Oct 23, 2007

Universal Monsters Part 3 The Chaney Dynasty

Over the years, there's been a persistent rumor that when Universal first bought the movie rights to Dracula, they wanted Lon Chaney Sr. as their "Count". Considering Universal's track record with Chaney, the choice made sense. He had made big money for the studio in his roles as Quasimodo in " The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) and Erik the Phantom in "Phantom of the Opera".(1927).

In his time, Lon Chaney was known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces". He used his talents as both actor and makeup artist to become one of Hollywood's top stars of the silent era. Chaney would use every bit of stage craft and technology at his disposal to create a role from the outside in. Audiences were fascinated with his ability to transform himself into characters with hideous deformities. As an actor, Chaney had found a way to make these characters physically scary and yet emotionally vulnerable. This knack for making monsters likable, scared thousands of people into the theaters of the 20's. It was a prime reason for the box office success of both Phantom & Hunchback and created the foundation of good cinema horror.

If the rumor of Chaney as Dracula is at all true, Universal had a few big problems to solve before Chaney could have donned the fangs. For one thing, he was now under contract with MGM. I don't know enough of Lon's personal history to say why he decided to move to another studio, but I'll bet it would have taken a lot of money and massage to get him back. I don't think Universal Studios had enough of either.

Sadly, the rumor became a moot point when Lon Chaney died from throat cancer in 1930. At the time of his death Lon Chaney was only 47 years old, but in his short time on the screen, he had shown movie audiences what great special effects makeup can do and he gave Universal it's first taste of big box office horror.

While the popularity of Dracula with Chaney in the lead can be debated, I can say with certainty that if he had taken the role, modern trick or treaters would need more than white face, plastic fangs and a cape to look like the "King of the Vampires."Basil Gogos illustration of Lon Chaney in his role as a vampire in "London After Midnight" (1927) Famous Monsters Magazine

Universal Monsters 3.1 Lon Chaney Jr. (The Sequal)

After the death of his father in 1930, Creighton Chaney decided to take acting seriously. The big shy 24 year old son of Lon Chaney was always drawn to his fathers profession but, he had only worked on the fringes of the business. More than one studio agreed to sign him to a contract if he would change his name to Lon Chaney Junior. Creighton refused and learned his craft doing bit parts and stunt work.

Finally after a few years in the trenches, Creighton agreed to change his name. The upside was a lot more parts, the downside was Hollywood assumed he knew as much about the business as his dad. Chaney's big break came when he played Lennie in John Steinbeck's "play-novelette" turned movie "Of Mice & Men" (1939). The favorable reviews got him a contract with Universal.

In 1941 "Junior "continued the Chaney monster dynasty by playing Lawrence Talbot, a young man who becomes a werewolf after trying to stop a vicious wolf attack. The Wolf Man (1941) was a success (yes, I could have said howling success, but sometimes it's just too easy) and Chaney played "Hairy" Larry for 5 or 6 more films in the 40's. In the endless parade of monster sequels he also played the Mummy, Dracula and Frankenstein's monster.

At the time of Creighton's death in 1973, he was especially proud of the fact he had played Talbot's every role on the big or small screen, a record that will stand until 2009 when Benicio Del Toro plays Larry Talbot in a modern remake of the original film.

It's not often two generations manage to leave a mark in the movie business, but both Lon and Creighton Chaney were good at finding and defining imaginative roles and the Chaney monster dynasty will be be part of movie history for a very long time. It helps that they managed to create a few memorable characters for a movie genre exceptionally good at remembering their dead.

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