Leonidas Chaney was born April 1st, 1883. Lon, his stage name, was born to deaf parents. Learning how to communicate with them developed his skills of pantomiming and acting. Finding his talent lucrative, Lon joined vaudevilles and began perfecting his acting skills. His travels eventually landed him in California.
It was here that he started his second career as a film actor. He became famous for his ability to create human monsters, and his two most famous roles were The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, which were both silent films. He portrayed torture souls with macabre physical defects.
His talent to turn himself into a combination of likable grotesqueness was rare. He was labeled “A Man of a Thousand Faces.” What is even more impressive about his situation is in the 1920’s when he was creating the characters there were no makeup artists like today. Lon Chaney was his own makeup artist. He created the defects on himself.
Most actors disguised themselves with fake mustaches, wigs, or beards. Chaney’s ability to change his physical appearance caught the eye of directors. In 1920, he was cast in the movie Outside the Law where he played two characters. One of the characters was killed by his other character in a shootout.
The love story of Quasimodo the Hunchback intertwined with terror and drama peeked everyone’s curiosity and tugged at their heartstrings. The picture turned out to be one of the most profitable silent movies. It made what would be equivalent to 3 ½ million dollars in today’s money.
He achieved the deformities by using wax to build up portions of the face and paint and makeup to create shadows and marks.
The re-creation of Notre Dame and the cathedral was another monumental task for the time period.
The Movie Set
The Real Notre Dame
The Gallery of Kings and Portals
Along with the cathedral, the director wanted to include the “Gallery of Kings.” The Kings are 35 statues that are ten feet tall. See the video clip below where he is climbing the set version of the Gallery of Kings.
The Real Gallery of Kings and Portal
What is Left
The original film was made of cellulose nitrate. It wore out and disintegrated. Some of the film was disposed of by the studio. The film that is left is not the original but copies the studio made for people to view at their homes. There are no known original prints or negatives. The public domain version was recreated with the home quality prints. The advancement in film restoration has helped with the quality. It became public domain in 1951.
For example, to show how incredible Lon Cheney’s makeup skills were for the time, Anthony Quinn played the hunchback in 1956, 33 years later. His facial features were achieved with latex, makeup, and makeup artist. Watch this short clip below.
The Phantom of The Opera
Lon Cheney was involved in another unrequited love masterpiece. He played the phantom in 1925. Again, Cheney was his own makeup artist. To achieve the ghostly effects he used black paint around his eyes and nostril openings, which made him look like a living skeleton. His nose was turned up with tape and wire, which flared his nostrils even more. The rotten teeth are a false set created for him. Along with his pale skin and hair that appears to be plucked thin, Cheney’s appearance scared the audiences as you can imagine from the clip below.
Get to feel what the audience felt, and see what they saw for the first time. Watch The Unmasking with music.
Or when you have time you can watch the entire movie below. This version of the film is in the public domain.
The Life and Legend
Lon Cheney had a way of making you feel painful love and fear at the same time. All this was done with acting, music, and stage.
Cheney passed away in the fall of 1930 from a throat hemorrhage. His throat became infected when he inhaled an artificial snowflake during the filming of The Unholy 3. It was the only picture that he spoke in. He was also in the silent version of the movie.
In the previous year, he developed lung cancer, which had caused pneumonia and other infections. He was 46 years old at the time of his death.