8 March 2008

Michael Blake - A Thousand Faces

Lon Chaney was one of the pre-eminent stars of the silent film era, and one of its finest actors. Modern audiences, if they know the name, often confuse it with his son, Creighton, known as Lon Chaney Jr, who appeared in several horror films such as The Wolfman, and so conflate the two stars and consider the father also to have been a horror actor. The fact that his best known roles were The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera adds to this misperception, although neither of those films were strictly "horror".

Chaney was known as 'The man of a thousand faces' (hence the title of this film biography) because of his remarkable ability to transform himself, using make-up and his own physical dexterity, into any sort of grotesque. Most of his roles exploited this facility - in addition to the deformed Hunchback and scarred Phantom he famously played characters with no arms or no legs, creating seemingly impossible effects that entranced audiences.

But his popularity wasn't based just on his make-up skills, he was an exceptional actor too. In the silent era, the success of an actor's performance depended entirely on his ability to express a range of emotions, and few could match Chaney in this. His talent arose out of his curious upbringing - both his parents were deaf, so he learnt how to communicate with them through facial and bodily expressions. As a child he would come home in the evening and reenact the events of the day for them. Could there possibly be better training for a silent film actor?

Sadly, most of Chaney's 160 odd films are lost- about 40 are known to exist, of which maybe half are available on DVD. The most famous, Hunchback and Phantom, get regular screenings as there's a new fashion and appreciation for silent film classics. The Unknown, a remarkable film directed by Tod Browning, who made 10 films with Chaney, is also available in a modern print and on DVD. The best I've seen, and one of the best silent films ever, is He Who Gets Slapped, directed by Victor Sjostrom, father of Swedish cinema and main influence on Ingmar Bergman, who cast him in the lead in Wild Strawberries. I saw it with a live score composed by Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, and performed by him and the BBC Concert orchestra. An extraordinary experience. It's not yet available on DVD, nor is it often broadcast, but it is available to watch here.

Michael Blake is a professional make-up artist, which is his initial interest in Lon Chaney, and is the leading historian of the actor. He has previously written a biography (called, unimaginatively, The man behind the thousand faces), and this is more of a filmography, detailing his major performances and the circumstances around the production. The trouble with this is that Blake has no special talent as a film critic, nor is he a particularly good writer. His enthusiasm for his subject is evident, but he is wont to resort to cliché, and many of his plot expositions serve no purpose. Chaney was a remarkable actor, who died aged 47 after making just one sound film, and he deserves a wider appreciation than he now has. At least the increasing provision of niche market DVDs means that his current fans can see his craft.


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