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The Man Behind the Man
of 1,000 Faces
A Conversation with
Lon Chaney historian Michael F. Blake
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
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
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.
Blake: Let me guess which one you liked:
Outside the Law.
Blake: And you were indifferent to
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
Michael F. Blake: It's really
Todd Doogan: It really IS
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
Michael F. Blake: Oh, yeah. I
think that was his idea entirely. It's something he brought to the
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
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
Todd Doogan: What was the
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?
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
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
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
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.
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
review of their Outside the Law/Shadows double feature
Keep spinning those discs!