Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A so-so biography of Lon Chaney Jr., but at least there is one

By Doug Gibson

Lon Chaney Jr. is an interesting subject for a biography. Most of his career he appeared a tortured man, prematurely aged by severe alcoholism. A good biography, that would ferret out secrets of his personal life, the conflicts that turned an attractive star-to-be to an aging, almost grotesque, physical hulk in only 20 years, would be compelling reading. Unfortunately, we didn't get that type of biography from Don G. Smith, who 17 years ago authored Lon Chaney Jr., Horror Film Star, 1906-1973. (McFarland). Link.

Smith's biography reads at times like the longest magazine feature article ever written. It covers Chaney's career in great detail. In fact, at times the reader will grow tired of painstaking precise, in-depth recaps and author analysis of Chaney's many films. While this affects the flow of the biography, Smith does include as much information as he felt necessary about Chaney's career. In fact, the endless details underscore that Chaney had the most diverse screen career of the three most iconic horror film actors, Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff. This may tick off the legion of genre writers who like to poke fun at Chaney, but the sheer volume of his resume makes him the most versatile actor of the trio, and maybe the best. Cheney's better films were not horror films. They include "Of Mice and Men," "High Noon" and "The Defiant Ones," films in which Chaney provided a bulky screen presence that included inner turmoil within his character.

Unlike Lugosi, who literally had to beg for screen work in his last years, or Karloff, who had the luxury of picking and choosing fat-fee assignments at the end, Lon Chaney Jr. constantly worked on films, staying active, and I presume appropriately paid, throughout his career. He was in many westerns, sometimes cast as an Indian. He played oafs, good-natured or otherwise, in films as diverse as "The Cyclops" and a string of the last B-movie, second-feature westerns produced in the mid 1960s. He worked for directors as diverse as Stanley Kramer and Al Adamson.

Although best known for his tenure as Universal's horror star for a few years in the 1940s, Chaney was, as Smith relates, a reluctant entrant into the acting business. He learned his trade slowly, appearing in a long string of low-budget, mostly forgettable films in the 1930. Playing Lennie in "Of Mice and Men" gained him accolades, but I'd argue that the most critical film of Chaney's early career was his "monster film tryout" with Universal in 1940, a 59-minute programmer called "Man Made Monster," reviewed here.

In this lean, low-budget film, Chaney effectively played a large, easy-going man turned into a reluctant killer, an electronic monster, by a mad scientist, well portrayed by Lionel Atwill. His performance was good enough, and contained enough pathos, to convince Universal to make him the star of "The Wolf Man." And, with that, an iconic horror star was born.

Smith does a capable job of recounting the ups and downs of Chaney's career in films. I particularly like the attention paid to -- as early as 1996 -- to his early 60s film, "Spider Baby," that has turned into a genuine cult classic two generations-plus after it was barely released. That film proves that even a battered, ugly Chaney still contained magic enough to make a film great when he was so motivated. And Lon sings the title song! (Listen)

Where his biography fails, as mentioned, is providing anything above the bare details, or shaky speculation, about the demons that tormented Chaney Jr. and turned him into a textbook, lifetime alcoholic that essentially frittered away a decent star turn with Universal through his alcoholic antics and boorish behavior on the sets. Incredibly, Chaney's early life, his parents' troubled marriage and separation, his being raised by deaf grandparents, and his ambiguity at taking on his late dad's career and becoming an actor, is recapped in roughly 10 pages! That's ridiculous.

Certainly, the relationship that Chaney had with his famous father, Lon Chaney, must have had an impact on his future. Smith acknowledges this, and tries to analyze dad's effect on junior, but he simply doesn't have the sources to have his conclusions taken seriously. In fact, often the main source for the author's many muses is Curt Siodmark, the Universal writer of "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" and director of Chaney's film "Bride of the Gorilla." It's nice that Smith had an opportunity to chat with Siodmark before he died, but he shouldn't be a major source for Chaney's private life. This leads to conclusions from Smith, such as that Chaney was a latent homosexual, that may be interesting but certainly lack sufficient sources. At one point, Smith ludicrously attempts to link Chaney's calling Bela Lugosi "Pops," as evidence of Chaney's deep need to connect with a father figure that was supposedly denied him by his dad. Again, this may be proven true if explored in greater detail, but it had nothing to do with Lugosi being called "Pops."

One interesting part of Smith's biography is his dissection of the film, "Son of Dracula," which he describes as Chaney's greatest acting job as a horror star. I had previously thought Chaney's portrayal of "Count Alucard" was weak, agreeing with dismissive reviews that called Chaney's Count a "kept man." However, after reading Smith, I watched the film again, and I have re-evaluated my opinion some. Chaney does effect menace and strength in the film. My mistake is comparing him to Lugosi, my favorite horror actor, and projecting the Lugosi persona in a film where Lugosi's Count would have been miscast.

In "Son of Dracula," Chaney's cultivated menace, that can quickly turn brutish when he feels threatened, fits in with an environment, the 1940s rural South, that would have greeted his appearance with deep suspicion and hostility. There's a touch of desperation to Chaney's Alucard, forced to rely on a local undead confederate, Louise Allbritton (who is brilliant) who, unknown to him, plans to betray him. There must have been something lacking, or falling apart, in his native Hungary, to force Alucard so far away from home. And he reacts accordingly, with intimidation, mixed with a requisite courtliness, to assert himself.

Smith recounts already related tales of Chaney's alcoholism, his feuds with actresses who found him boorish, his uneven "Inner Sanctum" films, his many shenanigans that cost him his esteem with Universal, carousing with like-minded drinking and hunting buddies, and more unpleasant details, such as his domestic abuse and his attempt at suicide when his second marriage, to Patsy Cheney, almost failed. What's infuriating, though, is we don't have any in-depth reporting from Smith that uncovers why Chaney behaved why he did. There are no serious attempts to query the people close to Chaney's life to strip bare his past life and uncover and interpret the problems that wrecked him physically and at times emotionally.

Smith's book is worth a read. It provides information, mostly of his career, that can't obtained as easily and compactly elsewhere. Its main worth is that it exists as a biography of a major cult film star. Hopefully, one day a superior biography, one along the lines of "The Count ...," Arthur Lennig's superb book on Bela Lugosi, will be written about Chaney Jr.

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