When silent actors fail to make movies in the sound era, the automatic assumption is that their skills did not carry over. This is not always a fair assumption. It does seem that Lon Chaney was uninterested in making sound films, as only Charlie Chaplin, of the great silent stars, took longer to make the transition—but shortly after he did, Lon Chaney died at age 47. He simply didn’t have a chance to continue his career beyond 1930. Alas, because of the general treatment of silent films with the coming of sound, fully two-thirds of his films are lost or in poor condition.
In the early days of Hollywood, makeup was not a professional skill. The idea of makeup for the screen had not really been developed yet, and most of the work was done for stage. Actors were expected to do their own makeup. Because of that, Chaney’s personal skills made him not merely unique but desirable. In his movie Outside the Law (missing several scenes and actually thought lost for fifty years), one of his characters actually shot and killed another character also played by Chaney. Chaney’s skill was undeniable, and no one else could duplicate it, especially given how relatively small his makeup case was.
And, of course, there were his horror films. This was a place where his skills with makeup were vital. His versions of the Phantom of the Opera and Quasimodo are probably the most iconic versions out there. The idea of movie monsters’ being defined in part by elaborate makeup goes specifically to Chaney; before him, the most you’d really get would be fake facial hair on the villains. (And, you know, blackface.) With Chaney, makeup began to come into its own.
All of this tends to overshadow the other work he did. Chaney was apparently a talented comedian and a skilled dancer, but that’s not what anyone remembers him for now. It seems his work on the screen started because he had to leave the stage after the attempted suicide of his first wife—which we’ll get into more in a couple of weeks, probably—and his special skills made him one of the silent greats. Skills, as is well known, he developed because his parents were deaf and he needed to communicate with them.
Chaney was a private person. He and his second wife had a cabin in the Sierra Nevadas where they lived most of the time. He almost never went to premieres; it seems Tell It to the Marines was the only time he broke that rule. People who knew him, including Noble Johnson and Joan Crawford, had positive things to say about him; Boris Karloff did, too, but Karloff had a tendency to make stories up and it’s actually uncertain the two ever met. Still, he was an enormously influential figure in film history even though he died young.