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HomeCraftsLon Chaney: Cinema's First Makeup Giant

Lon Chaney: Cinema’s First Makeup Giant

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By Scott Essman
Although artists like John Chambers, Dick Smith and Rick Baker brought inventive character makeup to a new level, the craft known as “special makeup effects” goes back to the inception of cinema. Silent film actors were often required to design and apply their own makeup when playing bit parts of Indians, old men, and historical figures.
Significantly, makeup artists Jack Pierce and Jack Dawn started as actors and eventually switched to makeup full time in the 1920s. Each of them went on to run studio makeup departments and create legendary characters. A third man stayed true to his acting roots while furthering his makeup talents in order to get jobs in Hollywood. His name was Lon Chaney.
Among his numerous creations, Chaney created cinema history with his legendary Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera characters. Essentially, he showed to the moviegoing public how effectively makeup can transform an actor into a different character. Due to Chaney’s skills, audiences realized that one actor could play an infinite number of different roles. Hunchback (1923) and Phantom (1925) were stirring not only because they were frightening and memorable in and of themselves, but also because Chaney had so drastically transformed his face in each role.
Chaney created another great horror character in 1927 with his vampire creation in London After Midnight. The ghastly figure of the vampire, in long hat and fangs, is one of the iconic horror images of the silent era. However, Chaney used his makeup and acting talents to create a host of non-horror characters at the time. With the secretive materials in his makeup case, Chaney could become a crippled character, a woman, an old man, a clown, or just about anything that a script called for.
With the advent of sound in the late 1920s there was a dramatic increase in the need for and development of special makeup, leading to the advent of the makeup artist in the industry. At Universal Studios, Pierce brought the most timeless of monsters to life, including Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy. Ironically, Chaney died in 1930 just as Universal was casting Dracula. Whether or not Chaney would have been lured back to his first studio to create the Count is unknown, but his work in the 1920s surely stands the test of time, and his makeup methods are still studied today.
On October 16, 2004 on the Universal “Phantom” Stage 28 at Universal City, a group of below-the-line artists, including makeup artists, costumers, special effects technicians, directors and actors gathered to pay tribute to Chaney and his work. His life was presented in an onstage biography (with several of his classic characters recreated), a screening of his classic Phantom film with live musical accompaniment and a guest panel. This year happens to be the 80th anniversary of the 1924 release of Chaney’s film He Who Gets Slapped—the first film ever created by MGM Studios.

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