Chaney had become a star.

His work is a maze of strong drama, suspense and the macabre. He was a master of pantomime who knew how to give the audience everything he had. He was also a talented athlete who could contort his body into any position and make it seem natural for the character. He designed his own contraptions for each movie and brought a performance to the screen that has been unequaled.

A List of His Most Memorable Rolls:

The Penalty (1920)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
The Unholy Three (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)

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Years ago people were known for more than their last picture. Some were academy award winners, some weren’t but they all had something in common. They were remembered for who they were because they were somebodys.

In the teens and 20’s you didn’t always have to say an actors name for someone to know who you were talking about. If you said, ‘the tramp,’ everyone knew you were referring to Charlie Chaplin, just as Buster Keaton came to be known as, ‘the great Stoneface.’ Mary Pickford was, ‘America’s sweetheart,’ and Clara Bow will always remain, ‘the It Girl.’ John Barrymore was known as, ‘the great profile’ and Lon Chaney Sr. was, ‘the man of a thousand faces.

But it wasn’t just nicknames that reminded us of who they were, there were the trademarks. Laurel and Hardy had us rolling with their famous antics regarding their hats. Who would Groucho be without his glasses and cigar or Harpo without his horn? Would we feel the same way about Mae West if she didn’t sashay into the room and tell us to, “Come up and see me sometime.”

There was a mystic in those early years of Hollywood. It was a time when character actors ruled. Though today we might not recognize the names of Edward Brophy, Guy Kibbee, Thelma Ritter, Virginia O’Brian or Nat Pendleton, we will recognize their faces on the silver screen. They’re the ones who brought comedic relief during those staggeringly serious moments.

Where have these treasures disappeared too? Where are the Valentino’s of the world? Will we see another Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire team again? What happened to Mel Blanc’s type of cartoons? Where is the real Hollywood and what do we have to do to get it back?

Nothing is the same as it once was. What once was, is now lost.

___ J. R. R. Tolkien

            What say you? Do you feel cheated? Do you feel had?

If you live in the Chicagoland Area, voice your opinion. Go to the Portage Theater on Milwaukee Ave. for the next 6 consecutive Friday nights. They will be hosting the Silent Film Society of Chicago’s Silent Summer Film Festival. I guarantee a night to remember. Be sure to arrive early and listen to the live jazz bands performing hits of a bygone era. I know you’ll enjoy it and that you’ll have the time of your life when that organ starts pumping to accompany the movie.

Silent Film Society of Chicago

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