Lon Chaney was the main horror star of the silent era, known for the extreme physical lengths he went to in playing the likes of The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His only sound film, The Unholy 3, showed that he would have continued his reign had he not tragically succumbed to cancer mere months later. With this season we celebrate Chaney’s unique contribution to cinema.
He Who Gets Slapped
Victor Sjostrom | USA | 1924 | 80 minutes
Chaney plays a scientist, Paul Beamont, whose patron, Baron Regnard, takes his wife and the credit for his work. Five years later and Beaumont is now a circus clown, He Who Gets Slapped. One night he notices the Baron in the audience…
Roland West | USA | 1925 | 86 minutes
An early entry in the Old Dark House / Cat and the Canary horror-comedy sub-genre. Chaney is the mad doctor intent on discovering the secret of eternal life.
The Unholy Three
Tod Browning | USA | 1925 | 86 minutes
The title characters are circus performers – Chaney’s ventriloquist, a strongman and a midget – who use their talents to form an unusual team of jewel robbers. Directed by Chaney’s most famous collaborator, Tod “Freaks” Browning.
William Nigh | USA | 1927 | 90 minutes
Chaney is the titular Chinese patriarch, whose grand-daughter is dishonoured by a young Englishman. Chaney’s sensitive performance and the presence of Chinese-American star Anna May-Wong help the film avoid the worst Yellow Peril clichés.
Laugh Clown Laugh
Herbert Brenon | USA | 1928 | 73 minutes
Chaney plays a circus clown who raises an abandoned child, only to develop uncomfortable feelings for her as she becomes a young woman and attracts the attentions of a rich man, Luigi. Lensed by James Wong Howe, the film is also notable for having two alternate endings.
Tod Browning | USA | 1927 | 50 minutes
Arguably Chaney’s finest performance and almost certainly his most perverse: Alonzo is a supposedly armless knife-thrower whose passion for his circus partner Nanon, who cannot bear to be touched, leads him to have his arms amputated. Joan Crawford, who plays Nanon, said she learned more about acting from working alongside Chaney than the rest of her career combined.
Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces
Kevin Brownlow | USA | 2000 | 85 minutes
Directed by film historian and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow and narrated by Kenneth Branagh, this documentary tells the inter-related stories of Chaney’s life and film career.