November 28, 2004

Lon Chaney

While cruising the net, I ran across this image, which brought back memories:


[The stamps issued consist of] five portraits of the actors based on publicity photographs of their most famous horror films. Lon Chaney appears as the Phantom of the Opera, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein and the Mummy and Lon Chaney Jr. as Wolf Man.

The descendants had wanted stamps that carried two portraits of their famous relatives, one with monster makeup and one without. Designer Derry Noyes of Washington met their wishes by placing signed photographs of the four actors at the top of the sheets of 20 stamps.

The stamps are the second to contain hidden images, using a process developed by Graphic Security Systems Corp. of Lake Worth, Fla. This time designers have scrambled an image -- not letters -- into each of the stamps: bats on the Dracula stamp, hieroglyphics on the Mummy, masks on the Phantom, wolves on the Wolf Man and lightning bolts on Frankenstein.

To see the images requires purchase of a $4.95 "decoder lens" from the Postal Service.

With that as inspiration, here's the second in a series of brief bios based on those classic stamps.

(in the extended entry) From the PBS American Masters database:

When we think of the silent film era, we think of actors like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Clara Bow, stars who created trademark personas and spent their entire careers testing the limits of those characters. They perfected what they had created, but rarely attempted other roles. For many in the industry, both then and now, this type of career is considered the pinnacle of success, but for one actor it was the antithesis of the his art. For Lon Chaney, the art of acting was the art of continual transformation.

Leonidas Frank Chaney was born in Colorado in 1883, and both of his parents were deaf-mutes. That beginning allowed him to become highly skilled at pantomime and projecting emotion via his facial expression and body language. He started work as an extra at a theater, doing stage work, learning the trade and becoming an expert at stage makeup that served him well during his career (he wrote the 'make-up' entry for the 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica). Lon Chaney made his first credited appearance in a film in 1912 and appeared in over 150 movies over the next 20 years. His last movie was the only "talkie" in his catalog of work.

Lon Chaney pioneered special effects makeup and prosthesis which earned him the nickname "Man of a Thousand Faces". His most famous roles were as Quasimodo in 1923's Hunchback of Notre Dame and later as the quintessential Phantom of the Opera. He also played Fagin in an early film version of Oliver Twist, and starred in Tell It To The Marines, for which he became the first actor to be awarded an honorary membership in the Corps. The shipboard scenes in the movie were filmed on the USS California, later sunk at Pearl Harbor.

Besides acting, Chaney also directed many of the films he starred in, which probably also helped establish him as a star. Unfortunately, most of his early work, both in front of and behind the camera, remains lost. His 1918 film The Kaiser, The Beast of Berlin was a major success at the time and is on the American Film Institute's "Ten Most Wanted" list of lost films.

Lon Chaney died of throat cancer in 1930, which gave Bela Lugosi the role of Dracula. There were several other roles that had to be recast in other films because of his death as well.

His craggy features kept him from romantic leads, but he found continuous work as a character actor in supporting roles. In the 60's and 70's, a number of his 'lost' films were rediscovered, including many of his non-horror movies, and his good nature and winning personality in regular roles was rediscovered as well.

"My whole career has been devoted to keeping people from knowing me." Lon Chaney

Lon Chaney was an intensely private man, which gave him a reputation as a strange and unfriendly man. His costars, among them Loretta Young and Joan Crawford, and friends tell a different story.

From his bio on

A friend of Afro-American actor Noble Johnson since both were boys in Colorado together, Chaney was responsible for giving his old friend some early breaks in a career that spanned more than four decades. Likewise, Chaney befriended the young Boris Karloff shortly after the latter's arrival in Hollywood. As with Johnson, he helped Karloff gain a foothold in the movies, and until the end of his life, Karloff always spoke kindly of Chaney as a good friend and colleague.

1991 Lon Chaney postage stamp
Besides the stamps listed above, he was also included as one of ten 29¢ US commemorative postage stamps celebrating stars of the silent screen, issued 27 April 1994. Designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, this set of stamps also honored Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, 'Charles Chalpin' , John Gilbert, Zasu Pitts, Harold Lloyd, Theda Bara, Buster Keaton, and the Keystone Kops.

His son, Lon Chaney Jr., became a famous actor of the horror genre.

Posted by: Ted at 07:07 AM | category: Cult Flicks
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1 What a great post - I wish I had gotten these when they were released. I'm not really a stamp collector, but I like to decorate my journal pages with them sometimes. These are great!

Posted by: Liz at November 30, 2004 04:20 PM (/9qCk)

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