Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Four

Lon Chaney, The Universal Monster

In 1918, the Great War ended and Johnny came marching home again, except that some Johnnys didn't march. They limped instead, or hobbled on canes and crutches, or were rolled in wheelchairs because of their war wounds. The term basket case, still in use, dates from a war that began a century ago. It refers to quadruple amputees carried around in baskets.

After the war some men went about their lives. Others were forever scarred. Try as it might, the world could not have avoided seeing men mutilated and burned, scarred and dismembered, their faces shot away or their limbs reduced. Sometimes art anticipates life. Sometimes it reflects it. In the United States at least, perhaps no other artist was poised for the return of the mutilated as was Lon Chaney.

Leonidas Frank Chaney was born on April 1, 1883, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Both parents were deaf. In order to communicate with them, Chaney learned to express himself with face, body, and hands--perfect training for a future silent film actor. He also learned what it means to be an outsider because of physical disability. Chaney went on stage before his teen years were up. An actor, singer, dancer, comedian, choreographer, makeup artist, writer, director, and stage manager, Lon Chaney made his undying name in the movies. He arrived in Hollywood in 1910 and made his first movie short in 1912 or 1913. The first feature film with his name in the credits was Richelieu, from 1914. In all, he made about 160 movies. A well-disguised Chaney may have played more uncredited roles.

Known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces," Lon Chaney played character roles throughout his career. He is most remembered for his portrayals of grotesque, mutilated, and disfigured men. In 1919, that pivotal year in things large and small, Chaney put his skills at pantomime and contortion to good use as a "fake cripple" nicknamed The Frog in a movie short called The Miracle Man. A favorite among crowds and critics, The Miracle Man became a breakout picture for Chaney. He followed that up with a starring role in The Penalty, from 1920. In an extraordinary performance, Chaney played Blizzard, a man whose legs had been amputated in his youth. For the role, the actor had his legs tied up behind him and walked on his knees. His feat (no pun intended) astonished moviegoers.

The Penalty is a thriller, a sort of weird menace story made before the pulp genre of the 1930s carried that name. It is also considered a horror movie, one of the earliest feature-length horror movies made in America. Shorter films had preceded it: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1908, 1912, and 1913; Frankenstein in 1910; The Werewolf in 1913. John Barrymore recreated the roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a feature-length film from 1920, one of two American versions of the story from that year. Despite all that, the horror movies of the 1910s and '20s that most fans know are The Hunchback of Notre Dame, from 1923, and The Phantom of the Opera, from 1925. The star of both was Lon Chaney and his performances in both are again extraordinary. The scene of the double unmasking in The Phantom of the Opera (once for the camera, once for the damsel in distress Christine) is still shocking and frightening, even to us, nearly ninety years after it was first shown. It's hard to believe that the Phantom's countenance is merely a combination of makeup, lighting, and the actor's craft and not a real, though disfigured, face.

Lon Chaney died in 1930. He was of course irreplaceable, but the show must go on, and so Hollywood continued making horror movies, more in the 1930s than in the 1920s. The monsters of those movies are the supernatural monsters of the past (vampires, zombies, and other walking dead), monsters of science (Frankenstein's monster, beast-men, invisible men, etc.), and real-life monsters (murderers, maniacs, mad scientists, and psychopaths). Bats, cats, old mansions, mad scientists, and psycho killers abounded in bewildering array in the 1920s and '30s. So did vampires and even zombies. Every studio and many independent producers got in on the act. One among them was and is identified with monsters. Those monsters even have a name, or more accurately, a brand. They are called Universal Monsters.

Lon Chaney began his career with Universal Pictures. Although he worked as a freelance actor during the 1920s, both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera were released by Universal. (1) By fate or design, Universal became the studio where monster movies were made: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Black Cat (1934), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Werewolf of London (1935), Dracula's Daughter (1936), and Son of Frankenstein (1939) in the 1930s, many more in the 1940s. The Wolf Man (1941) was the last great Universal horror movie made before war once again descended. (It was released on December 12, 1941, less than a week after Pearl Harbor). Universal returned to greatness in the 1950s with a number of science-based monster movies. In the meantime, Hollywood, Universal included, churned out endless variations on the monsters of the 1930s and before.

I read once that a decadent culture is characterized by remakes, rehashes, attributions, and allusions of and to things of the past. You could add sequels and parodies to that list. If that's the case, then monster and horror movies--genres that are already about the past and about decadence--began showing signs of decadence in the 1940s and '50s. The trend was already apparent in the late thirties with sequels to Dracula and Frankenstein. In 1943, Universal released Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Five years later, after war had intervened, those two monsters were reduced to comedy in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I like Abbott and Costello, but the expression "How far we fall" comes to mind. It's clear that monster movies of the pre-war type were running out of steam.

To be continued . . .

Notes
(1) Chaney's third great horror movie of the 1920s, London After Midnight (1927), was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. That film is now lost.
Also note: "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" is a Civil War song, not a song from World War I.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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