REPAIRING LON CHANEY JR.'S LEGACY by David Rosler

Updated: Mar 1



His father, Lon Chaney Sr., was the Silent Screen's biggest star attraction at the time of Chaney Senior's death from throat cancer in 1930. Lon Chaney Jr., born Creighton Chaney and eventually forced by Hollywood to adopt his father's famous name in order to have a career as a screen actor, remains known mainly as a "horror actor" for Universal in the 1940's. All the horror actors aged differently as time passed. Boris Karloff, the original Frankenstein's Monster, adopted the off-screen role of erudite aged English Gentleman as he closed in on the time of his passing in 1969. Dracula's Bela Lugosi died toward the end of the 1950's, the ravages of his heroic victory over morphine addiction which plagued him since his years as an equally-heroic wounded young soldier fighting for freedom in Hungary, still etched in his features.


Chaney apparently drank and the physical effects seem to have shown on his face, though as we shall see, his somewhat enlarged facial features later in life may have been due more to his hereditary weight gain than an addiction to the bottle. But the bottle has become the legacy. And that is about to change.

Malicious gossips never enjoy their base existence more than when they are laughing at the cruel life circumstances of others, and if a cruel life circumstance does not exist to plague some easily-envied celebrity for them to laugh at, as we all know, the gossips'll make something up to get their sick jollies. That's what has become of Chaney's reputation over the decades since his death in 1973.


This editorial attempts to set an unfair record straight. Now don't get me wrong, I cannot say that any Lon Chaney Jr. film makes my top ten list. But Lon Chaney Jr. was, without question, a tremendously gifted actor, one of the best of his era, and arguably better than his illustrious silent-film-pantomime father. Since most other reviewers and film historians who take to pen or keyboard seem to want to indulge their darker sides with "funny drunk" Chaney stories, let's fix the results of that problem here and now. In the hope the man will rest a little easier, at least, let's clear up the gross, wicked and frankly totally undeserved false appearances that are finding their way into motion picture conventional wisdom and put forth only the facts. You'd want the same done for you.

It's easy to see how this legend of drunken has-been needed only a lit match to ignite the fuse and blow up his reputation, because the optics, far removed from reality, are terrible. He did not age well but then in different ways neither did former Universal beauty Julia Adams, of all people, and many others, through no fault of their own; some people just have bad luck in their genes. Add to that that Chaney was known for playing monsters since by the mid-1940's, a somewhat icy calculation at Universal had him playing basically roles which could sometimes be played by stunt men, such as the one-armed, foot dragging Mummy, inexplicably returned to his wrappings after the first film and never to be unwrapped again, with no dialogue, wearing an expressionless mask with no chance to facially emote, with only his left hand free to express the supposed torment of the 3,000-year-old character - and we get it, he pulls it off with one hand bound to his chest.

These utterly thankless roles were developed by Universal not for art but for profit; Chaney, at industry insistence, eventually bore the name of his father, the world-famous Man Of 1,000 Faces, who also played grotesque characters, and so Junior would be forced sideways into roles in films that were mere B-fillers to round out the studio's bottom line.


In-essence, then, Chaney was an already-proven genuinely terrific actor reduced by the studio to a name recognition commodity only, not an artist. Chaney was no slouch, however, having won huge acclaim - and pre-monster stardom - as the gigantically strong but pathetically simple-minded co-lead of Lenny in Of Mice And Men, for which he is still famous among thespians and film historians for his heartbreaking sympathetic performance. He was ultimately featured prominently to good effect in notable high-end Hollywood non-monster features, which will come as a surprise to many. Unlike the current lingering pop culture memory of his screen presence, he was never only a movie monster.

For contrast, Lugosi was practically begging for work by the 1950's and one of Karloff's "classics" as early as the 1940's was "The Ape", a bargain-basement stinker so bad that almost no one has ever even heard of it, today.


However, all three of these actors saw a revived interest in a big way when, in the early 1950's, Universal Studios marketed a package of their horror movies in 16mm for early independent TV stations around the country, stations starved for affordable ratings-getters. Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, the Invisible Man, the Mummy and their better sequels were being seen again for the first time in over a decade and, in some cases, nearly 25 years. A new generation which had barely been born - or had not yet been born - when these horror movies of the 1930's and 1940's were initially exhibited theatrically were getting their first jolt ever of what we now take for granted: imaginative, often well-made 1930's and 1940's gothic monster fantasies watched at-home with the addition of kookie TV horror hosts to further invigorate the proceedings. Suddenly these usually fading luminaries of the motion picture cabinet of curiosities were hurriedly rushed back into service again by producers hoping to please a new, adoring audience for these actors and the macabre, imaginative characters their names represented.

It was during this time that the match was struck that lit the fuse that was to blow up the bad optics and seemingly ruin Chaney Jr.'s much later - and current - posthumous reputation.

An early live ABC Network TV broadcast, in 1951, on a show called "Tales of Tomorrow", capitalized on the science fiction and "Monster Craze" that would eventually result in an avalanche of monster-everything including two prime-time network comedy TV series in the early 1960's, The Munsters and The Addams Family. This particular 30-minute live broadcast episode was called, simply enough, Frankenstein. Chaney, of course, was pressed back into service with another grotesque makeup and no dialogue. On retrospect, and with his full career story in-focus as it is here, it's somewhat surprising he took the role, though Chaney probably saw an opportunity to play sympathetic. Here he plays out what he always said about the monsters; to play them for sympathy. There are vague echoes of his triumph as Lenny in of Mice and Men in his live Frankenstein and his performance is rich and filled with effective pantomime pathos that would have made his father proud.. Of significant note, the makeup in this bargain-basement live Frankenstein was not only ugly, but unflattering. There's an important distinction. The creator of the original monster makeups, Jack Pierce, had a style flair rarely acknowledged; prior to monsters, Pierce was a makeup man who specialized in glamorizing actresses, and accordingly, his monsters had a design elegance despite their grotesque intentions which can be plainly traced as the cause of these characters' iconic image longevity. The original Frankenstein Monster - the first - had a smooth, angular albeit ghastly elegance of his features; the Wolfman - Chaney's "baby", as Junior called him - was, frankly, quite the facially well-proportioned and well-groomed pup; and of course, the icon monster beauty of all time, The Bride Of Frankenstein, was basically a stunning glamour cover on acid and utterly unforgeable as an example of the depth of that makeup man's brilliant design imagination.


Not so Chaney's live TV Frankenstein, an ugly facial patchwork which dispensed with the requisite shoulder pads and body-altering costume, thus emphasizing his unflattering older-middle-aged weight gain, so right away, with no style thought given to the overall effect of the makeup and costume, the audience is inclined to think, "Oh gee, he hasn't aged well." Pierce was available for work at the time, so one wonders why the TV Production didn't hire him.

Then came the single, plainly mis-interpreted moment, watched millions of times on dollar-bin DVDs and on Youtube. Chaney, as the monster, picks up an antique chair in the "castle" (live TV stage), raises the chair as though to smash it... and instead pauses and sets it down. The idea of the urban legend here is that Chaney was too drunk to remember that he was performing in a live broadcast and not a mere rehearsal. Accordingly, the idea concludes, he was so drunk that he set the chair down, to save it for the "actual broadcast" instead of smashing it during the actual broadcast. This singular moment appears to be where the "Lon Chaney Jr. was too drunk to act, Ha Ha" reputation was invented.


Okay, then, let's smash to pieces right here and now not the antique chair, but an unfair reputation more grotesque than the Monster itself.


Believe it or not I have directed live TV. I have also directed well-known actors. I have also produced, storyboarded major studio shows and features, and to a great extent, "done it all" and have worked side-by-side with a wide range of upper-industry types. I have worked alongside saints and drunks, angels and snakes, I am even serving as Managing Editor of the magazine you are reading right now, the oldest and most prestigious name of its kind in the United States, founded in Hollywood in 1909, Films In Review. I've been around. This isn't my first movie rodeo. So with all that under my belt, here's what I think of Chaney's "drunk moment" and subsequent reputation hit.

I DON'T BELIEVE THE ON-SCREEN DRUNK CHANEY STORIES AT ALL. NONE OF IT. PERIOD.

Chaney may - or may not - have been a hard-core boozer, but being married to the same former model for 36 years until his death does not sound like boorish, abusive drunk material to me. Let's start off with that. Chaney Jr. also did not die relatively young of liver disease, but of an odd and rare illness entirely unrelated to drinking at the age of 67, which was about the average lifespan for a U.S. male at that time. That's two strikes against the "chronic alcoholic" legend right there.


Regarding the live, 1951 TV Frankenstein moment, I'd say with near-certainty that judging from the quality of the chair material and the weight of it demonstrated by strong Chaney's body language as he lifts it, that I believe that the chair in question "in the castle of the wealthy doctor" was a rented antique. This means it would never be smashed. The chair looks genuine and TV back then was VERY cheaply produced; a breakaway chair of that quality with upholstery (breakaways almost never have smash-problematic upholstery) would have been unthinkable on the budget. Dramatically destroying an actual antique chair with one powerful throw to the floor by an average man would have been physically impossible. Yet he lifts it as though to destroy it but gently puts it down. Therefore, there can only be one actual reality to what we are seeing at that moment. It seems clear that what we are witnessing is a live broadcast stage floor mis-cue. I believe the guys in the control booth were supposed to cut away - probably with an off-stage sound effect of planks thrown to the floor (presumably to be accomplished when the live sound effects man watched the cutaway on the studio monitor - a cutaway that never occurred, hence no typical crashed boards) - to affect the illusion of the chair being smashed - so as to not damage a rented antique chair (cutaways were typical for that kind of thing in early live TV, and this broadcast was VERY early TV). It seems very plain that everyone - probably the Floor Manager being the central culprit - got their wires crossed during the live telecast. Crossed signals and mis-cues were steadily flowing from TV tubes from morning until night in the early 1950's. Indeed, in a different episode the same series we see Leslie Neilson playing an astronaut supposedly on the planet Mars and you can see beyond the top of the tiny painted Mars backdrop to the studio scaffolding above it very plainly in several shots.

A polished and very expensive-looking antique chair is unsurprisingly not destroyed by the obviously sober Chaney; the surprise lies in the obviously scripted live TV cutaway which never happens.

Live TV was a very complicated and anxiety-ridden operation back then. Another good illustration of this fact is comedy's Burns and Allen's first live sitcom telecast, which was very early television, also, and the whole viewing experience is a jaw-dropping escapade into cluelessness; huge, electronic cameras and their operators cross each other in full view of each other - and to the probable astonishment of the at-home audience; the cameras pull back very far beyond the edges of the sets, thus displaying for all the world to see the stage flotsam beyond, actors awaiting their entrance cues, the stage set construction on the reverse side of the walls not to mention awkward silences and blown lines; basically a whole encyclopedia of examples of how to screw up a live telecast beyond the capabilities of most mortal men. This was the world of live network comedy and drama in the early days of the medium at the time of the Frankenstein live broadcast.

I know actors on-set. The idea that Chaney was drunk on-set is plainly absurd. A live show with so much crew inexperience with television in that early era would mean the actors and technical crew needed to be on-their-game millisecond-to-millisecond or the whole operation would simply fall apart in front of the world. In that same Frankenstein live telecast, other actors walk in one direction and then suddenly turn in another direction; they misdeliver lines and quickly correct the line, re-takes not an option - in a manner not conducive of the effect of colloquial conversation but rather essentially amount to on-screen admissions of mistakes from the actors; in other words, everyone was running flat-out for their lives for the whole 30 minutes while the entire world was watching. The idea that Chaney Jr. was so drunk he did not know he was live but was able to get through the endless myriad of other - and very unusual - live cues for his character is simply utterly and stupidly ridiculous. Keeping it real in the everyday sense: the notion is totally impossible. It could not have happened. There is something else to bear in mind which is a bit more basic: playing for frightening pathos - a crippled mind wracked with a lack of understanding plainly being his direction - his performance as the monster here is actually exceptional at points. Besides all else, Chaney could not possibly have been drunk to be that good.

For a direct comparison, in the mid-50's, only a few years later, Chaney was on the Red Skelton show, a comedy variety show with many comedy skits featuring Red's assortment of ridiculous characters, for a Halloween telecast, also live, with Dracula's Bela Lugosi and then-popular Los Angeles TV horror-hostess Vampira. Not only does Chaney seem the most sober of anyone on-stage, he reminds others of their lines when they awkwardly stall, to the live-TV hilarity of one and all, deadpan ad-libbing beautifully (breaking the forth wall and "showing the cracks" intentionally in a comedy show was very much in-vogue at that time to give the audience a feeling of being part of the actual proceedings and 'in on the joke".) He was also so not drunk that he was invited back on to that same program four more times without the other stars. But even in this Halloween show, Chaney plays a wolfman character in baggy clothes and a messy wig who behaves like Lugosi's stupid pet dog; in other words, more inelegant, down-and-out optics.


What we see much more commonly today of Chaney in the 1950's are low-budget horror theatrical drive-in movies and the TV Frankenstein, all grungy characters like the ones he played in The Cyclops (in which he's excellent with decent dialogue and far, far above the material), The Alligator People (playing a dirty, rural drunk with a hook for one hand). Similarly, in The Wolfman screenwriter-turned-producer/director Curt Siodmak's Swedish horror TV anthology series of the time, not aired in America, 13 Demon Street, Chaney as host is plainly solid every time and gives some very good intros as the criminal who must endure living in a sort of timeless hell on 13 Demon Street until the anthology can find a crime more heinous than his own (which is never described). However, once again, the optics are terrible: what we see is an extremely grungy and disheveled on-screen presence (image below).

This pattern repeats over and over: Chaney's acting is again sharp as a tack in the very popular early 1960's TV show, Route 66, in which he appears with Karloff and Peter Lorrie - another Halloween nod - but we never see him out of monster makeup! So what is left today of his more-easily-seen work from the 1950's and 1960's is a handful of grungy characters and a supposed drunken mis-cue. Once again, the readily-available optics circulating at-large today are terrible and overall suggest a lonely, skid-row poverty existence, since no one ever mentions his 36-year marriage (until his death) to a former fashion model and the very significant productions in which he appeared later in life.


However, please know, dear reader, the bright and sunny good news: Chaney was also clear as glass and not-always-quite-so-grungy in approximately 80 other movie and TV guest character appearances through those same early-1950's through the late-1960's years. These were mostly popular westerns on film, but also other shows and movies of every variety. This fact is absolutely critically important for Lon Chaney Jr.'s legacy because this was a time of enormous TV guest star success for Chaney. Karloff, Lugosi, Rathbone, Lorre, et al could not begin to match his workload, in which by my count off IMDB averaged fully 7 featured dramatic TV guest roles a year over a 15-year period while also making a feature or two each year! That's not the sad career of a fading monster movie drunk! This is a guy who was all over his TV guest-star game, learning his lines, hitting his marks, being nice to everyone (all who worked with him - except Wolfman co-star Evelyn Ankers who took a dislike to him for some reason) described Chaney Jr as a polite, quiet and friendly gentleman), showing up on time, not causing problems... otherwise with tight TV production schedules he would never have been hired after the first year when his reputation, theoretically, as a supposed drunk, would have preceded him. Therefore, he must have had a great reputation in town because he had more steady work than any of his other Universal contemporaries by far; hardly anyone from Universal's 1940's movie stable of very famous "genre actors" could touch how busy he was until his semi-retirement in 1970.

Chaney's movie and TV screen credits list 196. Well-regarded elder-statesman Karloff's lists at only barely more at 204. But 53 of Karloff's listed films were made in the silent era, playing tiny bit parts when they were shooting complete low-end silent features in a few days! So while we remember Karloff as elegant and gentlemanly and Chaney as less than that to say the least, their screen credits tell a different, truer tale of desired screen presence and workload. They all wanted work by the 1950's. Desperately. Of that special breed of the genre, only Chaney was getting it.

Among significant featured roles in prestige A-features he appeared in during the 1950's and 1960's include, the very, extremely classic, 4-time Oscar winner High Noon with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, rightfully regarded was one of the greatest films of the 1950's; again with Gary Cooper that same year in Springfield Rifle; Stanley Kramer's 2-time Oscar winner, The Defiant Ones with Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier; Stanley Kramer's Oscar-nominated Not As A Stranger with Olivia DeHavilland, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra and Lee Marvin; Casanova's Big Night with Bob Hope and Dorothy Fontaine; Raoul Walsh's A Lion Is In The Streets with James Cagney, as well as other less significant but respectable features such as such as Pardners with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (and a host of recognizable names); Behave Yourself with Farley Granger and Shelley Winters; Welcome To Hard Times with Henry Fonda; The Indian Fighter with Kirk Douglas. From 1950 until his death, a timeline of which current "respected film historians" imagine Chaney had been written off by Hollywood, Chaney's feature films alone, not counting many television appearances, number fifty-five and for each low-budget dog there is an impressive A-List feature with huge star names, including several Oscar nominees and a couple of multiple Oscar winners. This is a remarkable record for a man who had aged far past his leading man years. Indeed, it can be accurately said that by the time Universal had wrung out the final penny from Chaney Jr.'s Monster Movie last name in the late 1940's, many of Lon Chaney Jr.'s best movies still lay before him in supporting character roles. We all deeply love The Wolfman, but keeping it real, it sure wasn't 4-time Oscar-winner High Noon! This record is not that of a sad drunk on the skids!

These unarguable facts basically totally and completely explode the myth of Chaney the sad drunk, too inebriated to work on-set. In reality what we understand to be the fact of the matter is a guy who was on his game. They say, maybe he did or didn't, "struggle with the bottle" - it's starting to look like there was indeed no "struggle" at all - but if he did, unlike the great John Barrymore, very obviously did not allow it to effect his work, because in a town where time is money, Hollywood didn't hire drunks. Indeed, they stopped hiring Barrymore, regarded as the greatest living actor of his day, as they stopped hiring other truly legendary alcoholics of the silver screen. But unlike his horror movie contemporaries of the 1940's, Karloff and Lugosi, Rathbone and others, Lon Chaney Jr. was always very much in demand as his high number of TV roles attest. This blows apart the remotest chance that Lon Chaney Jr. was a movie actor drunk. Period.

If western movies and TV shows were all the rage in nostalgic hindsight today instead of horror and sci-fi movies and TV shows, we would all be very familiar with Lon Chaney Jr. in the 1950's through the end of the 1960's: a long-married man appearing seemingly endlessly in westerns and crime dramas, who was devoted, responsible, clear-headed, immensely talented, apparently extremely likeable...

… and stone cold sober on-screen as his very long list of excellent movie and TV performances - and apparently many enthusiastic casting directors - prove; he was often hired back on many TV shows to reprise characters or to play new ones while his other sober contemporaries were begging for work. Drunks don't get hired like that. Not ever. Not ever. No one needs those kinds of headaches. It doesn't happen. Not ever.

"Lon Chaney Jr., the sad drunk has-been actor" of lore is a lie, and the lie is taking hold because of a malicious myth created by snickering, drooling losers who don't know what they're talking about and who have nothing better to do on the internet except mock others instead of taking a hard and demoralizing look in their own mirror. Lon Chaney Jr. was very obviously an absolutely terrific actor, on his game, making friends everywhere he went and being asked back time and time again in Hollywood, a town famous for using talent one year and spitting it out the next. An actor with amazing continual-work longevity in the business. He was a great actor, sober on-set and location and obviously still entirely on his game until the end. Spread the word. You would want the same done for you.


Rest In Peace, Creighton Chaney. Well done.



If you enjoyed this review you may enjoy these other reviews and op-eds at FIR TRUE HORROR MOVIES VS GOTHIC FANTASIES https://www.filmsinreview.com/post/today-s-true-horror-movies-and-yesteryear-s-gothic-fantasies-opinion-by-david-rosler


THE CYCLOPS Blue-ray review https://www.filmsinreview.com/post/the-cyclops-warner-archive-collection-a-blu-ray-review-by-roy-frumkes