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The Man Behind the Man of 1,000 Faces
A Conversation with Lon Chaney historian Michael F. Blake

The many faces of Lon Chaney

Michael F. Blake is about the only person in the world today that can say he knows Lon Chaney. He never met the man personally, but after writing three books about him, he has become the world's foremost scholar of the man, his films and his make-up techniques. Each one of Blake's books is an incredible look into Hollywood's first "character star". Blake himself has lived a pretty interesting life. He was a child actor (in The Munsters, Adam-12 and Bonanza among others), who danced in the shadow of his legendary character actor father, Larry Blake (of High Noon, Sunset Blvd. and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers fame). He moved from being on camera to being behind it, as an Emmy award winning make-up artist (following in the footsteps of his hero Chaney). His credits include Star Trek VI, Strange Days, the Sister Act films and ID4. Simply put, he's a very cool guy who I always enjoy talking to. Michael's three books about Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces, A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney's Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures and The Films of Lon Chaney, are available from your local bookseller and each one covers different aspects of his life, his make-up and his films.

What follows is less an interview and more a snippet of one of our conversations. I figured that since two classic Chaney films were coming out on a double feature DVD from Image, it was a good time to shed some light on them, although nothing replaces actually going out and watching them for yourself. So join Michael and me as we talk about the controversial Shadows, the kick-ass underworld film Outside the Law and the importance of not censoring our past. But be warned - there are some spoilers below. If you haven't seen either of these films, you might want to see them first and then read our discussion.

Todd Doogan (The Digital Bits): I watched, for the first time actually, these two Chaney movies - Outside the Law and Shadows. I really liked one and I was indifferent about the other.

Michael F. Blake: Let me guess which one you liked: Outside the Law.

Todd Doogan: Yeah.

Michael F. Blake: And you were indifferent to Shadows.

Todd Doogan: I sure was. I'm not quite sure why. I liked Chaney's performance in Shadows, but I thought the film was just way too over the top in its preachy nature and it's almost offensive to me. I'm keeping in mind the age of the film and the era in which it was made, but it has to be one of those films P.C. revisionist groups would love to bury.

Michael F. Blake: It's still a good little film, but you have to realize the history behind Shadows. It was an independent film - they couldn't get a major company to release it. It was done through Preferred Pictures, which was a real low budget, not quite Poverty Row, company that released films. Here you have an Asian character that was a hero in the film. That wasn't the case in real life back then. Asians were really treated badly in life and in films. In films they were used as comedy relief sometimes, or they simply had them in there to call them "The Chink". They were also often used as villains, especially Sessue Hayakawa (who appeared in Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957). The fear behind it was that they would come and rape our white women. As a film, Shadows was just blowing in the wind for a while there, but what saved it was film critic Robert E. Sherwood naming it as one of the top films in his book The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-23. It's listed among Nanook of The North, Grandma's Boy with Harold Lloyd, Blood and Sand with Valentino, Prisoner of Zenda, Oliver Twist with Chaney and Jackie Coogan, Robin Hood with Fairbanks, Chaplin's Pilgrim, Covered Wagon and The Merry-Go-Round by Von Stroheim, and it's right there amongst them. Shadows did a good job with this - it was something to behold, that mention like that. Sherwood wrote this: "Shadows provides definite proof of the regrettable fact that the best pictures aren't always to be seen in the best theaters. It is an open secret that the great majority of first run theaters in all parts of the country are controlled by four great producing/distributing corporations, with an additional number that are dedicated to Universal, Goldwyn and Pathe. These huge companies are always at one another's throats quite fiercely to control each city. They desire to provide outlets for their own pictures and to block possible outlets for the productions of their competitors.

Shadows ran into this very difficulty - it had been produced by B.P. Schulberg, the picturesque young impresario, who believes in making money on box office pictures and spending it on what Merton Gill calls "the finer and better things." Shadows came under the latter head and the exhibitors therefore viewed it with alarm. It's too good to be profitable was the consensus of opinion. They tried to place Shadows in one of the first run theaters in New York (there are five of them) but it was meet with nothing but rebuff. Proprietors of the theaters had too many obligations to fill to the big companies that paid their salaries. The National Board of Review however, discovered Shadows and lifted it from the obscurity in which it has been submerged. As a result of their intelligent efforts, Shadows was brought to the attention of those who are continually on the look out for good pictures."

Here's a little bit about Chaney's performance: "Mr. Chaney's performance as the benevolent laundryman Yen Sin was the finest impersonation of an Oriental character by an occidental player that I have ever seen." Sherwood ends that with, "I doff my hat to mister Schulberg. I hope he makes a great deal of money and a great many more pictures like Shadows." So with that kind of inspirational writing and a seal of approval by one of the most revered critics of the period, Shadows really started to get a great deal of play and they were finally able to get it around. I don't know how much money it made. That is the trouble about profits back then, it's hard to track exact box office. I'm sure it made its money back and made something of a profit. But, yes, it is a preachy little film. Back then in 1922 to 1923, you'll find a lot of films have that tone. My personal thinking (a theoretical hunch of mine with no proof to back it up) is that a lot of producers were putting a more religious overtone to their films in light of the Arbuckle scandal, Wally Ried's untimely death and the threats that the industry was almost going to be torn down. I think they were trying to make these films to say, "Look, we are making quality films and family films." That's why if you look at a lot of these films, or at least a good portion of the films from 1922 to 1923, there is a lot of religious references to the films.

Todd Doogan: I thought it was neat that even though it is preachy, and there is a definite pro-Christianity bend, there's also a very subversive element with the Nate Snow character being so hypocritical.

Michael F. Blake: The other thing that's really something, is here you have an Asian character who's the hero. He shows everyone for who they are. That was totally unheard of back then. That was just not something you did. That was just one of the problems with Shadows in selling it. You have a lead character that shows some of the white people what a bunch of schmucks they were. I think that a lot of people resisted that. But in some respects, Shadows broke ground - not tremendous ground, but it at least started something. You can trace it along the line. Of course with World War II, that set everything back. It was quite a groundbreaking film if you think about it.

Todd Doogan: How important a star was Lon Chaney in 1922? What sort of pull did he have at this time?

Michael F. Blake: He was getting audiences in to some extent, obviously. It was no where near what it became after Hunchback and Phantom and during his tenure at MGM. But he was becoming recognized as a character star. He was recognized for bringing something more to the film. I don't think it was so much the audience's doing - the audience obviously liked him, but I think the producers thought that if they put Chaney in a film, it was giving the film some prestige. He was being referred to as Hollywood's greatest character actor at the time. Not quite a character star, Hunchback launched him into that status, but he was mentioned in magazines along with Noah Beery, Wallace Beery and others as one of the leading character actors at the time. I think producers wanted to get Chaney for something like that because it gave their productions some prestige - to have one of Hollywood's great actors acting in their film.

Todd Doogan: How did Chaney do the make-up for the character of Yen Sin?

Michael F. Blake: I believe he shaved his head and wore a wig. Bald caps really hadn't been developed at that point. You could use a muslin cap, with the wig attached - much like Lon did in Phantom of the Opera - but to get the effect he got in this would be a little tougher, so I think he shaved his hair and used the wig. To get the slant of the eyes, he took this transparent thin material called "fish skin" and he would glue it at the corner of each eye and pull it back and tape it under the wig with adhesive tape. He'd enhance that with liner color around the corner of the eyes to give the essence that his orbital area was more almond shaped. The rest was just body posture.

Todd Doogan: He didn't wear a harness or anything?

Michael F. Blake: No, not at all. If you take a look at my second book, there's the photo of where they're standing discussing the script and he not hunched over at all. It was all his doing on his own.

Todd Doogan: Wow.

Michael F. Blake: I know. Just imagine between scenes he'd be standing around, talking or possibly having a cigarette and Tom Foreman the director who'd say, "We're ready" and Boom! He'd go right into character.

Todd Doogan: You know, I really liked Outside the Law much more.

Michael F. Blake: It's really good.

Todd Doogan: It really IS good.

Michael F. Blake: It's a solid little picture - even when it gets into when the crooks fall into Browning's typical "redemption through love" theme, it doesn't bog it down. It still holds up really well. It's a well-made picture. Browning was in top form at this point. He couldn't get any better.

Todd Doogan: How many films had Tod Browning made before this film?

Michael F. Blake: He was pretty much established. He began in 1917 and he goes back to 1914 acting, of course. He appeared in Griffith's Intolerance and worked with Griffith as assistant director. I believe it was 1917 or 1915 when he started out directing and in 1919 he was over at Universal, where he directed Priscilla Dean (who's the star of Outside the Law) in a bunch of crime melodramas. Dean became one of the leading female stars at Universal in the late teens early 20s. The first film Chaney and Browning did together, The Wicked Darling is actually quite good and Priscilla Dean is in that. It's another gangster/crooks kind of film. It's good, but Outside the Law is better.

Todd Doogan: This was the third film he made with Browning?

Michael F. Blake: Second. The Wicked Darling in 1919 and this one in 1920 released in 1921.

Todd Doogan: Chaney plays two characters in this film. He plays "Black Mike" Sylva and Ah Wing. Before I watched the film, I read the passage you wrote in The Films of Lon Chaney, and I had to flip back and forth to the credit index because in the text it reads that Black Mike is killed by Ah Wing. Chaney kills his own character? In the DVD, the film elements are sketchy to this, because a big chunk is missing at this point. Ah Wing shoots his gun and the next thing we see is Mike stumbling into the alley dead. It's just not clear who killed Mike.

Michael F. Blake: Ah Wing kills him. He shoots him and he dies. There is a little bit there lost from the nitrate. It's just another example of why we need film preservation. Thank God they got to this film before it was too late.

Todd Doogan: I noticed right from the start some really bad... what looks to be "water damage" on both sides of the film.

Michael F. Blake: It looks like water damage, but that's nitrate. That's starting to get into the advanced stages of nitrate damage. Where the picture starts to... what looks to be bubbled and as you say water damaged. It's really the image dissipating off the celluloid. Thank God they got to it in time.

Todd Doogan: About three-fourths of the way through, the image goes white in spots. I was just shaking my head and saying, "My god." I was watching AMC the other weekend and they had a really great documentary about film preservation called Keepers of the Frame

Michael F. Blake: It's an excellent documentary.

Todd Doogan: It really is. I actually started crying while watching it. It makes me sad to know that a lot of these films are gone. My wife turned to me and I don't think she quite got the real impact. When they were discussing that some of these really horrid images are the only things we have left, she said, "But these films aren't "gone" gone, right?" And I just had to look at her and say, "No. That's it - we'll never see half this stuff again." And I think it hit her at that moment too. We both sat there stunned. It bothers me to think that these films are gone and we screwed it up somehow.

Michael F. Blake: Yeah. It's frustrating.

Todd Doogan: Flipping through The Films of Lon Chaney I noticed that if you know of a print it's in there in the notes section. But if you don't, there is no reference to any prints. There is a maddening amount of Chaney films that don't have a print referenced. Can that be?

Michael F. Blake: Out of 157 films he did only 47 exist in complete or partial form. 110 films are gone. We just found, my friend found Triumph - a 1917 film - and we've got three reels of it. He's graciously included me in on it and we thought we might have some funding for it, but it looks like we're just going to spend our own money and restore it. The third reel has a lot of nitrate decomp on it, so we're going to have to move really fast.

Todd Doogan: How much does it cost to restore, say those three reels of film?

Michael F. Blake: We've been quoted somewhere in the vicinity - and this is just a ballpark figure, without them taking a look at the footage - but based on our detailed description, I'd say somewhere in the range of three to five thousand dollars. Just imagine if you had a film that was 8 reels. Now, keep in mind that that's with a film that doesn't have a whole bunch of nitrate problems. There's only one reel with nitrate decomp - the other two reels are virtually perfect. Just perfect. If you weren't worried about it catching fire, you could run it through a projector. What's really irritating with this film, is that each title card had been spliced in by hand and the titles are all in a blue tint. If we transfer it to safety stock, we'll lose that tint, unless we went with color stock. But the problem there is that it will eventually fade.

Todd Doogan: Speaking of cards, are there any cards missing from Outside the Law? There are a few heavy dialogue exchanges in there with no cards anywhere near them.

Michael F. Blake: As far as we know, no. It's all there. There were a couple of prints found. The print that Blackhawk found was found in Yugoslavia. They redid the titles and they did that from a cutting continuity. Someone found a Universal Show-At-Home print from the late teens, early 20s. Somebody else found another print but I don't think it was in any better condition than this Blackhawk print. Blackhawk found this one back in the early 1970s.

Todd Doogan: I found myself actually reading their lips to get some of what was being said, and I was pleasantly surprised that they were going from a script. I've read that this wasn't always the case in silent films - that there were cases that there was no "real" dialogue.

Michael F. Blake: Oh, yeah. They followed a script very carefully. I've asked several actors from that period if they followed a script and they all said they did.

Todd Doogan: There's a nice aspect in the middle portion of the film where the crooks are hiding out and they make friends with the little boy. Where you ever able to track down that child?

Michael F. Blake: No and I just found out that he died this year.

Todd Doogan: Ahhhhhhh.

Michael F. Blake: Yep. You wanna know the real kicker of it? He was living here in Southern California in early 1992 and 1993. About two mounts ago, I was looking through the obituary column of the LA Times - I have the terrible habit of doing that, it gets terribly depressing at times - and I saw this entry for Stanley Goethals and I said, "No, it can't be him." The name wasn't like Jack Smith, but I knew it had to be. The obituary made no mention of his acting in the film industry. They listed some of his children, so I did an Internet search and found one of his sons was living up in Redding. I spoke with him sometime after his father's passing and he confirmed that his father was the same Stanley Goethals from this film. He also did another film with Chaney called The Trap. Goethals was really a good kid actor for the time.

Todd Doogan: I know, he was. I was surprised how natural he came off.

Michael F. Blake: What was interesting, is that by 1924-1925, he dropped completely out of the business. He's not listed in anything. I guess his parents took him out of the business. I talked with his son briefly, and he said that his father loved Lon and said he was really nice to him. I made a copy of both Outside the Law and The Trap for him because he'd seen it only once at the Silent Movie Theater. It gets frustrating when you get that close and it becomes an "if only." That's happened a bunch of times over the course of these three books.

Todd Doogan: How was Outside the Law categorized? Was this a gangster film?

Michael F. Blake: Well, gangsters were really starting to come into play here. That was pre-Al Capone days, made right around the time of prohibition coming into effect. This wasn't really called a "gangster" film because that term wasn't popularly being used until the late 1930s, with the proliferation of the Warner Bros. films. It's more a crime drama - an underworld drama is what it was called. They were becoming very popular along with westerns and romantic films. It was one of the most popular genres.

Todd Doogan: It's also a nice little heist flick. There's a great heist going in this film.

Michael F. Blake: Yeah. It really is a slick film. When I say that, I mean that in the best possible term, because it was really well made craftsmen type filmmaking. The story holds up, the acting holds up, it doesn't drag, it has a good narrative to it. It just works well. It's a good little film. Chaney is of course great as the villain.

Todd Doogan: He is great, isn't he?

Michael F. Blake: Years ago, I had seen the film for my second time. I called my friend, who lived back in Ohio at the time, and he had seen all of Chaney's films as a boy. He asked me, "Did they have that scene where Lon steals the tip?" After all these years - this is in those pre-VHS years, around 1972, 50 years after the film came out - my friend could still remember the scene where Chaney steals the tip. It speaks volumes of how a little scene or a little bit of an actor can bring a character to life and it will stay with people. Years and years later, they remember and this is a perfect example of that.

Todd Doogan: Do you think he improvised that?

Michael F. Blake: Oh, yeah. I think that was his idea entirely. It's something he brought to the character.

Todd Doogan: Did Chaney want to play both roles? Was that something that was brought to him or did he ask for it?

Michael F. Blake: I think it was something that was brought up by Browning. I think Browning realized Chaney's capabilities and said, "Hey, why don't you play both parts here?" I'm sure Chaney leapt at the opportunity.

Todd Doogan: Was this Chaney's first turn as an Asian character?

Michael F. Blake: This was, yeah. This would have been. Bits of Life was released in 1921, but made after Outside the Law. It was the second film where he played a dual role.

Todd Doogan: What was the first?

Michael F. Blake: The Flashlight, in 1917. In it he played brothers.

Todd Doogan: The make-up for this one isn't terribly intricate. You can tell it's Lon. It's not as impressive as say, Shadows was. The teeth are a bit too big, the eyes too squinty. The costuming and posture are not as impressive as his turns as Yen Sin or Mr. Wu. How did he do the make-up in this one?

Chaney with his make-up kit.

Michael F. Blake: I think this was a training ground for him. I agree that the make-up wasn't as good as Shadows or Mr. Wu, but I still think he looks more Asian than E.A. Warren who plays Chang Low. He was certainly more Asian than that guy.

Todd Doogan: In Shadows, there is a Chinese actor that plays Yen Sin's friend who goes off to follow Earl Snow. Was that common to have Asian actors in films at that time?

Michael F. Blake: He wasn't a featured character. They did use a lot of Asians in supporting parts. But the lead prominent parts where filled by Caucasians.

Todd Doogan: Did Chaney ever play an African-American?

Michael F. Blake: Yes. On stage he played a part in Fisher's Follies: Summer Flirts in 1912. In fact, he got a great review that wasn't exactly politically correct.

[Michael reads me the review, but I'm not going to transcribe it because frankly it's offensive, even though it's relevant to our next discussion.]

Todd Doogan: I can't believe they described his character like that.

Michael F. Blake: It's sad to say that was quite common.

Todd Doogan: What kind of culture shock is it for you to go back over some of these reviews for events and films of a time with such a different outlook on race relations?

Michael F. Blake: It shocks you more than anything. Sometimes you laugh, but you're laughing out of sheer shock, saying to yourself, "My God, did people actually say this?" That's the thing you do - you can't believe that they are saying this stuff. But there they are saying it.

Todd Doogan: Both of these films feature Chinese characters, but they aren't exactly the nicest views possible.

Michael F. Blake: No, they aren't. But it wasn't uncommon for them to be referred to as "The Chinks". Even in Outside the Law there is a card with that word on there.

Todd Doogan: Shadows is just a little more offensive. As a historian, in relation to people with a P.C. agenda, who want these films destroyed and never seen again or at least changed for any future broadcast, is there a value to these films in the state that they are in?

Michael F. Blake: Absolutely. Because it shows how far we've come along. I can sit here and tell you this stuff was out there, but it doesn't make the impact it does when you see it.

Todd Doogan: I started my fascination for films and film history like most people my age, with old Warner Bros. cartoons. I wanted to find out what all the in-jokes were about, so I started immersing myself in everything having to do with cartoon studios and history brought up in the films. And I know there are a great many cartoons that will never see the light of day ever again, or will be edited down to pale imitations of themselves because of content…

Michael F. Blake: You'll never see Song of the South released by Disney. The only way you can get Song of the South is if you have someone from Japan send you a copy. They'll show it there, but they won't show it here.

Todd Doogan: It's a shame.

Michael F. Blake: As offensive as some of these things can be, we need to know it. We need to know where this comes from and where we've gone with it. If you look at these films, and yeah, some of these are pretty insensitive, there're pretty embarrassing at times. But it gives us an idea of the mentality of the times. When we hear grandfathers and grandmothers or parents even saying certain things, we know where they got it from. Right or wrong. It's not to absolve one person and say that they weren't really racists, but it gives proof of the racist ways because that's how society was at the time. Good, bad or indifferent, this is the way we were and you just can't simply blot out things that are offensive or not politically correct and just pretend they didn't happen. That's like ignoring the Holocaust. We need to see these things to see what we did wrong and not do it again. Otherwise we're just going to repeat this stuff again.

---end---

Amen.

The staff of The Digital Bits would like to thank Michael for taking the time out of his busy schedule to chat with us. Thanks also to Marc Walkow and Garrett Lee at Image Entertainment. You can read my review of their Outside the Law/Shadows double feature disc here.

Keep spinning those discs!

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com


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