We didn’t need dialogue; we had faces.
Norma Desmond “Sunset Boulevard”
Nobody had more faces than Lon Chaney.
But a new Turner Classic Movies documentary airing Tuesday night shows that Chaney was more than the legendary “man of a thousand faces.”
Having seen only three of Chaney’s movies before viewing this documentary, I had the notion that he was a horror star — the silent-era equivalent of Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Robert Englund or even his son, Lon Chaney Jr.
Narrated by Kenneth Branagh, “Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces” makes the case for the importance of its subject and the value of his movies. It shows the influence that Chaney had on the art of movie acting.
The “thousand faces” moniker has stuck, and Chaney’s famous roles in “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” are definitely grotesqueries. But the TCM program makes clear that Chaney was the first great character actor-star. Born to deaf-mute parents, he became a master of silent performance out of necessity and could say anything he wanted with his eyes.
Before seeing this documentary, I had no idea what Chaney actually looked like. In nearly every role, he had looked different. That was his niche. In contrast, the Hollywood stars of the silent era, and even many of the supporting players, almost always stuck to type. Mary Pickford was “Little Mary,” Charlie Chaplin was “the Tramp,” and Rudolph Valentino was the Latin lover.
Not Chaney. Every chameleon-star from Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro to Albert Finney and Peter Sellers is in Chaney’s debt.
He did everything — he was not pretty-boy attractive, so as a middle-aged man, he was perfect as himself for roles such as a tough cop or criminal, or (reputedly his favorite role) the drill sergeant in “Tell it to the Marines” — in which one can see the roots of iconic performances by John Wayne and Lou Gossett.
But Chaney’s regular features, complete lack of vanity and genius with makeup allowed him to appear convincing in many modes. When Chaney dresses as a grandma in a scene in “The Unholy Three,” one wonders if he inspired Alec Guinness in that actor’s performance as Lady Agatha in “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” Even community theater player doing “Greater Tuna” walks in Chaney’s footsteps.
The documentary’s most remarkable scene shows Chaney’s makeup kit — the magic box out of which came those thousand faces. It was nothing more than an ordinary leather carrying case with materials that any high-school thespian could have today. Chaney the makeup man was skilled enough to create a face or a body out of a few small effects.
His faces included the horrible one in “Phantom,” which came in large part from those flared nostrils — created with invisible hooks tied to his skullcap that forced the nostrils up.
Chaney also could have made a fine director. The Internet Movie Database lists him as an uncredited director on “Phantom of the Opera,” and “A Thousand Faces” details the difficulties he and director Rupert Julian had on the set.
For much of the early part of “Phantom of the Opera,” we see only shadows of Chaney’s phantom, or maybe only his hand. Later, when he begin to see him in full, he’s still wearing that white mask. In addition, all the movie’s publicity ostentatiously blanked out Chaney’s face.
We’re now too familiar with the climactic scene in which Mary Philbin rips off the mask while the phantom sits at the organ for it to have precisely the same impact it did on 1925 movie audiences. But when “Jaws” is made only on the condition that the shark not appear for the first hour or when “The Third Man” avoids showing Harry Lime until the third act, silent-film lovers know where the ideas for those delays originated.
One other notable virtue of this documentary is that it shows reminiscences by movie fans in addition to interviews with colleagues and the recounting of biography.
After all, Chaney was a popular star with a reputation for scaring audiences. To show people in their 80s and 90s still getting a gleam in their eyes and a glow on their flesh as they talk about being frightened decades ago is a real tribute to him.
Since so few of Chaney’s films are available on home video, the best thing about “A Thousand Faces” is that it’s part of a two-night festival, along with eight other Chaney movies. One of them is Chaney’s only talking picture, and three others are world television premieres with new scores. That’s the best tribute possible.
WHAT: “Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces”WHERE: Turner Classic MoviesWHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday TCM’s Lon Chaney festivalTuesday: 8 p.m. “Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces”; 9:30 p.m., “Tell It to the Marines”; 11:30 p.m. “Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces”; 1 a.m. Wednesday, “The Ace of Hearts”; 3 a.m., “The Unholy Three” (1930 version); 4:30 a.m., “West of Zanzibar”Oct. 31: 8 p.m., “The Phantom of the Opera”; 10 p.m., “Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces”; 11:30 p.m., “Mr. Wu”; 1 a.m. Nov. 1, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”; 3 a.m., “The Unknown”