Lon Chaney was a great actor some may argue the greatest actor of the silent era or even any era. Therefore, we would expect a documentary on this cinema icon to be great, as well, and Turner Classic Movie's "Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces" (premieres Tuesday, October 24, at 8 p.m.) does not disappoint. This is another Kevin Brownlow/Photoplay Productions venture, and like his earlier documentaries of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, it provides a warm, loving look at its subject while at the same time being thorough and honest.
Chaney biographer Michael F. Blake is central to the documentary providing much commentary and insight into his favorite cinema legend. Anyone who has read Blake's three books on Chaney (see titles below) will find this documentary complements and supplements those texts very well.
In addition to Blake, we hear from a variety of other interviewees who give us insight into the Chaney's life and career - science fiction author Ray Bradbury who remembers going to see Chaney's films in the 1920's, silent movie child actor Malcolm Sabiston who remembers Chaney and used to get cookies from Chaney's stepmother, Chaney's great grandson Ron Chaney, producer B.P. Schulberg's son Bud Schulberg, Lon Chaney Jr., Orson Welles, Patsy Ruth Miller and more. A couple of the interviewees carry no more credentials than the fact that they were filmgoers in the twenties and avid Chaney fans which adds some nostalgic charm to the bio.
After a brief introduction, the documentary gives an overview of Chaney's early life in Colorado Springs, CO., his life with deaf-mute parents, the introduction by his brother to the theatre, meeting and marrying Cleva Creighton, their subsequent divorce and his fortuitous introduction to the movies. One of the appeals of this bio is that Chaney's life before entering the movies and subsequent personal life are given a satisfactory overview while not overwhelming the focus of the film which is as it should be - his career.
Beginning with some of his earliest work "By the Sun's Rays" (1914), "Alas and Alack" (1915), "Dolly's Scoop" (1916) and a film that was saved by a collector in England entitled, "Fascination of the Fleur de Lis" (1915) the documentary is filled with wonderful clips of Chaney's work. By the way, each of the films mentioned above was made at Universal Studios where Chaney played in over 100 films. Sadly, only four survive in complete form. It is also pointed out that Chaney and director Joseph De Grasse made more than 60 films together while he was at Universal, and it is De Grasse who encouraged Chaney's use of make-up.
After a salary dispute with Universal, Chaney went through a "down" period, but his career was revived by western star William S. Hart who gave him a plum role in "Riddle Gawne" (1918). Unfortunately, only a clip of this film survives.
We also get to see a clip of "The Wicked Darling" (1919), the first of many Chaney-Tod Browning collaborations. From there, we see several clips of "The Miracle Man" (1919), the film that, as the documentary states, "established Lon Chaney as Hollywood's most outstanding character actor."
The documentary continues to give us a sampling of Chaney's wide array of characterizations as the legless Blizzard in "The Penalty" (1920), the dual role of Black Mike Sylva and Ah Wing in "Outside the Law" (1921), Yen Sin in "Shadows" (1922), Fagin in "Oliver Twist" (1922), and as Gaspard in the ill-fated "The Trap" (1922) which,interestingly enough, was co-written by Chaney and Irving Thalberg.
Then the blockbusters come along starting with "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) which is wonderfully highlighted by a 1991 interview with Chaney's co-star Patsy Ruth Miller.
Generous doses of "The Unholy Three" (1925), "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) whet our appetites to see these films once again while providing interesting tidbits of behind the scenes information. We then see clips from "Mr. Wu" (1927) where Chaney's portrayal of a 100-year old Chinaman is amazingly more incredible than his previous portrayals in "Outside the Law" and "Shadows."
Starting with "Tell It To the Marines" (1927) Chaney began to embark on a series of films that did not rely on his legendary make-up skills but, as Blake points out, "proved he was a good actor and a box office star." Blake notes that Chaney's characterization in this film set the pattern for future tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold Marine sergeants in such films as "The Sands of Iwo Jima" and "To the Shores of Tripoli."
In "The Unknown," (1927), there's no heavy make-up, but Chaney's character, Alonzo, does cut his arms off for the love of a girl only to find she's in love with someone else. These clips have an added interest in that we get to see a very young Joan Crawford in one of her earliest roles.
The infamous lost film "London After Midnight" (1927) unfortunately has no surviving clips, but a comment in the documentary by historian H.A.V. Bulleid, who saw the film in the 1920's is of particular interest to Chaney fans who yearn to see this film. He says, "One tends to get very excited about lost films. I think people would be very disappointed if they saw 'London After Midnight.' I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as 'Phantom.'"
"Laugh, Clown, Laugh" (1928), "West of Zanzibar" (1928), and "While the City Sleeps" (1928) continue Chaney's characterizations without the masks, and "Thunder" (1929) only shows him with limited make-up as an old train engineer.
However, "Thunder" is most interesting in that this is the film where Chaney's health began to fail. On location in Green Bay, WI., Chaney caught a cold during the snow scenes which then developed into walking pneumonia.
A loving look is given at his last film and only sound film, a remake of the 1925 "The Unholy Three" (1930), and we see clearly that the incomparable talent of this man could have made an easy transition to the sound era and added so much to the films of the 1930's. Alas, that was not to be. Before the filming of "The Unholy Three" was completed, Chaney discovered he had lung cancer, and seven weeks after the movie's premiere, he was dead.
What a fine documentary this is and a fine addition to Brownlow's previous silent star bios on Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. It's good when a star's life is covered in such a manner that not only is the career given an overview (everything can't be covered in 90 minutes, of course), but we get authoritative and compassionate insight into why the man was so popular and why his popularity still stands today. Blake is not your average biographer. Let's face it. He wasn't satisfied that one book did justice to the career of this great man and wrote three! His admiration, as well as he expert knowledge of Chaney is evident in this documentary, and, in spite of the presence of such personalities as Ray Bradbury, Orson Welles or even Chaney's son, Blake is the authoritative figure on whose words we hang our attention.
One more added attraction of the documentary. The film clips are amazingly clear, sharp and crisp. Don't miss this one. It'll have you running out to buy every Lon Chaney video you can find!
And don't miss TCM's presentations of these
Chaney films - most of which you WON"T find anywhere except
The Ace of Hearts (1921) - Tuesday, October 24 - 1 a.m.
The Unholy Three (1925) - Tuesday, October 24 - 3 a.m.
West of Zanzibar (1928) - Tuesday, October 24 - 4:30 a.m.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) - Tuesday, October 31 - 8 p.m.
Mr. Wu (1927) - Tuesday, October 31 - 11:30 p.m.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) - Tuesday, October 31 - 1 a.m.
The Unknown (1927) - Tuesday, October 31 - 3 a.m.
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