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Lon Chaney jr - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

Februar 2007

Films starring Lon Chaney jr on (re)Search my Trash
 

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Of all the iconic stars of horror, Lon Chaney jr was always one of the more tragic figures: He just missed the golden era of the genre (the early to mid-1930's) by a few years and would thus never become as popular as golden era-stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, he was maybe the horror star of the 1940's, a time when the quality of horror thrillers (especially those made at Universal) rapidly decreased, his chronic alcoholism would gravely damage the later years of his career, and he would forever be overshadowed by his father, the legendary silent film legend star Lon Chaney, star of such films as Phantom of the Opera (1925, Rupert Julian, Edward Sedgwick) - who by the way did not want his son to become an actor.

On the other hand though, Lon Chaney was a fine actor with a full soothing voice who was way better than many of the films he was in during his career.

 

Lon Chaney jr was born Creighton Tull Chaney in 1906 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to singer Cleva Creighton Chaney and to Lon Chaney, then a struggling actor still years away from fame. The marriage of Cleva and Lon sr was less than happy and ended in 1913, when Cleva was staging a public suicide attempt in Los Angeles.

After the split-up, young Creighton stayed with his father, who sent him to boarding school after boarcing school, until he could provide him a stable home with his second wife Hazel Hastings in 1916. By then, Lon Chaney sr was already employed in the film industry and his star slowly began to rise.

As a (horror) actor, Lon Chaney had his breakthrough in 1919, playing the cripple Frog in The Miracle Man (George Loane Tucker), and after that his career pretty much went from strength to strength until his untimely death in 1930 ... but still he would not permit his son to follow his footsteps, instead had Lon jr learn the plumbing trade.

So while his father was a star, Lon jr spent most of the 1920's as a plumber - but both Lon sr's death in 1930 and the Great Depression hit Lon jr and family (he married Dorothy Hinckley in 1928 and had two children with her, Lon, born in 1928, and Ron, born in 1930) hard, and eventually Lon Chaney jr saw himself forced to leave the plumbing trade and instead try and find his fortune in the movie industry in circa 1931, initially hooking up with RKO as a contract player, but soon going freelance.

 



In his first films, Chaney still appeared under his real name, Creighton Chaney, his parts were often no more than bit-parts, for which he did not necessarily even receive on-screen billing, with only the occasional bigger role thrown in. Among the more interesting of his early films were:
  • The Last Frontier (1932, Spencer Gordon Bennet, Thomas Storey), a Western serial that has the distinction of being the only serial ever to be distributed by RKO, provided Chaney with an early lead role, playing a frontier newspaper man who - occasionally sporting a Mexican accent and disguising himself as the mysterious Black Ghost - battles a gang of outlaws who cause all kinds of Indian uprisings, but whom Lon in the end defeats with the help of General Custer (William Desmond). Lon as we know him nowadays might be a weird choice for a range hero, but in his early years, Lon was tall, handsome lean and wiry and fitted the bill quite perfectly. Thing is, not even he could save this rather poor serial.
  • Bird of Paradise (1932, King Vidor) is a vehicle for Dolores Del Rio and Joel McCrea, with her playing an island girl about to be sacrificed to the volcano god and McCrea the white man who has fallen in love with her. Chaney merely play a small supporting role in this film that did get notorious mainly for a brief nude swim scene.
  • The Mascot-serial The Three Musketeers (1933, Colbert Clark, Armand Schaefer) was basically a vehicle for a young John Wayne, then himself merely an up-and-coming star with an uncertain future [for an article on John Wayne in the 1930's click here, for an article on Mascot click here]. Chaney had only a small role in the first chapter of this one - as the character who first betrays Wayne, then tries to kill himself but is stopped by Wayne only to be murdered by the bad guys, who in turn blame Wayne for it - but he is sixth-billed throughout the serial.
  • Girl o' my Dreams (1934, Ray McCarey) is actually a cheap and disappointing musical comedy produced by Monogram in which Chaney can be seen singing a tune - and wouldn't you know it, he turns out to be the best singer of the whole musical.


The film A Scream in the Night (1935, Fred Newmeyer) marked Lon Chaney jr's name-change: Little production company Commodore Pictures obviously thought that the box office appeal of young Creighton Chaney could be greatly improved if his name sounded more like his father's - and they were probably right, because for the remainder of his career, Creighton appeared almost exclusively as Lon Chaney jr or even Lon Chaney - much to Creighton Chaney's dismay, because this way it was almost impossible to escape his father's overwhelming shadow ... (To increase the association between Lon jr and Lon sr even more, Commodore Pictures even labeled Lon the younger "the man with a 1,000 faces", a not-so-clever play on his father's nickname "the man of a 1,000 faces".)

 


As a film, A Scream in the Night may be a dirt-cheap and a bit creaky crime thriller, but at the same time it's also an entertaining and colourful B-picture that features some nice exotic sets and a brilliant performance by Lon Chaney jr, who plays not only the detective lead but also the villainous brute in this one.

 

Actually, Commodore Pictures had hired Chaney jr for three years with eight proposd films per year, but of all this 24 films in total, only A Scream in the Night and the inferior The Shadow of Silk Lennox (1935, Ray Kirkwood, Jack Nelson) - in which Chaney plays the smooth gangster of the title - ever materialized, and the company disappeared into oblivion soon afterwards.

 





 

With Commodore Pictures though, Lon Chaney jr's steady job evaporated, and for the next 2 years, he was back to being a freelance actor. Among the more interesting films from that era were:


  • Undersea Kingdom (1936, B.Reeves Eason, Joseph Kane), the classic early Republic science fiction serial starring Crash Corrigan [Ray Crash Corrigan bio - click here] has Chaney as the head guard of, well, the undersea kingdom [Republic history - click here].
  • Both The Singing Cowboy (1936, Mack V.Wright) and The Old Corral (1936, Joseph Kane) were Westerns starring Republic's very own singing cowboy and very first star Gene Autry. The latter film also featured Roy Rogers in a bigger role, who was then still a few years away from becoming Republic's biggest singing cowboy star [Roy Rogers bio - click here]. Chaney plays baddies in both these films.
  • Ace Drummond (1936, Ford L.Beebe, Clifford Smith) is an aerial action and adventure serial produced by Universal that features plenty of sci fi trappings. In this one Chaney is one of the villain's henchmen while John 'Dusty' King plays the titular hero.
  • Another Universal serial that features Chaney as the villain's henchman is Secret Agent X-9 (1937, Ford L.Beebe, Clifford Smith) with Scott Kolk in the title role.

  • Cheyenne Rides Again (1937, Robert F.Hill), in which Chaney plays a supporting role, is one of the Westerns Tom Tyler made for Victory when his career was already on the decline [Tom Tyler bio - click here]. A few years later, Chaney would inherit the role of Kharis the Mummy from Tyler.
  • In Rose Bowl (1936, Charles Barton), a sports comedy starring Eleanore Witney, Tom Brown and Buster Crabbe [Buster Crabbe bio - click here], Chaney can be seen as a football player.

As you can imagine, none Chaney's roles in the above bunch of films was great or impressive, but it kept him in employ, which finally paid off when he was eventually hired as a 20th Century Fox-contract player in 1937.

Not in fact that his filmroles at 20th Century Fox were any better than those he had while freelancing, but they were bread-on-the-table for Chaney and family, including his second wife Patsy Beck, whom he married in 1937, shortly after the divorce from Dorothy Hinckley. The two would remain married until Lon's death in 1973.

Among Lon's more interesting films at 20th Century Fox were two entries into the Charlie Chan-series - Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937, Eugene Ford) and City in Darkness (1939, Herbert I.Leeds) -, one episode of the similarly themed Mr.Moto-series - Mr. Moto's Gamble (1938, James Tinling) -, John Ford's Submarine Patrol (1938) and several Westerns including Cecil B.DeMille's Union Pacific starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea and Henry King's Jesse James (both 1939) starring Tyrone Power. Still, even if these films would look good in anybody's resumé and Chaney's work was at the very least solid, none of his roles were actually impressive or were even designed for someone to make a name of himself - he was just a supporting character actor and that was that ... until he split up with 20th Century Fox that is ...

 


Actually, the first film that Lon Chaney jr made after his split with 20th Century Fox, the Hal Roach/United Artists-produced John Steinbeck-adaptation Of Mice and Men (1939, Lewis Milestone), could very well be described as his breakthrough, at least on an artistic level. His sympathetic portrayal of Lennie, the mentally retarded giant opposite Burgess Meredith's level-headed George is probably the finest performance Chaney has ever given. 

 

Overall, the film was a hit with audiences and critics alike, and from here on Chaney was (at least for a short time) specialized on playing hunky and demented characters: He played the leader of the Rock People in the cavemen drama One Million B.C. (1940, Hal Roach, Hal Roach jr), the monster opposite Lionel Atwill's mad scientist in Man Made Monster (1941, George Waggner) [Lionel Atwill-bio - click here] - incidently Chaney's first entry into the Universal classic horror cycle -, Frankenstein's monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, Erle C.Kenton), Kharis the Mummy in The Mummy's Tomb (1942, Harold Young), The Mummy's Ghost (1944, Reginald Le Borg) and The Mummy's Curse (1944, Leslie Goodwins), a mute brute in the escapist extravaganza Cobra Woman (1944, Robert Siodmak) starring Maria Montez, and a very Lenny-like role in Bob Hope's film noir parody My Favorite Brunette (1947, Elliott Nugent) - but I'm getting way ahead of myself ...

 


Let's return to 1941: Universal has just given Chaney, then still relatively fresh from Of Mice and Men and fondly remembered by the audience, a contract and put him into one of their horror vehicles, Man Made Monster, a film that did well enough to make the powers that be at Universal give him the lead in their next horror vehicle (after they had him doing supporting roles in a number of Westerns): The Wolf Man (1941, George Waggner).

 

The Wolf Man was indeed a lucky break for Lon Chaney jr: The role was as far removed from the Lenny-style dumb brute as could be: Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man's human alter ego, was a sophisticated young man (actually he was supposed to be a good deal younger than 35-year old Chaney) who originally didn't have an evil bone in his body - until he is turned into a killing beast after being bitten by a werewolf (in the sequels to this film, he turns more and more desperate wanting to either die or lead a normal life once more). Chaney could invest his whole range of acting talent into this role instead of just repeating his Lenny-cliché, and he did so admirably well ...

But The Wolf Man wasn't only satisfying on an artistic level, it was also a big success at the box office, and it was a role Chaney had for himself, unlike all the other Universal monsters he later also played (making him the only actor to play all four Universal monsters, actually): There is little doubt that Dracula always belonged to Bela Lugosi, no matter who followed after him, and both Frankenstein's monster and the Mummy would be measured by Boris Karloff's performances. The Wolf Man on the other hand was something new, something Lon Chaney jr had created (or helped to create anyways), and it was a role noone else but him played in subsequent films, and even if the character did not get his own series as such, he would pop up in four more Universal films.

 


After the success of The Wolf Man, Universal immediately knew they had a winner in their hand - as long as they kept him in the horror genre at least, so within the next two years they cast Chaney as Frankenstein's monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein, Kharis the Mummy in The Mummy's Tomb, and Dracula in Son of Dracula (1943, Robert Siodmak).

Of these films, only Son of Dracula is of some greater interest, since it gives Chaney the chance to do more than menacingly stumbling through the landscape. Based on a story that was written by Curt Siodmak who also wrote the screenplay for The Wolf Man [Curt Siodmak bio - click here], the film relocates Count Dracula (not his son, the son is only in the title) in the swamps of Louisiana and involves him in a convoluted vampire-murder mystery - that in the end seems to get a little out of hand. And unfortuantely, Lon Chaney jr doesn't give one of his better performances here ...

 


Unsurprisingly, Chaney jr did not reprise the role of Dracula, this role went first to John Carradine for two movies, then back to Bela Lugosi - interestingly though, Lon Chaney jr played his role, the Wolf Man, in all of these films, but let's not get ahead ...

 

With The Wolf Man being a winner, Universal wasted little time to reuse the successful character again, but to assure maximum profit, they teamed him up with Frankenstein's monster ... though wait a little, wasn't Chaney himself the monster in the previous installment of the Frankenstein-series, The Ghost of Frankenstein ?

Yes he was, but Universal never cared too much about continuity in their horror series and boldly cast Bela Lugosi as the monster, who played hunchback Igor in The Ghost of Frankenstein and the lycanthropic gypsy who turns Larry Talbot/Lon Chaney jr into a werewolf in the first place in The Wolf Man.

 


The resulting movie Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, Roy William Neill) is, not surprisingly, silly as hell and is nowadays fondly remembered only by die-hard Universal classic horror-fans and lovers of camp - but that did not deter Universal from making more all-star monster-movies:

Next came House of Frankenstein (1944, Erle C.Kenton), followed in 1945 by House of Dracula (Erle C. Kenton again).

 



Both of these films featured not only the Wolf Man and Frankenstein's monster (now played by Glenn Strange) but also Dracula, this time around played by John Carradine [John Carradine-bio - click here]. As an added bonus, House of Frankenstein also features Boris Karloff [Boris Karloff bio - click here], the original Frankenstein monster, as the resident mad scientist. Again, these films are decidedly silly ... but again, die-hard Universal classic horror-fans and lovers of camp and/or absurd might like them.

 


Eventually even the powers-that-be at Universal must have realized how ludicrous their all-star monster movies have gotten when they handed the franchise over to their in-house comic duo Abbott & Costello for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948, Charles Barton), in which Lon Chaney jr - who had already co-starred with Abbott & Costello in Here Come the Co-Eds (1945, Jean Yarbrough [Jean Yarbrough bio - click here]) - once again plays the Wolf Man, with Glenn Strange as Frankenstein's monster and Bela Lugosi returning to his role as Dracula after 17 years. The film is one of the better films of the comic duo and is today fondly remembered by comedy fans and horror fans alike. After that, Universal's all-monster extravaganzas were a thing of the past - and remained so until Van Helsing (Stephen Sommers) in 2004 - the Wolf Man though, Lon Chaney's own character, was no more ...

 

But even while the Wolf Man-series was still going strong, Universal established their (then) leading horror star Lon Chaney jr in yet another series, the Inner Sanctum-anthology-series of (mostly supernatural) murder mysteries, somehow inspired by the radio show of the same name. The good news was that Chaney wasn't reduced to playing the monster in these films (6 in total) but always played the hero - the bad news was though that none of these movies was very good, they were unimaginatively directed and badly written little B-movies that left hardly any impression at all ...


  • In Calling Dr Death (1943, Reginald Le Borg), the first of the series, Chaney plays a neurologist who has lost his memory of the last few days, which is bad enough in itself but even worse so because his wife has been murdered during that time - and he couldn't remember if he murdered her or not even if his life depended on it ... which incidently it does. Eventually he reverts to hypnotism. J.Carrol Naish plays the inspector on Chaney's trail.
  • Next was Weird Woman (1944, Reginald Le Borg), an unconvincing voodoo-tale also starring Anne Gwynne as Lon's wife and Evelyn Ankers as the villainess. The film was based on Fritz Leiber's novel Conjure Wife, which was later filmed in the UK as Night of the Eagle/Burn Witch Burn (1962, Sidney Hayers) starring Peter Wyngarde.
  • Dead Man's Eyes (1944, Reginald Le Borg) has artist Chaney losing his eyesight when his jealous model Acquanetta accidently makes him wash his face with acid. Fortunately, the father of his fiancée (Jean Parker) promises him his eyes for transplantation after he dies - but when he dies prematurely, suspicion immediately falls upon Chaney.
  • In The Frozen Ghost (1945, Harold Young) Chaney plays a stage mentalist one of whose audience members dies under hypnosis, and who out of guilt quits hypnotizing to work at a wax museum - which is where the problems really start ...
  • In Strange Confession (1945, John Hoffman) Chaney is a scientist who gets both his formula to cure influenza and his wife (Brenda Joyce) stolen by drug manufacturer J.Carrol Naish - but eventually Chaney retaliates by cutting off Naish's head. The film is based on a play by Jean Bart that has previously been fimed in 1934 as The Man who Reclaimed his Head (Edward Ludwig) starring Claude Rains, Joan Bennett and Lionel Atwill [Lionel Atwill-bio - click here].
  • Pillow of Death (1945, Wallace Fox) is the last of the series, and it has Chaney as the prime suspect of a murder case whose dead wife keeps appearing to him - whom he might or might not have murdered. Once again, Brenda Joyce, who has become Johnny Weissmuller/Tarzan's second Jane earlier that year, costars in this [Johnny Weissmuller bio - click here].


By the mid-1940's though, both the Universal horror cycle and the horror genre as such had lost their attraction at the box office, and the fact that the studio used Chaney in a Chic Johnson-Ole Olsen comedy in 1944, Ghost Catchers (Edward F.Cline), might already signify that. When Chaney's contract expired in 1945, Universal refused to renew it, partly also due to the fact that Chaney's alcholism became more and more apparent, which made it harder and harder to work with him - even if it did not yet mar his work like it later did.

 


The remainder of the 1940's, Chaney made only the occasional film appearance like above-mentioned comedies My Favorite Brunette and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein - a return to Universal limited to one picture - as well as the Randolph Scott Western Albuquerque (1948, Ray Enright) and the Monogram adventure flick 16 Fathoms Deep (1948, Irving Allen) - a remake of a movie of the same name from 1934 co-directed by Allen and Armand Schaefer ... in which Chaney had incidently starred as well.

 

The 1950's proved to be a rollercoaster ride for Chaney: The horror genre that has made Chaney a star in the 1940's was essentially dead, and roles in horror films were far and few between, which forced Chaney to accept numerous unimportant supporting roles in numerous unimportant films - along with a few good ones that is. On the other hand though, television was quickly becoming the mass medium of the day, and TV was in constant need of experienced (B-)actors ...

 








Here are some of the more interesting films/tv-shows Lon Chaney jr acted in during the 1950's:

  • Bride of the Gorilla (1951, Curt Siodmak), one of the first productions of schlock-producer Jack Broder, was essentially a remake of The Wolf Man, even written and directed by that film's screenwriter (Bride of the Gorilla actually was Curt Siodmak's directing debut). The difference is that it is not about a man turning into a wolf but into a gorilla, and that this time around Lon Chaney jr does not play the shapeshifter - this role is reserved for Raymond Burr - but the police commissioner hot on his trail. Of course, the film is pretty much as ludicrous as it sounds but trashfans might come to like it nevertheless.
  • Flame of Araby (1951, Charles Lamont), an Arabian nights-style fantasy, is essentially a showcase for red-haired Maureen O'Hara as an Arabian Princess and Jeff Chandler as her hero. 

    Another Arabian nights-style fantasy, Thief of Damascus (1952, Will Jason), has Lon Chaney jr as Sinbad (!), join forces with Ali Baba (Philip Van Zandt) and Aladdin (Robert Clary). The star of the film though is Paul Henreid.

  • In The Bushwhackers (1952, Rodney Amateau), a cheap Western produced by Jack Broder starring John Ireland, Wayne Morris, Lawrence Tierney and Dorothy Malone, Lon plays an arthritic old villain.

  • In the Tales of Tomorrow-episode called Frankenstein (1952, Don Medford), Chaney was allowed to reprise his role as Frankenstein's monster, a role he had already played in The Ghost of Frankenstein - and even though Chaney was reportedly drunk while filming this (a live show) and thought he was only a doing a dress rehearsal, his performance is rather good. Too bad the episode as such was based on such a bad script then..



  • In High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann), the classic Western with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly and probably the most high profile film of Chaney's career (if not his most high profile role), he played the old Sheriff.

  • Springfield Rifle (1952, André De Toth) was another Western in which Chaney supported Gary Cooper.

  • In 1952, Chaney also played one of his most unusual roles, that of (historical) Native American chieftain Pontiac in Battles of Chief Pontiac (1952, Felix E.Feist), another Jack Broder production that was also Lex Barker's first starring film apart from the Tarzan-series [Lex Barker bio - click here]. Even though this role might sound rather odd for an veteran horror actor, Chaney totally identified with the role of the Indian chief and even went so far as to live with the Indians (actual Sioux were used in the film) in a Teepee during shooting. He even went so far as to not drink during the entire shoot of the movie, even if the Indian actors on the film would drink quite heavily.
    In later years, Lon Chaney jr would occasionally return to playing Indian chiefs, like in the Republic-production Daniel Boone, Trail Blazer (1956, Albert C.Gannaway, Ismael Rodríguez) starring Bruce Bennett [Republic history - click here], in the TV-series Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans (1957) - the only series in which he ever was a regular, playing Chingachgook, siding by Jon Hall as Hawkeye - or even in the Western comedy series Pistols and Petticoats (1966-67).

  • The Black Castle (1952, Nathan Juran) saw Chaney's return to the horror genre and to Universal (again, only for one film), but Chaney is reduced to playing a hulking mute here while the film belongs to hero Richard Greene, the ever dependable Boris Karloff and Stephen MacNally as the villain. The film has actually more in common with the Universal horror cycle from the past decade than their more current science fiction output, as it features Gothic horror settings as well as over-the-top gothic pulp elements like alligator pits and leopard hunts - and as a result it is quite enjoyable.

  • With films like Raiders of the Seven Seas (1953, Sidney Salkow) and The Black Pirates (1954, Allen H.Miner) Lon Chaney jr would also tackle the genre of pirate adventure.

  • I Died a Thousand Times (1955, Stuart Heisler) is nothing else than a colour remake of the black and white classic High Sierra (1941, Raoul Walsh), starring Jack Palance, Shelley Winters and Lee Marvin. The remake though pales in comparison ...

  • Casanova's Big Night (1954, Norman Z.McLeod) was basically a showcase for comedian Bob Hope, but besides Chaney it also featured horror greats John Carradine [John Carradine-bio - click here] and Basil Rathbone.

  • Despite being based on not one but two stories by Edgar Allan Poe, The Gold Bug and The Tell-Tale Heart, Manfish (1956, W.Lee Wilder) is not a horror film at all but rather an adventure and murder mystery among divers. Lon plays essentially another variation of his Lenny-character in this one. It's a pretty decent film though.

  • In Indestructible Man (1956, Jack Pollexfen, Chaney) looks terrible: His face is visibly scarred by alcoholism, most of the time he stumbles around a bit uncontrollably, and he seems to be constantly puzzled, as if he was constantly drunk. Ironically this works for his role here, as he plays a man who has been resurrected from the dead but his brain is damaged and he wants brutal revenge on those who have wronged him - and in that respect, stumbling around uncontrollably and looking puzzled makes perfect sense. And in the short monologue he has to deliver at the beginning of the film, he proves that his diction at least is not affected and his voice is as smooth as ever. On the whole of course, Indestructible Man is typical a typical piece 1950's sci-fi-trash, but a very enjoyable one.

  • The Black Sleep (1956, Reginald Le Borg) is another straight horror film, and what a cast it has: Aside from Lon Chaney jr there's also Basil Rathbone [Basil Rathbone bio - click here], Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here], John Carradine [John Carradine bio - click here], Tor Johnson [Tor Johnson bio - click here] and Akim Tamiroff ... however the outcome is probably the single most boring horror film ever with the most talent wasted in one single go.

  • The Allied Artists-production The Cyclops (1956) is one of Bert I.Gordon's lesser known giant monster films, this one is about a party (Lon being one of them) stranded in an isolated valley and having to battle a 25 foot-man with only one eye.

  • Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958) was another high-profile picture Chaney was in. In this one he supported Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis playing two escaped convicts, one black one white (obviously) who are chained together and slowly learn to come to terms with each other.

  • The Alligator People (Roy Del Ruth) from 1959 was a definite step downwards from The Defiant Ones, as it seemed that cheap monster cinema had reclaimed Lon Chaney jr. In this one he plays a hooked drunk and gives support to the film's stars Bruce Bennett and Beverly Garland.

Especially from the late 1950's onwards, Chaney found himself doing heaps of supporting work on television, interestingly mostly on Westerns, and before long there was hardly a Western series on which Chaney had not worked for at least one episode. Credits include The Rough Riders, The Texan, Wanted: Dead or Alive starring Steve McQueen, Johnny Ringo, Bat Masterson, Stagecoach West, Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater, The Rifleman starring Chuck Connors, Rawhide starring a pre-star Clint Eastwood, and Have Gun - Will Travel.

 


In 1959, Lon Chaney jr was also given the chance to host his own horror-series, the Swedish-American 13 Demon Street, a brainchild of Curt Siodmak [Curt Siodmak bio - click here], who also directed all of the episodes. In the series, Chaney can be seen introducing each episode as a condemned man waiting for someone who has committed a bigger sin than his. Unfortunately though, the series as such never aired, but in 1961, three of the series' episodes were thrown together and a new framing story starring Chaney, visibly scarred from years of alcoholism, as the Devil, was filmed and released theatrically as The Devil's Messenger (Curt Siodmak, Herbert L.Strock).

 



In 1960, Chaney starred in yet another cheap horror film, the Mexican La Casa del Terror (Gilberto Martínez Solares). In this one he plays a mummy that at one point in the movie turns into a werewolf. This might sound silly, but the film was actually supposed to be a comedy. However when big-time movie importer Jerry Warren [Jerry Warren bio - click here] brought the film to the USA 4 years later as Face of the Screaming Werewolf (with additional material from the 1957 movie La Momia Azteca/Attack of the Aztec Mummy), he had the ill-advised idea to remove all the comedy and try to make it a straight shocker - with limited success, as you might expect.

 

Also in 1961, Chaney had a supporting role in The Phantom (Harold Daniels), a TV-pilot based on Lee Falk's comicstrip character. Unfortunately, the pilot was rather poorly made, and it was never picked up and made into a series - not that it would have mattered for Chaney, as his character is killed by a leopard in this pilot episode.

 

By and large, the 1960's saw a resurgence of the horror genre, thanks especially to the immensely successful Gothics turned out by Hammer and Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe-series ... and eventually, Corman remembered Lon Chaney jr for one of his Gothics, The Haunted Palace (1963, Roger Corman [Roger Corman bio - click here]), a film actually based on a book by H.P.Lovecraft but marketed as an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation for bigger profits. Essentially, The Haunted Palace is Vincent Price's movie [Vincent Price bio - click here], who hams it up as a mild-mannered man possessed by his ancestor, an evil warlock, but Chaney gives able support.

 


In Witchcraft (1964, Don Sharp), a shocker produced in the UK by Robert L. Lippert, Chaney leads a family whose ancestors were witches in the 17th century ... and when their cemetary is desecrated, they return for revenge.

 

House of the Black Death (1964, Harold Daniels, Jerry Warren [Jerry Warren bio - click here]), also starring John Carradine [John Carradine-bio - click here], Katherine Victor and Andrea King, is a total (and very weird) mess, a film that was unreleasable to begin with and got even worse when Jerry Warren did some doctoring on it ...

 

In Dr. Terror's Gallery of Horrors (1967, David L.Hewitt), an anthology film narrated by John Carradine, Chaney plays a Frankenstein-like character trying to revive the dead. The film also includes a condensed version of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

 

Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967, Jean Yarbrough [Jean Yarbrough bio - click here]) is a rather sad affair, an ill-advised blend of horror and espionage elements on one hand and country music on the other. Chaney once more plays a big brute but is totally wasted in this one, as are Basil Rathbone [Basil Rathbone bio - click here] and (once again) John Carradine.

 


Spider Baby (1968, Jack Hill) on the other hand is a highly original and totally weird horror tale about an inbred and thus totally demented family that has even reverted to cannibalism, with Chaney playing turning in a great performance as a (seemingly) kind-hearted man who is looking after them ... and not only did he play the lead role in this one, he also got to sing the title song. Upon its release, the film - which also starred Carol Ohmart, Sid Haig and Mantan Moreland [Mantan Moreland bio - click here] - was anything but a hit upon its release (it was actually made in 1964 but went unreleased for 4 more years) ... but since it has become a regular cult item.

 

... despite this new interest in the horror genre though, Chaney's horror career in the 1960's was nothing more than a pale imitations of his Universal-days in the 1940's - not necessarily because the movies were much worse (Universal after all made its fair share of bad horror movies, and put Chaney in quite a few of them) but because they lacked the prestige of the Universal-shockers, and only very few of the 1960's filmmakers took Chaney seriously as an actor - most of them needed only his name and marquee value to sell the film. That Chaney during this era was visibly scarred by alcoholism did of course not help one bit either ...

 

During the latter part of the 1960's, Lon did not concentrate exclusively on the revived horror genre but also played supporting roles in quite a number of Westerns, including Law of the Lawless and Stage to Thunder Rock (both 1964, William F.Claxton), Young Fury (1965, Christian Nyby), Black Spurs (1965, R.G.Springsteen), Town Tamer (1965, Lesley Selander), Apache Uprising and Johnny Reno (both 1966, R.G.Springsteen), Welcome to Hard Times (1967, Burt Kennedy), and Buckskin (1968, Michael D.Moore) - but even if some of these films were actually rather good, they were all just bread-and-butter jobs for Chaney, whose career was more and more going nowhere.

 



Towards the end of his career, Lon Chaney jr fell prey to exploitation director Al Adamson [Al Adamson bio - click here], who was always more than willing to feature some former stars fallen on hard times in his films for added marquee value (not that there's anything wrong with that, at least he kept these stars in employ).

Chaney's first film with Adamson was Female Bunch (1969), a sort-of modern day Western about a gang of man-hating and -killing women residing in a desert ranch. As if to add to the film's already exploitative plot, the film was shot at the Spahn-ranch, Charles Manson's favourite hang-out.

 


Chaney's last film, Dracula vs Frankenstein (1971), again directed by Al Adamson, was a rather sad swansong to his career. In this one he plays the mute brute assistant to J.Carrol Naish's wheelchair-bound Dr Frankenstein who every now and again picks up an axe to go and do some killing for his master. Russ Tamblyn and Regina Carrol also star in this one which reportedly started out as a biker film, later was transformed into a sci-fi-horror film and at long last, footage featuring Dracula (Zandor Vorkov) was for some reason also thrown into the mix. The film is pretty much as bad as my description makes it to be ... but it's also pretty funny if you are into bad cinema. It's just sad to see a talented actor like Lon Chaney jr stumbling through the scenery visibly scarred by alcoholism and illness, in a role not worthy of him.

 

Lon Chaney died in 1973 from liver failure in San Clemente, California, and basically he died a broken man, an immensely talented actor who was only rarely given the opportunity to show his full talent, who has all of his life been overshadowed by his father who has long become a screen legend, who has made his career primarily in a genre - horror - which he didn't particularly like, who because of that did probably not get many more accomplished roles in more high-profile films, and whose career was constantly sabotaged by his chronic alcoholism ...

That all said, Chaney jr did turn in some very fine and subtle performances (if his roles allowed it) and will be fondly remembered by many a film fan or at least many a horror fan (this one included) for quite a few (genre-)classics he has been in over the years.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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