“A man only shows his true face when he is on the lavatory or on his deathbed”… Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
I know, I know, that title is a gross oversimplification… but there’s a lot of gross stuff on this blog and we’ve never knowingly let factual niceties get in the way of a snappy headline. Suffice to say, although Lucio Fulci had already compiled an impressive CV by 1979, the director would be remembered very differently today had he not been called upon to outdo Tom Savini’s gory handiwork in George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (1978), which he did (with the sterling assistance of Giannetto de Rossi) in Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)… and Savini, by his own admission, would never have embarked upon his illustrious career in make up FX (the same is allegedly true for Dick Smith and Rick Baker) but for a youthful viewing of the picture under consideration here, directed by Joseph Pevney in 1957.
In “Hollywood’s Jubilee Year”, Universal deemed it fitting to make a biopic of one of the silent era’s greatest stars (in one of the bonus featurettes on this disc, Kim Newman reminds us that Lon Chaney was right up there with Charlie Chaplin), casting the scarcely less stellar and virtually as versatile James Cagney to play him. It goes without saying that Cagney gives a characteristically committed and nuanced performance, but much has been made of the difficulties posed for the film’s principal writers, Ralph Wheelwright and R. Wright Campbell, by Chaney’s supposed secretiveness (publicists had dubbed him “the Man of Mystery” before the “Thousand Faces” gag stuck). The received wisdom is that this obliged them to fabricate much of the film’s narrative but in fact the salient details of Cheney’s biography were well known (and in at least one respect, notorious) and apart from one contentious passage, the film takes only minor liberties for dramatic impact. Nor does it skirt around the notorious bits.
Leonidas Frank Chaney was born on April Fool’s Day 1883, to deaf parents. Obliged to converse with them via sign language, he developed pantomime skills that he successfully parlayed into a Vaudeville career that lasted from 1902 to 1913. On April 30th that year, backstage (not on stage, as depicted in Pevney’s picture) at the Majestic Theatre, LA, his estranged wife, the former Francis Cleveland Creighton (aka “Cleva”), drank a bottle of mercuric chloride in an apparent suicide attempt that only succeeded in wrecking her vocal chords and ending her singing career. Lon’s own theatre run was terminated by the scandal over this incident and the subsequent divorce, prompting him to try his luck in Hollywood’s nascent motion picture industry, where his work ethic, versatility and mastery of screen make up (a discipline he effectively invented) rapidly propelled him to stardom, notably for our purposes in such genre milestones as Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923), Rupert Julian’s The Phantom Of The Opera (1925) and such Todd Browning classics as The Unholy Three (1925) and his 1927 brace, The Unknown (the obvious template for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre, 1989) and the now lost London After Midnight.
Pevney, subsequently a prolific TV director, convincingly ascribes Chaney’s driven and seemingly masochistic (in terms of the prosthetic discomforts he was prepared to endure) approach to his career to a desire for financial security that would enable him to take custody of his son Creighton, the future Lon Chaney Jr. of Wolf Man fame. His success in this endeavour was assisted by his subsequent marriage to Hazel Hastings. Chaney completed his first talky, Jack Conway’s remake of The Unholy Three, before succumbing to throat cancer in 1930. Hollywood legend has it that had Lon lived, he rather than Bela Lugosi, would have played The Count in Tod Browning’s Dracula the following year…
… it’s a life story rich in pathos and irony, of which Pevney and his screen writers take full advantage. It seems reasonable to connect Chaney’s sympathetic portrayal of monstrous outsiders with the prejudice he and his parents faced. The film’s one jarring misstep (useful in terms of melodrama but unforgivable in a biopic) is the truly cringe-inducing (and completely fictitious) scene in which Cleva (Dorothy Malone) is presented to her in-laws and disgustedly rejects them. A more accurate account of the breakdown in the Chaneys’ marriage would include her youth, insecurity and incipient alcoholism. Malone’s Cleva fears that her son Creighton will be born a deaf mute but the real life Lon Jr’s most disadvantageous inheritance from his parents turned out to be his mother’s drink problem.
The other significant bone I’d pick with this picture is that Chaney’s principal collaborator (and fellow former vaudevillian) Tod Browning remains conspicuous by his absence throughout, while we see rather too much of Universal / MGM nabob Irving Thalberg, as portrayed by former sports wear executive / future movie mogul Robert Evans. If you’re unaware of the bizarre circumstances surrounding Evans’ acting debut, Tim “Man Of A Hundred Commentary Tracks” Lucas will put you wise. Characteristically erudite stuff from Mr Watchdog but hey, Tim… maybe less of the vocal impressions next time, huh?