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Lon Chaney Jr Deserves His Rightful Place on the Hollywood Walk of Fame



Lon Chaney Jr Deserves His Rightful Place on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

I was recently spending some time on Facebook and Twitter, something I’m guilty of doing all too often, when I came across this tidbit of information: Lon Chaney, Jr. does not have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That didn’t sound quite right to me. How could that be possible? So I decided to check this fact by visiting the Walk of Fame’s web site. I put Chaney’s name into the search function. Surely enough, the name of Chaney, Jr. did not turn up. His father, Lon Chaney, Sr. happens to be one of the many actors who does have a star on the Walk of Fame, but his son is curiously excluded from the distinction.

Now there are hordes of famous actors and actresses who do not have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Many of them are current performers within the industry, so it’s not unreasonable to think that some of them will earn their stars later in their careers or after they have retired. In other cases, some actors and actors have turned down the honor; they simply did not want the sidewalk star in Hollywood, for whatever the reason.

Chaney’s case is very different from those situations. He has not acted since the early 1970s. He passed away nearly 50 years, having died in 1973. And to my knowledge he never turned down the chance to have a star on the Walk of Fame. The lack of a presence on the Walk of Fame sounds like an out-and-out snub. And that needs to change.

On a personal note, Lon Chaney, Jr. was one of my favorite actors. That alone doesn’t make him worthy of any honors, but it does serve as a starting point. Born Creighton Tull Chaney in Oklahoma in 1906, he reluctantly became Lon Chaney, Jr., out of Universal Studios’ desire to connect him to his enormously talented and accomplished father. The elder Chaney was one of the legends of the silent era, a man who acted through gestures and movements rather than through his voice, while also showcasing an extraordinary ability to apply makeup and change his body and facial appearance in early unfathomable ways.

The younger Chaney did not have the acting versatility of his father, nor the talent to create makeup and effects, but he was still a very capable and bankable star for Universal Studios. At one time, as far back as the early 1940s, the studio regarded him as the heir apparent to Boris Karloff.

Chaney, Jr. did have his shortcomings as an actor. His lack of range, along with a propensity for lacking energy and passion, sometimes set him back. Yet, he had plenty of positive attributes, including a strong screen presence, an intimidating brute force physicality, and an innate ability to play characters who elicit our empathy and concern.

Even in his younger years, several of Chaney’s early performances in horror gave us an indication of his talent. Let’s take a closer look at some of those memorable roles.

Man Made Monster (1941):

Man Made Monster 1941

At this point, Chaney was still a relative unknown, but he started to garner some attention for his starring performance as Dan McCormick, a seemingly ordinary man who is the lone survivor of a bus accident in which all other passengers have been electrocuted. McCormick’s immunity to electricity results in him becoming “Dynamo Dan,” a sideshow attraction. He eventually draws the attention of an evil scientist (Lionel Atwill), who exposes Dynamo Dan to additional electricity, to the point that anyone he touches will die.

Man Made Monster was produced on a low budget with limited special effects, but Chaney elevates the material with a sympathetic, sincere, and tragic performance. Universal Studios certainly took notice of Chaney in this film, to the point that studio executives tabbed him as the choice to play The Wolf Man later that same year.

The Wolf Man (1941):

The Wolf Man Lon Chaney Jr

In what would become his signature role, Chaney took on a two-pronged performance, first as Lawrence Talbot, the son of a British nobleman who has been summoned to his homeland by his father. Shortly thereafter, a werewolf bite from a traveling gypsy (played by Bela Lugosi) will transform Talbot into a raging monster, one who undergoes the horrific change during each full moon.

In becoming the lead performer in The Wolf Man, Chaney capably handles both roles, as different as they are. As the human Talbot, he is not exactly British in his voice or manner, but he is a tormented character who hates being a monster and longs for a return to normalcy. As the Wolf Man, Chaney is a terrifying and relentless creature, one who has no sympathy for his victims, and is simply consumed by the animalistic need to ravage and destroy. In assuming the burden of two roles, Chaney plays them both to perfection. It’s no wonder that Universal tabbed him to play The Wolf Man four more times, and never allowed any other actor to even audition for the character.

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943):

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man Lon Chaney Jr Talbot

As always, Chaney is very good as Talbot and The Wolf Man. Here he is determined to find a cure for his lycanthropy, but his mission becomes sidetracked by the discovery of Frankenstein’s Monster, played by Lugosi. In one particularly stirring scene, Chaney nervously observes the performance of the Festival of the New Wine before hearing the singer emphasize the lyric, “Life is short, and death his long,” This repeated chorus causes Chaney to erupt into a tantrum of Ruthian proportions. For those claiming that Chaney lacked passion in his acting, this scene certainly indicates otherwise.

Son of Dracula (1943):

Son of Dracula 1943

This film shows us Chaney in one of his lesser-known roles, but he is no less skilled in this portrayal of a monster that is very different from a werewolf. The more that I watch Chaney in Son of Dracula, the more that I come to appreciate his performance. Chaney brings a deep sense of mystery to the role of Dracula, or Alucard as he is called in the movie, along with a kind of physicality not seen with the usual actors (like a John Carradine) who have played Dracula, often with thin-and-drawn appearances that border on the bloodless.

With slick-backed hair and a slightly leaner build than we’re accustomed to seeing from him, Chaney looks sleeker and more athletic, giving Dracula an appropriate appearance and feel. He is certainly not the hulking figure that we see in The Ghost of Frankenstein, but still retains enough physical strength to make Dracula more intimidating and powerful. Chaney also gives off an air of mystery, feeding well into the sinister nature of Dracula. Chaney is no Lugosi (who is?), but does a very good job in his first and only portrayal of the famed vampire. Most critics have not given Chaney his due here, but his performance as Dracula may be the most overlooked of his career.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948):

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein Lon Chaney Jr as Wolfman

Playing the Wolf Man for the fifth and final time, Chaney had completely mastered the role, while withstanding the challenge of his first horror/comedy. In this film, Lawrence Talbot is determined to end Dracula’s reign of terror and enlists the help of Abbott and Costello, two shipping clerks, as part of his plan. Although Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein combines horror with comedy, Chaney plays the perfect straight man against the humorous antics of Lou and Bud; he resists the temptation to crack a smile at Costello’s clowning, instead maintaining a serious appearance as part of his determined mission to eradicate Dracula. Chaney’s performance works beautifully, helping this film become a pop culture classic.

By the end of the 1940s, Chaney’s prime years in horror had seemingly come and gone, but he moved on to other genres before making a horror comeback of sorts in the 1960s. Even as his health suffered badly, in part due to chronic alcoholism, and as he struggled with enormous weight gain, he still managed to make several good films. The list of latter-day Chaney projects include The Haunted Palace (in which he co-starred with Vincent Price) the underrated Witchcraft, and the cult classic, Spider Baby. In the latter film, Chaney shows that he still possessed major acting chops, as he delivers one of his more nuanced performances. Chaney plays the caretaker of three young adults plagued by an illness that makes them regress into childhood, made all the worse by violent tendencies. Even though Chaney’s physical appearance had deteriorated due to alcohol and a poor diet, he showed clearly that he could still deliver the goods, especially when given appropriate and worthwhile material.

As much as I had already developed a liking for Chaney and his volume of work, I became more appreciative of his talents after reading the book, Lon Chaney: Horror Film Star, written by Don Smith. Smith succeeds in creating a clear portrait of a man who was not well-treated by his father and was almost certainly abused by the elder Chaney, fell into alcoholism at an early age, and battled emotional problems so daunting that he once attempted suicide.

In spite of his personal demons, Chaney was well-liked by most of his fellow actors; they enjoyed his sense of humor, his practical jokes, and his generally good nature. And as author Smith argues successfully, Chaney was a far better actor than he was given credit for, not just in horror but in the genres of westerns and dramas. In addition to his many horror films, he also turned in critically-acclaimed performances in Of Mice and Men, High Noon, and “The Defiant Ones”. Given all of these efforts, his range and versatility are revealed as much better than advertised. Smith makes a cogent and believable argument for Chaney as one of our great character actors, one who was terrific in supporting roles, but could also handle the occasional starring performance.

There has always been a tendency to dismiss Chaney because of his limits as an actor, and because he did not live up to the billing of his father, known as “The Man of a 1,000 Faces.” But the younger Chaney had his own strengths, most prominently the ability to play monsters while also eliciting some degree of sympathy. He was also versatile enough to portray the four headlining monsters of Universal Studios – The Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy – something that no other Universal actor was able to match. Karloff never did that, nor did Lugosi. Only Chaney did.

Perhaps Lon Chaney, Jr. was not a great actor in the strictest sense, but he was a great performer, and that should vault him to the status of a true legend. When I think of the great horror actors of the 20th century, I certainly think of the elder Chaney, Karloff, Lugosi, Vincent Price, and Peter Cushing, but at the very least I would include Lon Chaney, Jr. in the second tier of that conversation. And that should be sufficient enough for the man to take his rightful place on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Lon Chaney, Jr. deserves nothing less.

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