Lon Chaney Sr.-The Man of a Thousand Faces


4749584 By Jason Godbey, Creative Director, Behind the Rabbit Productions

When I was a senior in high school, I had to write a term paper. There were a number of topics to chose from, and I chose to write my paper on special effects in movies. In my research I read about one of the earliest special effects makeup artists, the Man of a Thousand Faces, the actor Lon Chaney.

Chaney had come from the theatre where actors did their own makeup. At the time, the position of special effects makeup artist didn’t exist as we know it today, so Chaney took it upon himself to design and devise all of his own makeup for characters such as: Mr. Wu, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Phantom of the Opera.

Because he didn’t have the materials we have today, he used ordinary household items and his imagination to create his makeups. He shoved bits of a cigar cases in his nostrils to broaden his nose. He used fishing line to pull his skin back around his eyes. He cut a ping-pong ball in half and placed it over his eye then covered with mortician’s wax to create the face of Quasimodo.

If it wasn’t for the fact that Chaney worked mainly in silent pictures, one could not conceive of a more complete performer. He was a true artist who sacrificed his body and his comfort to create these characters. All of his creations were built by him from the makeup, to the posture, to the walk and mannerisms. Even though some of his characters are considered to be monsters or villains, he brought a humanity made them sympathetic.

Chaney’s son, Lon Chaney Jr., would later take up the acting mantle and carry on the tradition of playing creature characters like the Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and the role he was most famous for, the Wolfman.

For actors and makeup artists alike, Chaney is an inspiration. He was a truly transformative actor and an innovator, and his presence is still felt today over one hundred after he began acting in films. We see his influence in the creations of Stan Winston, Greg Cannom, and Rob Bottin and in the performances of actors like Doug Jones, Ron Perlman, and Brian Steele.

If you’re a horror movie fan or just a fan of classic film, an actor, or a filmmaker seeking inspiration, the films of Lon Chaney Sr. are a must-see.

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