Universally known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” there’s no doubt that Lon Chaney did everything he could to make his roles as real as possible. Here’s a look at some of the extremes to which Chaney committed himself.
In “The Penalty” (1920), Chaney plays a legless criminal named Blizzard. To accomplish the illusion that Chaney would have no legs, the assumed method of trick camera angles was suggested during production. Chaney disagreed; he felt that was not good enough. Instead, he designed a complex harness which included a number of leather straps, ropes, pulleys and two buckets to bind his legs behind him. Due to the excruciating pain, Chaney could film for only minutes at a time, and this apparatus caused permanent damage to his legs. As for acting through this, Chaney commented, “. . .It sometimes takes a good deal of imagination to forget your physical sufferings. Yet, at that, the subconscious mind has a marvelous way of making you keep the right attitudes and make the right gestures when you are actually acting.”
In order to exact the emotional characterization of Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923), Chaney spoke to people with physical deformities. However, when it came to the character’s physicality, he devised another harness. This time, a heavy harness was applied to his back to give him a hump and a look of stunted growth. Again, Chaney was only able to work a short period due to the weight being applied on his back. The putty, which was applied to his eye, adversely affected his vision permanently.
His next film, “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) demonstrates another of Chaney’s complete transformations, and one I personally love. In order for his appearance to resemble “death’s head”, a great amount of materials was applied to his head including a bald cap, egg membrane to his eyes and glue to pin back his ears. To reveal more of his facial bone structure, a piece of fish skin was attached to his nose and wires were applied to draw his skin back from nose, cheeks and eyes, which caused bleeding at times. Reportedly, the unmasking scene was so frightening at the time that a few movie-goers fainted.
Through Chaney’s incredible use of makeup and physical methods, he is able to escalate the impact of his characterizations on the audience. As Chaney has said, “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, such as The Phantom of the Opera, He Who Gets Slapped, The Unholy Three, etc., have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do.” Truly a serious craftsman, Chaney sacrificed much of himself to bring poignant portrayals to his films – certainly more so than in today’s cinema where the act of losing weight, gaining weight or merely leaving it to the CGI department to erase an actor’s limb from the frames is being heralded as sacrificial to the art.