Today is April 1st. On this day 131 years ago, the legendary Lon Chaney Sr. was born in Colorado Springs to deaf-mute parents.
|Lovely photo of Lon Chaney Sr.|
I could go into his life story, his role in Hollywood, and how he earned the title of "The Man of a Thousand Faces" but there are already a ton of exemplary sources for that all over the web. (All you have to do is Google it, I promise you'll find it.) So, rather than recycling the facts about this amazing actor, I want to write about what makes him amazing to me and why my discovery of him forever changed my view of stories and the characters in them.
The thing about Lon Chaney's majority of films is that the formula they followed was unlike any formula seen in most Hollywood films then, in the 1910's and 1920's, and even now in the 2000's. Whether he was a villain, a side character, or the star of the story, he hardly ever played the dashing hero who gets the girl and fights for all that's just and good in the world. His characterizations always intentionally went against the grain of expected storytelling. They were gruff, imperfect, hideous, deformed, tormented, outcast, sometimes cruel, and sometimes completely pathetic.
|Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney. One of these is a film character.|
But, to go with those stereotypical villainous qualities, Chaney was a master at weaving in the human element. To go with the bad was some good and sympathetic elements, such as vulnerability, victimization, desperation, loneliness, selflessness, agony, and most of all, the inherent human need to be loved. Many of his characters, such as Blizzard from The Penalty, or The Phantom from The Phantom of the Opera, committed horrific things that no one could forgive, but you understand the damaging history that led them into such a tragic path in life. None of his characters were evil for the sake of being evil.
|I swear I heard something shatter in this moment. |
Chaney as Alonzo in The Unknown.
This is just one example of many. But as a writer, his characterizations made me look at "evil" characters differently. It made me think of the intensity in which a "bad guy" could feel and that what sets him apart from the "good guy" isn't his lack of humanity, but the aspects of his life that corrupted it.
Sympathizing with and loving villains is all the rage right now with such attractive bad guys as Loki from the Marvel films, as played by Tom Hiddleston, and the upcoming movie for Maleficent. The problem, however, which applies to the Loki type of villain, is that the fans are willing to forgive him for everything, just because he makes us cry and happens to be good looking. I say NO.
What I learned from Chaney's performances is that even though a person is tragically led into a life of villainy an immorality, their ability to make you cry and pity them does not absolve them of all the crimes they've committed. The real tragedy is that they must now face the consequences of their choices, even if those choices may or may not have been determined by things out of their control. For example, The Phantom was born with a hideous face, which led him to be hated by humanity, and in return he hates them and is corrupted into an insane murderer and master torturer. His past is sad, and you ache for him in his desire to love and be loved by Christine, but a happy ending simply isn't meant for mass murderers and deliberate manipulators. Other characters of Chaney who fall into this category are HE from He Who Gets Slapped, Phroso the Magician from West of Zanzibar, Tiger Haynes in Where East is East, Echo from The Unholy Three, Sergei in The Mockery, Mr. Wu, The Blackbird, and Farallone in Ace of Hearts.
|Blizzard, the double amputee in The Penalty.|
Probably the biggest bastard of them all.
|The Hunchback of Notre Dame.|
|Laugh, Clown, Laugh. I can pretty much guarantee this movie will make you cry.|
What his "good" and "bad" characters tend to have in common is a redeeming end. Whether they die or end up alone at the end, it is often a sacrifice made in the name of love. In the defining moment, they choose someone else's happiness (or life) over their own, no matter how hard they fought for those things throughout the story, often by less-than-admirable means.
|Laugh, Clown, Laugh.|
So to me, Lon Chaney may have been the "Man of a Thousand Faces" but he was especially the man of one inescapable condition, being human. He encompassed all the dark and light of humanity within one character at a time, each representing the many shades and walks of life.
He taught me that a meaningful, or simply entertaining story, doesn't need young pretty characters saving the day. When a character is forced, or thinks they are forced, into a life of cruelty and crime, it makes us the audience want to see them overcome the hard knocks of life and strive to be a good person in spite of it. This is what we should all strive for.
|West of Zanzibar. Phroso realizing that the girl he'd been destroying as revenge against his nemesis is actually his own daughter. WOOPS.|
"I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), such as The Phantom of the Opera (1925), He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Unholy Three (1925), etc., have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do."