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The Death of Lon Chaney - Ninety years ago today

The self-trained actor, one of the greatest actors of all time, a man who took his work seriously and worked long and hard to perfect himself in all ways, died ninety years ago today.

Like Cary Grant, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Lemon, and Laurence Olivier, Lon Chaney, possessed something special as an actor, something that went above and beyond what we see today. Something most of us don't have, something with which they were born. 

This long-gone actor's gift of the horrible was such that it endowed. It seems by most accounts that Chaney was a likable human. He was quiet and unassuming and took his fame with a grain of salt. Lon Chaney gave his all to his work then returned home where he lived his life as an ordinary man. 

This ordinary and extraordinary life ended too soon on August 26, 1930.

Lon Chaney, genius of the grotesque, man of a "thousand faces,' died in his wife, the former Hazel Hastings, arms at 12:55 a.m. in St. Vincent's hospital in Los Angeles.  His son, by a previous marriage, Creighton Chaney (Lon Chaney Jr.) was also at his side. 

A throat hemorrhage that came on so suddenly that Dr. John C. Wester was called, but Chaney was beyond medical aid when he arrived. Chaney had been fighting for ten days against anemia and congestion of the bronchial tubes, the aftermath of an attack of pneumonia he suffered earlier in the year in New York. In the hours before his death, he had been unable to take any nourishment; however, he seemed to be improving, and doctors were hopeful he would recover. 

In the week before his passing, Chaney had received three blood transfusions following an earlier hemorrhage. The day of his passing, the 47-year old actor was reported to have "turned a corner" and was "resting easily." Three days before his death, it was widely reported that he was near death and critically ill. Chaney's health had been poor for several months before entering the hospital for what would be his final time. 

Newspapers reported in month following Chaney's death that the immediate cause of Chaney's death was a hemorrhage of the lungs. But could be traced to a series of debilitating illness caused by his work for the screen. The operation for a throat ailment resulted from the excessively strenuous work Chaney did in his first and last talkie, The Unholy Three, that followed anemia that followed pneumonia. In his last picture, in which he took a ventriloquist's part, he spoke in five different voices. 

According to a nameless, 'Special Correspondent for the St. Louis Dispatch,' "He would work five times as hard as anyone else, spurning the deception of the 'ghost' voice. Chaney paid a heavy price for being able to twist his body to entertain the hoi polloi. He has a spinal ailment due to a role in which he was harnessed. In The Unknown, his arms were bound to his body with heavy leather. It stopped blood circulation. Some veins burst. But, still willing to pay the price of circus art, he resumed work quickly. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it was necessary to have his legs strapped back from the knee to give a semblance of deformity, so that he could appear to be walking on cushioned pads. He could endure this for only 10-12 minutes at a time, as it was excruciating. Circulation of the blood was stopped and, as in the instance, when his arms were trussed back in a harness. It is believed certain blood vessels were ruptured. This would be a contributory cause of anemia. For several years before Chaney's death, there were rumors that he would not live long because of the contortions to which he had subjected his body. But medical evidence shows that the twistings and contortions he went through in various roles would not severely have impaired his health. 

The star of such films as The Unknown, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and He Who Gets Slapped had few close friends. He shunned public appearances of any kind, never making personal appearances, giving any interviews, or attending any first nights. Even though Chaney lived a life of practical retirement when outside the studio, he left a deep mark on his fellow co-workers. Few figures of the screen enjoyed such varying popularity of the time. A special operator had to be installed on his studio lot when word that he was taking blood transfusions spread throughout Hollywood. Thousands of calls each day kept the special line busy. Offers of blood from donors innumerable in the event he needed more with made with prayerful sincerity. 

There was something seriously wrong with his throat. He went from doctor to doctor and back and forth between New York and Los Angeles. At last, he had an operation that appeared to be successful. He came back to Hollywood, and everyone felt he was out of danger. 

It was said that it was with the strength of a stoic that he went through the last two years of his life, having been told by scientists that his days were surely numbered. He made the talkie, The Unholy Three, assured that nothing more remained for him to do. He did it in his forty-seventh year and bade the studio farewell. 

Lon Chaney was born in Colorado Springs, CO, on April 1, 1883. His father, a kindly, well-liked man, was one of the town's popular barbers, and his mother was the youngest child of Emma Kennedy, a famous Colorado woman who, after her three children had been born deaf, founded the Deaf and Blind Institute of Colorado and devoted her life to it. 

Chaney grew up with three brothers, all normal in sight and speech. At the age of nine, he left school because his mother had been made an invalid by inflammatory rheumatism, and for three years he was her nurse and helper in the household. 

His first real job was when his brother became the manager of a local theater, and he went to work there as a stagehand. 

Chaney's brother organized an opera company which went on the road playing Gilbert and Sullivan, and Lon went with the troupe as stage manager and occasional character actor. For nearly 20 years, he went barnstorming up and down and west as a manager, actor and stage manager, press agent, or all four. While playing in Los Angeles, he married Frances Creighton, who was his dancing partner in a show. It was a successful marriage for a time that welcomed one son, Creighton, who was at the time of Chaney's death, a practicing lawyer in Los Angeles-another report said he was in another line of work at the time. 

He later went into acting under the name, Lon Chaney Jr.

The marriage ended in divorce when Frances publicly attempted suicide.

In 1915, Chaney married one of his former colleagues, a chorus girl named Hazel Hastings. 

Chaney's entrance into the pictures was due in large part to chance. A show he was connected with broke up at Santa Ana, CA. Chaney heard of more and more character work opportunities, so he went to Hollywood and got a job as an extra with the Universal Film Co. 

The part was minor, but Chaney put so much art into his make-up and characterization that he was hired for other work. He first came to notice as the part of the frog in The Miracle Man in 1919. Soon he made The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 

"I covered my face with a new one, blacked-out an eye with a shell that I painted over, got a mouthful of false teeth, and was strapped in a harness," Chaney once related in explaining how he made up for the part in Hunchback. "I actually had nothing of my own but one eye to play the part with, hurt? Of course, it hurt-but its all part of the game."

Chaney's art didn't lie in his make-up alone, his expressions, his eyes, his interpretation, all of it gave him soul. 

Chaney's success at make-up was not gained at the price of pain alone. For years after he tackled Hollywood as an 'extra,' he spent hours each day in front of a mirror, putting on make-up and taking it off just to see what he could do. After he gained star status, he often spent three hours a day making up; in the filming of Mr. Wu. He would arrive at the studio at 6 a.m. so he could have his make-up completed to begin filming at nine a .m. 

To achieve the looks for his films he would use chemicals;  stuff cotton in his jaws to puff out his face, bits of rubber were worn in his nostrils to make his nose appear flat; hide face clamps to warp is features; wear false teeth that fit over his own; wigs; and artificial eyebrows.

Those in Hollywood said he was a hard worker, as hard as any Hollywood had ever seen.

He was said to go into his roles with an intensity that might lead one to believe he had hypnotized himself into actually living the part of the person he played. All else seemed forgotten. But the instant the cameras stopped rolling, Chaney was himself again. 

Of all the horrible demons in human form that Chaney's fantastic mind conceived and his genius of make-up gave birth, perhaps none were more hideous than that of the creature who haunts the memory of those who saw The Phantom of The Opera. The moment came when the villain was finally cornered and his mask withdrawn, revealing a face like nothing seen before-pure horror. The memory of this and other hideous faces that Chaney gave the world is forever seared in the minds of millions of moviegoers. 

Many have said that Lon Chaney owed his facile pantomime and his unwavering flair for emotional expression to the fact that he was the child of two deaf parents who didn't or couldn't speak. Years of watching his parents' manual speech, many have said, may likely contribute to his sense of expression. 

Chaney was an avid reader and loved especially to pore over tomes on mathematical subjects. The chapter on-screen make-up in the encyclopedia Britannica was a contribution from his pen. He is known to have contributed generously to numerous charities. However, he never made publicity capital of his donations, and not one among his intimates but knew that his sympathies always were with the underdog in the struggle.

He often went out of his way to inquire about a new baby and left a five or ten-dollar bill, remarking as he walked away, "Just to get the kid some little things." A $10 loan, made to Chaney by a black stagehand many years before, was indirectly responsible for his coming to California. The stagehand loaned him sufficient money to pay his room rent and get back to Chicago, where he joined another show that eventually went west. He felt that if he hadn't been given that $10, he might never have been in Hollywood. His good fortune came through kindness, and because of this, he always had a benevolent feeling toward others less fortunate.

Few, even Chaney's closest friends, knew until after he died about one of his notable philanthropy cases. He heard of a World War Veteran injured so severely that he was unable to walk. Chaney took the ex-soldier to his doctor and told him to spare no expense. Within a few months, the man was relieved of his suffering and, at the time of Chaney's death, walking. 

The Stage Hand's Union in which Chaney held a card, the Camera Men's Union, and other delegations of studio Mechanics, the Culver City Police Department, which gave Chaney a Captain's badge, Actors Equity, and the Motion Picture Producers association were all represented at his funeral. 

Chaney was tended to by the same funeral parlor in downtown Los Angeles where Rudolph Valentino was seen by 50,000 admirers a few short years before. Chaney's body was laid to rest beside that of his father, whom he had recently buried. Among the pallbearers were John Jeske, Chaney's companion and chauffeur for years; Clinton Lyle, an actor who was behind the footlights with him for years in the old trouping days; R.L. Hinckley; Phil Epstein, Chaney's business manager; William Dunphy, San Francisco capitalist, and Claude I. Parker. 

Chaney was survived by his wife, son, two grandchildren, his sister, and three brothers. 

"His life will stand as an inspiration to all who aspire to achievement," said Louis B. Mayer. "He was kindly, sympathetic, understanding-a friend of the friendless, bless with a humanness seldom encountered in this modern day."

Irving Thalberg called him, "a great artist whose passing leaves a void none can fill"

Harry Earles, who performed with Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three, WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 14 at 10:15 AM (ET) on TCM watch it if you have a chance) said in a letter to Tom Arthur, "Isn't it too bad about Lon Chaney's death for he was a grand pal to me." Earles continued by saying, Chaney was a remarkable person to work with and aided me in every possible way.

In the months following Chaney's death, The Unholy Three his last picture was shown in every city in the United States out of the memory of Chaney for fans to see Chaney in his first and only talking picture. 


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