His real name was Creighton Tull Chaney, and he was the Tim Curry and Andy Serkis of his time. Sure, there were others, not the least of which were the great Bela Lugosi and the masterful Boris Karloff. But to my way of thinking, Lon Chaney Junior was the best–in no small part because he got to play the coolest monster.
Sure, Logosi’s Dracula could suck you dry of blood, and Karloff’s Frankenstein would turn your red-cells to icicles, but they weren’t a patch on The Wolfman, who would as soon rip you to shreds as look at you. He was Jack the Ripper in a bad fur and rubber coat, and his brilliant portrayal of old Wolfie, haunted my childhood dreams. Every Friday late-night Lon Chaney horror movie lives on in my memory.
Chaney, the son of another famous silent-film actor of the same name, would play Larry Talbot, the unfortunate victim of a werewolf bite, in several films. Moonlight was not a fun thing for Larry. According to an old gypsy lady in the film, “Even a man who is pure of heart, and says his prayers at night, may turn to a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms, and the moon is full and bright.”
She was not a cheery person. And neither was Talbot when the moon came out. A gentle man by nature, Talbot turned into a true monster in every sense of the word when the full-moon light hit him. And it was a masterful transformation indeed.
It always took place in front of a mirror, and in an age before special-effects, it was very well-done indeed. It sent chills down my spine, and I had seen it about a thousand times. I invite anyone who hasn’t seen this on film to view one of the many Chaney clips available on YouTube. It is worth the visit. These films were made in the days before color–in beautiful black and white. Color is great for most things, but the old monster flicks . . . well, no way. Light and especially shadow, was everything in those old films.
Chaney played many wonderful roles in his life, but he could never outlive Larry Talbot. His later roles reflected his monster past. He played more than a few lunatics and psychopaths in his time.
Born in 1906, he left this Earth in 1973, just sixty-seven years old and the victim of a heart-attack. Having lived a hard life, he was pretty much used-up. At the height of his career Cheney had a reputation for defending both young actors just starting out in the business, and very old ones, in the sunset of their years. He would often threaten to walk off the set if the studio did not treat these folks with respect. He was an activist before it popular to be one.
Chaney was known as a sweet and gentle man. Except when he was “in his cups.” But then he was part Irish, so he really couldn’t help it.
Lon and his drinking buddy Broderick Crawford were known as “the monsters” around Universal Studios because of their drunken behavior that frequently resulted in bloodshed at the local watering holes.
When Chaney died, his body was donated for medical research. His corpse, in true classic horror film fashion, was dissected by medical students, and the medical school was impressed enough with what they found, to keep his liver and lungs in jars as specimens of what extreme alcohol and tobacco abuse can do to human organs. A fitting final tribute for the old Thespian.
Because of the donation of his body to science, there is no grave to mark his final resting place. No shrine to visit on a cold moonlit October night.
This had led more than a few, to speculate, in their idle moments, that perhaps the old master is out there still, somewhere . . . waiting . . . just the other side of that tree.
Thanks for the memories Lon. May you reside in Peace wherever you are. And may God rest your very lovely monstrously big heart.
Good night. And happy nightmares.
Next up–THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.