On the anniversary of his death, this is my short, but personal tribute to Lon Chaney Jr. It is far too short, much less than what the man deserves, but it will not be the last accolade that he receives here at Harem Cinema. It would be easy to say “Oh yeah, I remember him. He was the Wolf Man, the son of that silent movie star.” But that is both selling Chaney short and robbing yourself of getting to know the man, the myth, the legend better. Here is my attempt to help you know Lon Chaney Jr a little better.
As Buzz Aldrin was carefully descending the ladder of the Apollo 11 Lunar Lander on that historic day in 1969, it’s hard to imagine what he was thinking. But you can be sure of this. He knew that he was following in the literal footsteps of the most famous man in the world, Neil Armstrong, the now legendary astronaut and first man to ever walk on the moon. That must have been a little intimidating for Buzz because of the risk-reward ratios involved. Sure the reward was that he also got to walk on the surface of our moon, and that was pretty neat, but there was no way that he could outshine Armstrong. The best that he could do was to be the second man on the moon. Neil was and always would be the first.
The risks included Buzz making himself look like a dolt. What if he tripped going down the ladder? How incredibly embarrassing would that be! He would look like a blockhead in front of the whole world! The pressure of possibly making a fool of himself in front of every person on Earth and being remembered in history as the chump who tripped over his own feet, must have been enormous for poor Buzz. But he was up to the task, a man’s man, not some nervous-nelly who cowered in the corner while others did great things.
Faced with such a momentous moment, I imagine Aldrin steadied his nerves by thinking something like “At least I’m not Lon Chaney Jr.”
I’m jesting, of course, but I know that if I were in Buzz’s moon boots at that moment that I would definitely be thinking something like that. Why? Because poor ‘ol Lon Chaney Jr had some enormously BIG shoes to fill. And stepping into those shoes must have been pretty imposing I bet.
No Silver Platter
You might be thinking “You’ve got to be kidding. LCJ (Lon Chaney Jr) had it all going for him, he was one lucky boy. His father, Jon Chaney Sr. (pictured left) was already a very well established Hollywood movie star. That gave his son an easy in to the film business. Right?” Wrong. Very sadly wrong. LCJ didn’t have any such luck of being able to ride his daddy’s coattails. There was no one waiting to hand him anything on a silver platter when it came to being in the movie business. In fact his own father didn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps and very much discouraged it. He knew how hard the life of an actor was and wanted something easier and better for his son. what father wouldn’t?
So, being the dutiful son, LCJ obeyed his father’s wishes and went to business college. He became a success in a Los Angeles appliance corporation and married his employer’s daughter, Dorothy Hinckley. Together they had two sons, Lon Ralph Chaney and Ronald Creighton Chaney. As his father had wished, Jr was living out the American dream life. Unfortunately for Lon Chaney Jr, it wasn’t exactly the life that he dreamed of. He dreamed of being in the movies.
His chance came with tragedy. On August the 26th, 1930, the Man of A Thousand Faces, the acclaimed actor, his father, died from throat cancer. It was a severe loss to both the world at large and Jr himself.
Living His Dreams
Though the death of his father was dreadful it did open the door for Chaney Jr to start following his dream of getting himself up there on the silver screen. The man who we would all one day come to know as the Wolf Man, began acting in films.
Did the studios of the day, the same studios that Chaney’s father had made so much money for, throw open their arms and welcome him with a warm smile and a friendly hug? Not a chance. The going for Lon was slow and hard. I won’t go into all of the details here because the great online resource Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, has already done such a wonderful job of summing up Chaney Jr’s life in a living article that you can read HERE
The road was hard but Lon persevered. He worked taking on jobs that were not exactly befitting Hollywood royalty. “I did every possible bit in pictures” Chaney once admitted. “Had to do stuntwork to live. I bulldogged steers, fell off and got knocked off cliffs, rode horses and precipes into rivers, drove prairie schooners up and down hills.” (note: a ‘prairie schooner’ is a covered wagon like the ones you see in those old John Wayne westerns, in case you didn’t know.)
It might not have been glamorous, but the future movie star was on his way.
Universal Made Him A Star
In 1941 Universal Studios did the world an outstanding favor and cast Chaney in the leading role as Larry Talbot, an everyman kind of fellow who would suffer the misfortune of being attacked and bitten by an accursed lycanthrope. As a result of this bad turn of luck, Talbot would become transformed into the dreaded creature of nightmares, the werewolf.
Starring alongside the inestimable Claude Rains, Chaney simultaneously blessed and cursed us all with the sad, foul monster who viscously savaged it’s victims in the cold moonlight of night. His ability to terrorize us was so powerful that here we are, in 2020, nearly eighty (80) years later and we are still comparing every other werewolf to him. Not only every other werewolf but also every other monster that is brave enough to haunt our screens. That’s a pretty impressive achievement!
Although Chaney will probably be best remembered by his fans as the Wolf Man forevermore, to commemorate the beast, to be distracted by the striking make-up effects, is to miss what made the Wolf Man such an unforgettable character.
More Thank Just Makeup
Undeniably the maestro of make-up effects, Jack Pierce created a fiend in The Wolf Man so fearsome that it is still being imitated today. There’s no way for any reasonable person to deny that. The question is if it was just the wolf costume that created the famous monstrosity or was it the compelling character of Larry Talbot? The murderous werewolf scared us all silly and kept us gripping our chair arms with dread but it wasn’t the story. It was a very important part of the twisted tale but the story is really about the poor victim, Larry Talbot. He’s a man who’s entire life is shattered by a hapless accident. He cannot control the beast within himself and it scares him. That is exactly why Lon Chaney Jr was the perfect actor to play this part. The Wolf Man is a story of tragedy, loss and circumstances beyond control. Larry Talbot is frightened and insecure, things that LCJ was fantastically well equipped to portray. Chaney’s early life was a torturous account of adversity which enabled him to portray Talbot’s own miseries with authenticity that touches each and every one of us in a powerful way. It has stayed with us for eight decades and will stay with us for many more.
A Man of Character
Celebrities get a bad wrap sometimes and we hear all kinds of stories that we think must be made up because they are just too weird to be true. Stars throwing tantrums and acting poorly until they get their own, childish way is an all too common headline in the tabloids. We hear it so often that many of us automatically jump to the conclusion that the star was in the wrong. But not all movie stars are like that, some of them are good people with good morals. Lon Chaney Jr was a guy like that. One account of Chaney’s moral fiber comes from Peter Coe, Chaney’s co-star on The Mummy’s Curse (1944). Coe said that Chaney didn’t feel that another co-worker of theirs, William Farnum, a major silent film star, was getting the respect that he had earned. Chaney demanded that Farnum get his own chair on set and be treated properly or he would walk away off the picture. Ya gotta love a guy that stands up for the elderly.
Over shadowed By His Father
Looking at the adversity that Chaney had to hurdle, it would be easy to focus on his obstacles and miss what the man himself had achieved. While Chaney was working hard to be his own man and not trade off his father’s legacy the studios were forcing him to use a stage name, his father’s name. That must have rankled his pride but, like a pragmatist, Chaney went with it. You could be easily distracted by this or even his father’s achievements and the challenges that they proposed to Jr but I think that the obstacles actually accent and highlight Chaney’s own successes. Forced by the studios into his father’s shadow, Jr’s talent and will power were bright enough to shine through and win him his own audience fan base. A group of loyal enthusiasts that still appreciate his work today. That is better than any standing ovation that anyone could ask for.
Lon Chaney Jr Still Has More To Give Us
We might think that we have seen and heard and read everything that LCJ has to offer us but, fortunately, we would be wrong. Even though Chaney is no longer working to offer us new movies to enjoy, he may still very well share with us something to read. Something very personal. It is believed that, at the time of his passing, Chaney was working on a book titled A Century of Chaneys. It is supposed to be about the Chaney family legacy and that is something that would be very interesting to hear about. Although Chaney died before the book was published, all hope is not lost. His grandson, Ron Chaney Jr, is believed to be working on getting it to publication. Let’s work together to show the Chaney family how much we dearly want to read this book by leaving a comment below. Please encourage them to reward us with this book by saying something, even if it is just a simple “We want to read A Century of Chaneys” or something like that.
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