Welcome to the Memorial Film Collection of Lon Chaney
Lon Chaney may have passed away in the distant past, but thanks to an enthralling, good old invention called Film, he will never be really gone.
Whenever you feel like traveling back in time to meet the Man of a Thousand Faces, and to witness his impersonation of macabre, menacing characters, all you have to do, is watching one (or more) of his movies.
But which ones should you watch?
Well, if that’s the very question lurking in your mind right now, then you came to the right place. We’re just about to present the 10+1 Best Movies of Lon Chaney.
If this is your first ride on the time-travelling FrameTrek Wagon, here’s what this is all about:
We choose a topic, in this case: “Best Movies of Lon Chaney”, and we set sail for a journey, where the bricks of the trek are made of movie frames, and each stop represents a magnificent achievement in Film.
The Best Movies of Lon Chaney is an episode of FrameTrek’s Hall of Legends: A mega-journey dedicated to identify the greatest artists of World Cinema, and their most significant works.
Meet Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces
Lon Chaney, also known as The Man of a Thousand Faces or The Master of Horror, was one of the most versatile, influential and most gifted actors of the silent era.
He was also an excellent comedian and dancer. He smoked at least two packs of cigarettes a day and one of his most passionate interests was fishing.
Chaney was the second child of a deaf mute couple. Communicating with his parents kindled his talent and love for pantomime, which he became a master of.
His career started on stage, but quickly elevated to the silver screen.
Why was he called ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’?
He was not just an incredibly versatile actor, but an expert make-up artist too. Actually, his knowledge of make-up was so vast that he wrote the entry on the subject for an edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Chaney’s most memorable characters are often heavily tortured, grotesque-looking weirdos like the Hunchback of Notre Dame or the Phantom of the Opera.
These macabre, menacing characters usually have an undercurrent of pathos and melancholy too.
The parts I play point out a moral. They show individuals who might have been different, if they had been given a different chance.Lon Chaney
Using expert make-up techniques and excellent acting, Chaney was able to transform himself into almost anyone, even a Chinese shipwreck survivor, a clown, a woman, or a Russian peasant.
Some of the more bizarre make-up creations and performances by Lon Chaney, have been cited as an influence upon the Horror film genre which began in the early 1930s.
Thanks to his many looks, he became the punchline of a popular joke at the time:
“Don’t step on it, it might be Lon Chaney!”
So yeah, there’s plenty to talk about, when it comes to Lon Chaney, but this article concentrates on his Top 10+1 Films, so let’s cut to the chase, shall we?
After all, an actor is as good as his greatest achievements. Thus, the finest way to familiarize yourself with Chaney, is through watching his best films as a marathon.
Ready? Buckle up then, and let the best movies of Lon Chaney carry you to the cinematic lands of silence!See FrameTrek's definition of 'Best' and the story behind this List (click to expand) ↴
How to define ‘Best’?
That’s a pretty good question, since ‘Best’ is relative. A movie can be considered being among the best for multiple reasons, such as: Critical Acclaim, Audience Feedback, Box Office Performance, Awards and Nominations, Iconic Status, Popularity, Watchability, and even Personal Preference, or for being part of a famous list such as the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die or Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies list – or because that particular movie defined its era, or because it was a defining achievement of the artist(s) involved.
So how did we pick the Top 10+1 Movies of Lon Chaney?
Well, it wasn’t simple, and it wasn’t easy! Lon Chaney headlined so many excellent films, that it’s almost impossible to build a “Top 10 List”, without leaving some of his great movies out of the spotlight. We did our best though.
While composing the Best Films of Lon Chaney list, we tried to consider all of the factors mentioned in the ‘How to define Best’ paragraph above, and then some.
We believe that the movies that made the cut should not compete with one another any further, so we will just present them in the order they were released in.
If you watch these movies in a chronological order, you will embark on a cinematic journey through Lon Chaney’s life, following him from the start of his career to the end.
Presenting the 10+1 Best Films of Lon Chaney
The ‘+1’ is a Bonus Movie. Wait for it!
Silent crime drama thriller film.
Story: A deformed criminal mastermind plans to loot the city of San Francisco as well as revenge himself on the doctor who mistakenly amputated his legs. (IMDB)
✪ Chaney had both of his lower legs tied back and had to walk on his kneecaps for his role as an amputee. It was so painful he could only wear the apparatus for a few minutes at a time, and his knee muscles sustained permanent damage.
Why is The Penalty among the best movies of Lon Chaney?
✓ This was one of Chaney’s breakout roles, showcasing his taste for the macabre and talent for contortion and disguise.
✓ Preserved in the George Eastman House Motion Picture Collection.
✓ Empire Magazine named it #17 in a poll of the “20 Greatest Gangster Movies You’ve Never Seen *Probably”.
Silent crime mystery romance film.
Story: A romantic rivalry among members of a secret society becomes even tenser when one of the men is assigned to carry out an assassination. (IMDB)
Silent romantic drama film with horror elements.
Story: In fifteenth century Paris, the brother of the archdeacon plots with the gypsy king to foment a peasant revolt. Meanwhile, a freakish hunchback falls in love with the gypsy queen. (IMDB)
✪ In order to prepare himself for the role of Quasimodo, Lon Chaney held interviews with people who suffered from various physical deformities.
✪ Chaney’s makeup as the tortured hunchback was so masterful for its time that many viewers believed that the actor playing the title character truly appeared in real life as he did on film.
A heart-rending take on the classic book, with a legendary performance by Lon Chaney.Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus
Why is The Hunchback of Notre Dame among the best films of Lon Chaney?
✓ Praised for its grand sets that recall 15th century Paris as well as for Chaney’s performance and make-up.
✓ One of the most successful movies of the 1920s, and an influential silent classic.
✓ This film elevated Chaney, already a well-known character actor, to full star status in Hollywood, and also helped set a standard for many later horror films.
Silent psychological thriller film directed by Victor Sjöström.
Story: A bitter clown endeavors to rescue the young woman he loves from the lecherous count who once betrayed him. (IMDB)
✪ Chaney was coached for this role by real-life vaudeville performer George Davis, a well-known clown in Europe.
Why is He Who Gets Slapped among the top movies of Lon Chaney?
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
✓ Received positive reviews from critics and audiences, who praised the film’s inventive staging, lighting and Chaney’s performance.
Silent dramatic horror film.
Story: A mad, disfigured composer seeks love with a lovely young opera singer. (IMDB)
A century later, it still retains its ability to scare – and Lon Chaney’s performance remains one of the benchmarks of the horror genre.Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus
✪ Chaney took over direction of several of the scenes he was in, allegedly including the famous unmasking scene with co-star Mary Philbin.
✪ His horrific, self-applied make-up was kept secret right up until the film’s premiere. Even Mary Philbin’s onscreen reaction to the unmasked Phantom was real – she had no idea what he would look like until that exact moment.
Why is The Phantom of the Opera among the top films of Lon Chaney?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
✓ Added to the United States National Film Registry, having been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.
Silent romantic war drama film with comedy elements.
Story: A gruff Marine sergeant and a handsome new recruit compete for the affection of a nurse. (IMDB)
✪ Chaney refused to wear any film makeup at all, because – he reasoned – to have done so would have detracted from the documentary reality and integrity of the picture.
✪ Because his performance was considered to be so realistic, Lon Chaney became the first actor to be granted an honorary membership in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Why is Tell It to the Marines among the greatest movies of Lon Chaney?
✓ The first motion picture to be made with the full cooperation of the U.S. Marine Corps.
✓ The highest-grossing movie of Lon Chaney’s career, and he would often state that this was his favorite film.
Silent horror thriller film directed by Tod Browning.
Story: A criminal on the run hides in a circus and seeks to possess the daughter of the ringmaster at any cost. (IMDB)
✪ Chaney did collaborative scenes with real-life armless double Paul Desmuke, whose legs and feet were used to manipulate objects such as knives and cigarettes in frame with Chaney’s upper body and face.
Drawing a remarkable and haunting performance from Chaney and filling the plot with twists and unforgettable characters, Browning here creates a chilling masterpiece of psychological (and psychosexual) drama.1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
Silent drama film co-starring Loretta Young.
Story: A professional clown and a self-indulgent count learn to help each other with their problems, but then become romantic rivals. (IMDB)
The perfect example of Chaney’s unmatched talent for turning tearjerking melodrama into heartbreaking tragedy.Leonard Maltin
Silent drama mystery film directed by Tod Browning and co-starring Lionel Barrymore.
Story: A magician seeks vengeance upon the man who paralyzed him and the illegitimate daughter he sired with the magician’s wife. (IMDB)
Why is West of Zanzibar among the greatest films of Lon Chaney?
✓ It was a box office success, both domestically and internationally, and it is still acclaimed by critics and audiences.
Talking, all-sound Pre-Code melodrama film directed by Jack Conway.
This is the talking remake of the 1925 silent film of the same name, also starring Lon Chaney as the same character, the ventriloquist Echo. Would you like to check out the original Unholy Three from 1925?
Story: A sideshow ventriloquist, midget, and strongman form a conspiracy known as “The Unholy Three” and commit a series of robberies. (IMDB)
✪ While getting ready for the role, Chaney remembered a thief he met when he traveled in his youth. He borrowed the man’s attitude and mannerism.
This is the final film of Lon Chaney, and also his only talking picture.
…and as promised: The BONUS Movie!
Biography drama film starring James Cagney as Lon Chaney.
Story: The life and career of vaudevillian and silent screen horror star Lon Chaney, including his contentious relationship with his neurotic wife and his premature death. (IMDB)
The end of Lon Chaney’s Story
In 1929 Chaney was diagnosed with bronchial lung cancer. This was exacerbated when artificial snow, made out of cornflakes, lodged in his throat during filming and quickly created a serious infection.
Despite aggressive treatment, his condition gradually worsened, and he died of a throat hemorrhage on August 26, 1930, at the age of 47.
He was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, in the Great Mausoleum, next to the crypt of his father. For unknown reasons, Chaney’s crypt has remained unmarked.
He was posthumously awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7046 Hollywood Boulevard in 1960.
If you’d like to dig deeper into the story of Lon Chaney, you may want to read his biography, Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces by Michael F. Blake.
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So there you have it: The 10+1 Greatest Films of Lon Chaney
If you want to take a look at the movies listed above, without all that info between the titles, here’s a quick recap:
Legacy of the Man of a Thousand Faces
|The Penalty (1920)|
|The Ace of Hearts (1921)
|The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
|He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
|The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
|Tell it to the Marines (1926)
|The Unknown (1927)
|West of Zanzibar (1928)
|Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)
|The Unholy Three (1930)
| Bonus Movie: Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
Is there a movie on the list you’d replace with another one? Share your thoughts below.