I love old silent horror movies–the ones like THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and NOSFERATU. The acting could be incredibly hammy, the dialogue (each sentence appearing in script in its own frame) stilted–but some of them are genuinely scary.
Of all those old silents, though, the one I love most is 1925’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, starring the legendary Lon Chaney, Sr.
Born Leonidas Frank Chaney in 1883 (his first name is often given, wrongly, as Alonzo), Chaney was the son of a deaf-mute couple, and his acting prowess is sometimes credited to his use of pantomime to communicate with them. After a successful career in the theater that was unfortunately cut short when his first marriage ended in divorce, causing a huge scandal, he went into the nascent industry of moving pictures.
Even more important than his gift of pantomime, though, was his innovative use of makeup to convey physical deformity. His greatest makeup effects probably are in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923, based on Victor Hugo’s novel NOTRE DAME DE PARIS) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (based on Gaston Leroux’s novel of the same name).
In THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, Chaney was cast in the role of Erik, a disfigured music teacher who falls in love with a young soprano, Christine Daae, at the Paris Opera. The most famous scene–in which Christine (played by Mary Philbin) removes the mask which hides his dreadful face from the world–still has the power to shock, eighty-five years later.
Lon Chaney, in the estimation of movie historians, would have been able to go on to a successful career in the “talkies”; he, unlike many of his silent-screen fellow actors, had a good speaking voice. He only made one talking picture, however, before he died of a hemorrhage following a diagnosis of lung/throat cancer, in 1930.
Given that he played a number of memorable horror roles other than Erik, it’s only fitting that there should be a couple of ghost stories floating around Hollywood about Chaney. One revolves around a bench that once sat under a tree near the studios on Hollywood and Vine, that famed intersection. Young people hoping to be “discovered” often sat on that bench, hoping to pick up work as extras, and Lon Chaney frequently hired the hopefuls. It’s said that his ghost was often seen in the vicinity of the bench until it was removed from that spot, sometime in the 1940s, after which he was not seen again.
To this day, however, there are occasional reports of his ghost in the famed Stage 28 area of Universal Pictures’ backlot. The only set never “struck” (torn down) in Hollywood history, Stage 28 is the old opera house set seen in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and in other films as well. Chaney is one of two ghosts reported on the old set; he is recognizable because he is always seen wearing the long black cape and mask of Erik, his most memorable character.
I first saw the Chaney version of the Phantom during a Halloween silent movie marathon some years ago. I’ve seen it several times since, but it still chills me to the bone.