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FLICK PICKS: Lon Chaney's Gonna Get You If You Don't Watch Out
August 14, 2011  | By Diane Werts
 
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It's a song from MGM's blockbuster "talkie" musical The Hollywood Revue of 1929, designed to showcase all their silent-era stars as they made the scary transition to sound. The studio's chameleon "Man of a Thousand Faces" wasn't actually in that movie, though. Instead, a chorus sang about Lon Chaney surprising them in the form of a spider or a monster because, really, who knew what this master of makeup and body manipulation might look like next?

Lucky us, we get 16 examples in a single day Monday (Aug. 15), as Chaney gets a 24-hour salute from Turner Classic Movies.

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And lucky us, we even have TCM, a channel without commercials, without censorship -- and without fear, apparently. In an era where even black-and-white scares the ratings out of most cable channels (TV Land, we hardly knew ye!), TCM is willing to run not only an entire day in monochrome, but also dialogue-free.

Except, that is, for Chaney's lone talkie: 1930's The Unholy Three (Monday at 7:30 a.m. ET, TCM; photo at right), a remake of his 1925 silent hit about a crime-mastermind ventriloquist, which itself airs later (at midnight ET). Shortly after its release, Chaney would be dead, at just 47, of respiratory cancer -- an ironic outcome for the actor who made silence so golden.

Check out his prodigious 1920s output on TCM all day Monday, and on DVD, too. (Click here for some titles available on disc.) Chaney used makeup and costuming, true, and he contorted his body when necessary, to play hunchbacks, amputees and more. But none of that would have meant anything without his acting skills, honed as a child communicating with deaf parents, pantomiming in daily life as preparation for a career in the visual art that movies were before sound.

Chaney plays a tragic circus performer in three of Monday's strongest movies -- a scientist turned clown in the aching He Who Gets Slapped (11 a.m. ET), with Norma Shearer and John GIlbert, a trifecta of MGM superstars; the unrequited love story Laugh, Clown, Laugh, with an impossibly young Loretta Young; and a perversely ironic chiller about an armless knife thrower, The Unknown, costarring Joan Crawford (1:30 a.m. ET; photo at top).

That last one comes from director Tod Browning, a favorite Chaney collaborator -- TCM shows five of their 10 pairings (overnight Monday into Tuesday) -- whose taste for the macabre, and sympathy for those swept up in it, radiates most famously in Freaks. Browning also made Dracula, a feature that had been slated to star Chaney -- and how different would its attitude toward the vampire have been, with Chaney's heart and empathy? (TCM's other Chaney-Browning films Monday night are the silent Unholy Three, West of Zanzibar, Where East Is East and the "lost" film London After Midnight, painstakingly reconstructed from stills.)

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Chaney changes faces, shapes and moods all day. He's a mad scientist performing dastardly human experiments in The Monster (noon ET). He's a steel-tough drill sergeant in Tell It to the Marines (1:45 p.m. ET). He's a Russian peasant in Mockery (3:30 p.m. ET), a Chinese patriarch in Mr. Wu (4:45 p.m. ET; photo at right), and deformed outcasts in his two most famous horror epics, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (8 p.m. ET; photo at bottom) and The Phantom of the Opera (10 p.m. ET).

And if you're thinking, hey, I know I've seen films made by this guy after 1930 -- you're thinking of his son, Creighton, who entered movies under his birth name in 1931, but by 1935 had been rechristened Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man, Of Mice and Men).

If Monday's TCM lineup inspires a curiosity about Chaney to match mine after seeing his work, there are several fine books about his fascinating life. There's also revered silent historian Kevin Brownlow's 2000 docuportrait Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces, available with three Chaney silents on the TCM Archives DVD set here.

And of course, there's always the (somewhat fictionalized) 1957 biopic Man of a Thousand Faces, starring James Cagney -- who was then a decade older than Chaney had lived to be.

Lots more on TCM's Lon Chaney day here.

And the lowdown on all of August's TCM Summer of the Stars tributes here.

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