Just say the word “werewolf” and the image summoned readily to most minds is that of Lon Chaney Jr., in the classic Universal wolf man makeup. He will forever hold a special place in the hearts of werewolf fanatics everywhere, and without his contributions (and the contributions of his father), it’s impossible to say what contemporary horror films would look like.
Lon Chaney Jr. was born Creighton Chaney in 1906 to parents Lon and Cleva, who were both touring vaudeville performers. Creighton would spend most of his childhood on the road, and was intimately connected to show business his entire life.
Cleva was a gifted singer, and Lon Chaney Sr. was a highly skilled actor, particularly when it came to pantomime and non verbal communication. Creighton’s parents were both deaf mute, and he had to communicate with them through sign and language and pantomime his entire life. Creighton would point out during a televised interview with Art Baker that in many of his father’s most famous roles, many of his movements and facial expressions were in some way derivative of sign language expressions.
Lon and Cleva shared an intense relationship, and they would fight frequently. One night in 1913, aftera particularly volatile argument with Lon, Cleva attempted suicide at the Majestic Theater in Los Angeles by drinking a vial of mercuric chloride during a production that Lon was managing. Cleva received immediate medical attention, but her vocal chords were permanently destroyed, and so too was their marriage…
Lon and Cleva divorced, and the controversy surrounding the incident was damaging to Lon both professionally and personally. He was incapable of working on the Vaudeville circuit, and the courts would not grant custody rights of Creighton to either parent, because Lon and Cleva’s lifestyle was perceived as being unstable thanks to Cleva’s suicide attempt. Creighton was then sent to live with his paternal grandparents, which meant that Creighton, like his father, was forced to learn sign language, and was thus inadvertently beginning to acquire fragments of his father’s skillset.
Lon was becoming a highly successful character actor in Hollywood, thanks largely to his immense skill with special effects makeup and his vast athletic prowess, which enabled him to perform harrowing stunts on set. He was becoming known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” Under contract with Universal Studios, he would appear in two of the most iconic horror films of all time: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Lon was a highly in-demand character actor, achieving special notoriety for his sympathetic and psychologically complex portrayal of monstrous or deformed characters.
But despite his own personal good fortune in the arts, Lon had always discouraged Creighton from pursuing a career in acting, insisting that his son go into business instead. At the pinnacle of his career, Lon died of bronchial cancer, and shortly thereafter, Creighton took it upon himself to pursue his own career as an actor. Creighton landed his first on screen role in the film Girl Crazy (1932), which ended up being the first of six consecutive films he would act in for RKO.
Creighton struggled to find work as an actor on his own terms, and the studios were pressuring him to adapt his father’s name for marquee value. In 1935, Creighton, desperate for work, caved and agreed to work under the stage name Lon Chaney Jr., and almost immediately, began receiving better work offers. In 1936, Chaney Jr. starred in the film Undersea Kingdom film serial. He played a villainous, underwater henchman in Atlantis. this was Chaney Jr.’s first role in a science-fiction serial. Shortly thereafter, he was offered a career-changing contract with 20th Century Fox, and starred in 30 films over the course of the following two years. He would deliver one of his most critically acclaimed performances as Lenny, the mentally challenged, wayward laborer in Of Mice and Men (1939) starring alongside Burgess Meredith.
Creighton went on to became a horror icon as his successors began to dwindle in popularity. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (monolithic figures for their roles in classic Universal horror films) peaked in popularity in 1939 with the release of Son of Frankenstein. That following year, Lugosi and Karloff would again share top billing in the film Black Friday (1940), which was a box-office disappointment. Eager to re-energize their horror productions, Universal approached Lon and began casting him in heavy makeup horror roles. His breakthrough role came in The Wolf Man (1941), with Creighton alongside horror veterans like Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi himself. Creighton’s makeup in the film was done by Jack Pierce, who had of course worked on the classic Universal horror films of the thirties. The makeup, which consisted of putty, rubber, and yak fur, took hours and hours to apply.
Universal Studios followed up the success of The Wolf Man by casting creighton as the second actor, after Boris Karloff, to portray Frankenstein, in the film Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). Between 1941 and 1946, Chaney would appear in 30 films for Universal, including: House of Frankenstein (1944), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and House of Dracula (1945). By the late forties, however, the classic horror movie villains were, by and large, regarded by post-war audiences as more funny than scary. This was evidenced by the film Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which was a slapstick horror-comedy which enlisted the likes of Creighton (reprising his famous role as the Wolf-Man), and other horror veterans like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The once fearsome monsters were now subject to mockery. Shifting public tastes, coupled with Creighton’s increasingly problematic alcoholism, hurt his career considerably.
Regardless, several of the horror films he appeared in are still frequently shown on television (especially around Halloween time) and they are still, from time to time, shown on the big screen. While he never wanted to be eclipsed by his father’s shadow, and even though it wasn’t always smooth sailing for Creighton, there’s no disputing that Lon Chaney Jr. etched out his own special place, not only within the niche of mainstream horror films, but also within the collective consciousness, as his images appears everywhere from calendars, to t-shirts, to postage stamps.
Author Bio: Brandon Engel is an entertainment blogger for satellitestarinternet.com whose favorite horror film is the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and his favorite vintage Halloween breakfast cereal is Franken Berry.