When it comes to actors fully losing themselves in a characterisation, few can match the dedication and talent of Lon Chaney. A Vaudeville performer by trade, Chaney’s skills in physical pantomime and exaggerated facial expressions made him an ideal fit for the burgeoning film industry of the early 20th century.
To distinguish himself from other actors, Chaney found that he could carve out a niche by transforming himself with the power of makeup. Chaney’s makeup skills were unparalleled in his day, utilising pioneering techniques that continue to influence and inspire actors and artists even now. More than anything else, Chaney could still emote through even his heaviest disguises, imbuing his litany of monsters, ghouls, and deformed creatures.
To celebrate the legendary actor’s birthday, we’re looking back at his best, most engrossing, and most startling on-screen transformations. Whether it was phantoms, fabled villains, or humans, Chaney could bring any subject to life.
While his most prominent work lasted only around a decade, the impact he had was unmatched. Here are seven of his greatest on-screen characters.
Lon Chaney’s greatest on-screen transformations:
The Penalty (1920)
Initially a bit player for various studios, Chaney’s reputation for unique transformations wasn’t solidified until he was a given a role that allowed him to dramatically transform his physical appearance. For his role in The Penalty, Chaney accomplished something that was nearly impossible: to realistically portray a man with no legs.
Within the context of the film, Chaney’s character, Blizzard, is a madman seeking revenge on the doctor who caused him to become a cripple. His character is also a communist looking to loot the entire city of San Francisco because this was the tail end of the United States’ first red scare, after all. Besides his remarkable physical feats, Chaney conjures a sense of sympathy for his villain, a trait that would carry over into his future characterisations.
Oliver Twist (1922)
In Charles Dickens’ legendary novel, Oliver Twist comes under the tutelage of the incorrigible and miserly Fagin, a squalid and decrepit creature who has the ability to command a legion of children to become pickpockets and thieves. Fagin’s identifiable qualities include manipulation and a haggard appearance, two specialities of Chaney’s acting ability.
Despite not yet being 40, Chaney’s skills with makeup cause him to appear as an elderly and utterly unkempt old man, terrifying in his matted hair and snaggletooth. One of Chaney’s best traits was becoming utterly unrecognisable, and his take on Fagin requires you to convince yourself that it really is Chaney under those layers.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
One of Chaney’s most famous roles, along with Phantom of the Opera, his take on Quasimoto in The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the apotheosis of the actor’s brilliance when it came to playing creatures. Deformed and deranged, Chaney’s Quasimoto is nonetheless kind-hearted, sympathetic, and in desperate need of human connection, fully communicating the film’s themes of looking beyond appearance.
Chaney adds as many emotional layers to the character as he does physical ones, illustrating his own mastery of acting outside of his phenomenal makeup skills. His portrayal of Quasimoto is the point where all of his skills in the film industry were combined for a truly iconic performance.
Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The other commonly-cited Chaney performance, his Phantom, is grotesque, ghoulish, and utterly terrifying. The unmasking scene, where Chaney’s skeletal face is revealed for the first time, still has a palpable unnerving quality to it, one that can still inspire jumps nearly a hundred years later.
Perhaps that is what makes Chaney’s abilities so unique: the fact that his work still holds up, that his makeup and acting skills can still entrance and disturb in equal measure, are indicative of a man of a singular talent. More than any other film, Phantom of the Opera is the work that cemented Chaney’s status as a film icon and solidifies the notion that he’s still worth celebrating a full century after its release.
The Unknown (1927)
By the mid-1920s, Chaney had found a kindred spirit in director Tad Browning. Known today primarily for his horror masterpiece Freaks, Browning and Chaney both felt that villains, especially those who were deformed or differentiated humans, were inherently made up of desires and motivations that weren’t unequivocally evil but rather understandable and relatable.
Paired up with Joan Crawford during her initial run of success, The Unknown plays into Chaney’s transformative reputation. An armless circus freak who actually has arms, but hides them due to the identifiable features that would associate him with crimes, Chaney goes through a redemptive arc before nobly sacrificing himself at the film’s conclusion. Come for the odd pairing of screen legends, stay for the oddly moving portrayals.
London After Midnight (1927)
The image of Lon Chaney is often one of monstrous intent. The makeup he utilises morphs him from a standard looking human being to an unnerving monster. Of all of his characters, none are as uncannily human yet unmistakably monstrous as The Man in the Beaver Hat from London After Midnight.
The great tragedy of London After Midnight is that it contains one of Chaney’s most iconic characterisations that will likely never be fully seen again. The film was one of the hundreds of movies lost in the 1965 MGM vault fire, and attempts to recover footage have been largely fruitless. Still, Chaney’s image of sharpened teeth and a terrifying gaze will live on forever.
Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)
One of his last major features before his untimely death in 1930, Laugh, Clown, Laugh is a departure for Chaney that still stays within his macabre wheelhouse of characterisations. Instead of the expected horror of a clown-focused film, Chaney’s interpretation of Tito the clown is steeped in sadness and emotional conflict, bringing the acting chops that Chaney always possessed to the fore.
What Laugh, Clown, Laugh does better than any other Chaney film is subvert the expectations that he had built up over his career. Despite his unnerving appearance, there’s nothing nefarious or evil about Tito, just as Chaney himself was a kind-hearted man who revelled in the ability to transform himself into any guise he pleased.