Why no one has ever produced a cinematic biopic treatment of the Chaney boys ( Lon Sr. and Lon Jr.) is baffling. Bela Lugosi was given quite a spotlight in Ed Wood (1994), and Boris Karloff was a supporting character in Gods and Monsters (1998). Off-screen, Karloff might have made for a nice neighbor, but being the workaholic he was, his biography is dull going. Of course, Lugosi had elements of drug addiction, pathos, and parody late in life working for him. While the Chaneys lacked the European mystery of Karloff and Lugosi, there’s an aptness in these American-bred father and son icons because, as the past year has revealed, Europe has doodly-squat on ‘Murica when it comes to the banality of authentic horror.
From the slivers of information that we have received over the years through peer recollections and various articles, the Chaneys would make for one helluva psycho drama, preferably directed by someone with the sensibilities of a David Cronenberg. No definitive biography has been written about either, and cinematically there’s only a ludicrously whitewashed biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) starring James Cagney as daddy Chaney. Part of the reason for lack of a substantial biography could be the almost obsessive protectiveness of the Chaney estate, who seem to have made things consistently difficult for potential biographers. However, it is also telling that the estate has, as far I know, never disputed the more colorful biographical tidbits that have been given about their silver screen patriarchs.
There must have been something of the masochist in the elder Chaney, who went though much self-inflicted suffering for his art, including looping wires around his eye sockets and wearing false teeth so tight that shots had to be completed quickly before he started bleeding. For Quasimodo, he wore a back prosthetic so heavy that (coupled with instructions to an extra to not spare the whip in the famous beating scene) it sent Lon Sr. to the hospital for an extended stay. Apparently, he was also quite a sadist, and would lock Creighton (Lon Jr.’s birth name) in a closet after razor strap beatings for punishment. (Senior was also psychologically abusive, as when he told Junior that mommy was dead, when in fact she was quite alive).
Such heredity and abuse certainly was instrumental in composing Lon Chaney Jr. as something of a real life lycanthrope with horrific daddy issues. In assessing Jr. as a pale copy of his father, the popular and critical consensus is spot on (for once). In addition to obsessively (and vainly) trying to outdo daddy, Jr. was also a raging alcoholic, had drug problems, and was prone to a violent temper; which, according to some (including writer Curt Siodmak) sprang from guilt over latent homosexuality. However, when actually being directed, instead of just being told to do Lennie from Of Mice and Men again, Chaney, Jr., if not a great actor per se, was memorable in numerous character parts (few of which are in the horror genre).
The role of Lennie was perfectly tailored for Chaney, and director Lewis Milestone shrewdly took advantage of the actor’s slow-wittedness. After a decade in bit parts (billed under his given name), the stage was set for Chaney, Jr.’s unlikely genre stardom.
Although he’s best known to genre fans as Lawrence Talbot from 1941’s The Wolf Man, Chaney’s first starring horror role, Man-Made Monster (1941) suited him better. Both films were directed by George Waggner, and although neither is a classic, at least the earlier one wasn’t penned by perennial hack Siodmak. In Man-Made Monster Chaney is cast as husky simpleton Dan McCormick, who miraculously survives an accidental electrocution. Waggner, playing to Chaney’s personality, draws a natural performance from the actor, who is ably aided by mad scientist Lionel Atwill (in full leering ham mode), transforming poor Lon into an electric man. Already, Chaney, like his father before him, brings an element of pathos to the role, despite the production’s B trappings.
The Wolf Man cast Chaney as Universal’s 1940’s answer to Karloff and Lugosi, but the results were mixed, despite a very strong box office. Although Siodmak’s sloppy script does make allowances for Chaney’s American accident (he’s been abroad for eighteen years), it’s not convincing; nor is Chaney as Evelyn Ankers’ love interest. Although the two made several films together, they have little chemistry, and there was intense animosity between them off-screen—so much so she dubbed him a “brute with bad breath.” Chaney was prone to bully the actresses and often made cutting cracks about her weight, going so far as to dub a harness, which enabled him to lift her, as the Ankers’ harness, much to her chagrin. He also “playfully” assaulted Ankers’ husband once , but got his comeuppance when her hubby (a military officer) chided macho Chaney for draft-dodging.
Among the many (sort of) amusing anecdotes Ankers shared regarding Chaney was his friendship with drinking pal Broderick Crawford, with whom he often got together on weekends so they could get smashed and beat the hell out of each other. Apparently, Universal executives heard about the boys’ weekend behavior and decided to take advantage of it, casting them (together with Ankers) in Erle C. Kenton’s North to the Klondike (1942). Apparently, what’s on screen paled compared to the real thing.
Back in Wolf Man-land, makeup guru Jack Pierce found no humor in Chaney’s slovenliness, and confessed to understandable anxiety about applying yak hair to a boorish drunk for hours on end.
Universal erred badly casting Chaney as the monster in 1942’s Ghost of Frankenstein. Oddly, director Erle C. Kenton can’t draw an ounce of sympathy out of the actor who played Lennie. Instead, he directs Chaney as a hulking brute, more robot than man. Ghost is formulaic, with everything about it feeling repetitive and fatigued—surprisingly, even Lugosi as Ygor. One production incident made the rounds in period horror magazines: Chaney, left in the sulfur pit during a lunch break, wanted his headgear removed, which of course couldn’t be done. Ripping it off, he gashed himself badly enough to require a hospital trip and stitches. Needless to say, vodka was involved. Who cares about the movie? This is so much more interesting.
An even worse decision was made to cast Chaney as a well-fed mummy in 1942’s The Mummy’s Tomb. Again, he fails to replace Karloff. According to some, Chaney’s stunt double spent more time in wraps than the actor, but production nightmares from this and the two dreadful sequels are horrors themselves. According to Reginald Le Borg (director of 1944’s The Mummy’s Ghost), Chaney actually strangled actor Frank Reicher, cut himself badly when smashing through real glass (after being warned it wasn’t pane glass), and had technicians rig him up with a tube under his wraps to keep the vodka flowing. Who cares about the movie? This is so much more interesting.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) was a sequel to both The Wolf Man and Ghost of Frankenstein, but Lugosi, miscast as the monster, almost wrecks the entire film, and Siodmak’s writing seeks to finish it off. Neither Lugosi nor Maria Ouspenskaya were happy about working with a loud and too-physical Chaney. Fortunately, Chaney’s performance as Talbot is better than it was in the original, as it’s not bogged down with a romantic subplot. Roy William Neil paces it like quicksilver. However, Chaney’s Talbot gets increasingly whiny in the sequels to come, climaxing with his (thankfully final) awful performance as the Universal werewolf in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Universal cast Chaney as Count Alucard (say it backward, yawn) in 1943’s wretched Son Of Dracula (written by Curt Siodmak—imagine that—-and directed by sibling Robert Siodmak). Chaney laughably fails to replace Lugosi’s count. Perhaps the animosity between Robert and Lon, which climaxed in the actor smashing a vase over the director’s head, also affected the outcome.
Son of Dracula‘s jaw-dropping miscasting is unfathomably topped by the “Inner Sanctum” series, based on the radios series. Rubbery, lethargic Chaney, adorned in a pencil-thin mustache, is cast as a mysterious matinee sex symbol (!) throughout the six films, the first of which is Calling Dr. Death (1943, incompetently directed by Reginald Le Borg). Weird Woman (1944, also from Le Borg) is the best of an altogether poor lot. Miscasting aside, it has minor camp appeal.
In the forties and early fifties, the horror genre seemed to bring out the worst in Chaney’s behavior. Oddly, there are no anecdotes regarding his bad behavior when acting in Westerns, which he was more of a natural in. He gave dual, spirited performances for Ford Beebe in the western serial Overland Mail (1942) and the zippy Frontier Badmen (1943).
The camp meter goes off the scales with Cobra Woman (1944, directed by Robert Siodmak). It’s a hoot about cobra worshipers on a tropical island with Chaney as a (drum roll) … mute brute. It’s essential for lovers of enjoyable bad movies.
Chaney was back doing solid work in a trio of B-movies: the mediocre Randolph Scott-starring Albuquerque (1948, directed by Ray Enright), drive-in noir gem The Bushwackers (1951, directed by Rod Amateau), and Only the Valiant (directed by Gordon Douglas).
Much gossip has been bandied about for years regarding the godawful Bride of the Gorilla, some of it from writer/director Curt Siodmak. Chaney was cast opposite Raymond Burr, and they either had a brief affair or the Wolf Man tried unsuccessfully to seduce Perry Mason. Either way (or none of the above) Burr and Chaney ended filming very resentful of one another. Who cares about the movie? This is so much more interesting.
Almost as interesting is the 1952 episode “The Monster” from “Tales of Tomorrow” in which Chaney, revising his role as Dr. Frank’s boy, thought he was rehearsing (being plastered hardly helped his comprehension). Instead of doing Hulk-like “me smash” destruction, the actor merely lifts the props, gently sets them back down, and stumbles his way into the next scene. The unintentional end result is more “Milton the Monster” than Boris Karloff.
Chaney stayed relatively sober for a trio of 1952 westerns, doing excellent character work in the masterpiece High Noon, the underrated Springfield Rifle (directed by Andre De Toth) and the uneven Battles of Chief Pontiac (directed by Felix Feist), which the actor listed as one of his favorite roles.
Chaney starred opposite Karloff in the languid Gothic The Black Castle (directed by Nathan Juran), essentially revising his muted Lennie yet again. Genre gossip has it that the two actors (who had co-starred in House of Frankenstein) held each other in contempt.
Chaney rose to the occasion for a bit part in Raoul Walsh’s over-the- top Lion is in the Streets (1953) opposite James Cagney, and also alongside Kirk Douglas in Andre de Toth’s The Indian Fighter (1955). He was the best thing about Manfish (1956, directed by W. Lee Wilder) and then became The Indestructible Man (1956, directed by Jack Pollexfen). The latter played drive-in circuits well into the 70s and frequently turned up on television. It falls into that category of films fondly remembered from adolescence that don’t altogether hold up, although it’s remains entertaining. Chaney does a ten-cent variation of his man-made monster, but it does have a commendably trashy atmosphere that is almost wrecked by pointless narration.
Chaney reunited with Reginald Le Borg, Bela Lugosi, and Basil Rathbone for The Black Sleep (1956), which is known only for wasting a cast that also includes Tor Johnsonand . It’s not even bad enough to be memorable, and Chaney is merely prompted to do another variation of Lennie.
Bert I. Gordon’s Cyclops (1957) is typical of the period and its notorious director. Forget the Z-grade FX, it’s most memorable for Chaney’s foaming-at-the-mouth performance.
Chaney gave one of his best character performances for Stanley Kramer’s A-budget The Defiant Ones (1958), but like most of Kramer’s productions, it’s dated, and as subtle as a pair of brass knuckles.
At the other end of the spectrum, Chaney is a fiery, if two-dimensional, delight in Alligator People (1959, directed by Roy del Ruth), where he plays the one-armed Manon, screaming “I’ll skin you Gator-man, like I would any four-legged gator.” He even tries to rape co-star and Z-grade queen Beverly Garland. As the title suggests, it’s a tawdry production with an alligator suit that badly needs ironing. Garland and Chaney are the primary reasons to see it.
Chaney was busy in classic television westerns throughout the sixties, appearing in “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” “Bat Masterson,” “Wagon Train,” “The Rifleman,” “Lawman,” “Rawhide,” and what is probably the best of small screen westerns, “Have Gun, Will Travel.” He even attempted his own series, starring as a unique Satan in the 1961 “The Devil’s Messenger,” which never aired, but has become a bit of a cult curio on home video. He briefly revised the Wolf Man in the “Route 66” episode “Lizard’s Leg and Outlet Wings,” opposite Karloff as the monster and Peter Lorre. It’s good fun and deserving of its cult status.
Chaney appeared in a respectable character part opposite Vincent Price in The Haunted Palace (1963) for Roger Corman, but he’s sadly underused and looks badly swollen due to his ongoing alcoholism.
Chaney delivered one of his best character performances of the 60s as an animated warlock in Don Sharp’s Witchcraft (1964), which deserves to be better known. Sharp, one of Hammer Studios better directors, takes a predictable script and manages to make it spellbinding.
Gripping in an entirely different way is the abomination Face of the Screaming Werewolf (1964, sort of directed by Jerry Warren), which finds Chaney slumming in the role of a mummy/werewolf hybrid. It falls into the “has to be seen to be believed” category.
For an unpredictable and occasionally dangerous alcoholic, Chaney kept consistently busy during his career. 1965 was one of his more inactive years, with three routine westerns—Black Spurs, Apache Uprising (both directed by R.G. Springsteen), and Town Tamer (directed by Leslie Selander)—followed by House of the Black Death (co-directed by Le Borg and Jerry Warren). John Carradine and Chaney give good performances as a pair of warlocks plagues by werewolves and belly dancers. With the teaming of hacks Warren and Le Borg, the cast is rendered powerless against this dull mess.
His health going from bad to wretched, Chaney slowed it down for 1966, appearing only in the poor western Johnny Reno (directed by Springsteen) and in a guest spot on “The Monkees.” In 1967, he re-teamed with Carradine for two of the worst films ever made: the horror anthology Gallery of Horror (directed by David Hewitt) and Hillbillies in a Haunted House (directed by veteran Jean Yarborough, who understandably never made another film). It co-stars Basil Rathbone and Joi Lansing, is exactly what the title says it is, and is virtually unwatchable.
Jack Hill’s 1967 cult classic Spider Baby, with Chaney in his finest genre role, made our List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made. Lon even sings the title song!
A final routine western, Buckskin (1968, directed by Michael D. Moore) was followed by two 1971 Al Adamson atrocities, The Female Bunch and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (which probably should be a List contender itself). In it, Chaney—ravaged, bloated, and unable to speak (the result of throat cancer, although he actually died from liver failure)—is more horrifying than he ever was for Universal. It could be a sad finale or, in a way, a perfect one, depending on one’s perspective. Like Karloff and Lugosi, Chaney ended his career in parody, starring in some of the worst films ever made. Yet, the fact that this prolific actor also specialized in a secondary genre, the Western, rather makes him the horror icon for Americana.