Lon Chaney Jr. In the Movies : From A to Z
Looking back, Lon Chaney Jr, is one of those actors I discovered more through books than I did actual movies as a child. What I mean by that are the books I’d find in the public library on the history of horror films as a youngster. I’d see photos of him as Dracula, The Wolfman and other assorted characters including Kharis the Mummy. While I never knew it at the time, I do believe the first film starring Lon that I saw as a child is probably The Mummy’s Tomb. During the viewing I think it’s safe to say I had no idea who Lon was but my parents allowed me to watch it. My guess is I might have been about 8 years old. How do I know this was The Mummy’s Tomb? Easy, it’s the appearance of Turhan Bey that has stuck with me all these years as well as the demise of Kharis in a fire.
Son of the legendary Man of a Thousand Faces, I guess it was only inevitable that Lon would find himself starring in horror films though he should be credited for some of the outstanding work he’d do in supporting roles when called upon.
A is for …. Al Adamson. Like many actors who were nearing the end of their careers or in the case of Lon, his lifespan, he ended up in low budget films for the final years of his acting career. With cult favorite Al Adamson directing, Lon would essentially bottom out in a pair of Adamson features that marked the end of Lon’s acting career. Both titles were released to drive-in’s in 1971. The Female Bunch and Dracula Vs. Frankenstein. The latter film reunited Lon with his frequent co-star from the 1940’s, J. Carrol Naish who was himself delivering his final performance.
B is for …. Big House U.S.A. This 1955 black and white release is a gritty tale of a kidnapper played by Ralph Meeker who once arrested and sentenced to the state pen is forced to escape with a gang of cutthroats led by Broderick Crawford. Brod’s underlings consist of Lon, William Talman and Charles Bronson. This one pushes the envelope of on screen violence a bit more than then the average fifties release. For more on the film I’ve featured it here.
C is for …. Creighton. Lon was christened Creighton Chaney at birth and would begin his career in films bearing that name. From his first billed performance in 1932’s Bird of Paradise through the early 30’s he was often appearing unbilled before morphing into Lon Chaney Jr. on screen and signing on to Universal Studios for his most famous roles.
D is for …. Dynamo Dan.
Prior to his role in The Wolf Man, Dynamo Dan, represents Lon’s first role as a “monster” for Universal Studios. The film was 1941’s Man-Made Monster that sees big hearted Lennie …. I mean Lon, as a man who has escaped death by electrocution prompting Lionel Atwill to run some tests unveiling his evil side as we all expect. The end result is Lionel turns Lon into a Karloff like Monster to do his bidding. Killing all those who stand in the way of his thirst for power. A fun 60 minutes if you get the chance.
E is for …. Evelyn Ankers.
Leading lady Evelyn Ankers was a regular in the world of Universal Monsters and by extension the films of Lon Chaney. She’d play his love interest in The Wolf Man and from there would be seen in co-starring roles with Lon (usually being terrorized) in North to the Klondike (1942), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Son of Dracula (1943), Weird Woman (1944) and The Frozen Ghost (1945). They’d also appear as themselves in the star studded Follow the Boys (1944). According to legend the pair were not overly friendly on set.
F is for …. Frankenstein. Following Karloff’s retiring from the role of the Frankenstein Monster, Lon stepped in to the giant sized shoes for 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein alongside Bela Lugosi’s classic Igor characterization. A fun entry in the series and the only time Lon played the Monster though he was in all the subsequent films of the original series that ended with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Interestingly, Lon, was originally slated to play both the Monster and the Wolfman in 43’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. The role of the Monster ultimately went to Lugosi while Lon stuck to the Wolf Man. Trivia buffs will be quick to point out Lon played the Monster in a live TV broadcast in 1952. It’s famous for the wrong reasons. According to legend Lon was “in his cups” during the broadcast.
G is for …. Gargon. While we could argue that Lon’s role of the mute madman, Gargon, in 1952’s The Black Castle isn’t overly memorable doing the bidding of evil Stephen McNally, that has never stopped me from enjoying the film as a whole. Richard Greene finds himself in a castle run by McNally’s evil Count and looking to rescue a fair damsel in distress. Among those who reside in the castle are Boris Karloff, Michael Pate and John Hoyt. Hard not to like this cast in Nathan Juran’s period piece thriller.
H is for …. High Noon.
Look no further than this western classic to be reminded that once the Universal Monsters were retired, Lon, could prove to be an asset in a top line supporting role when called upon. Here he is playing opposite Gary Cooper’s Oscar winning performance for Sheriff Will Kane. Now aged and past his prime, Lon, plays the one time Sheriff who must sit back and watch Coop take on Frank Miller and his gang when the train arrives at High Noon. Outside of the Monster Universe, this may be the most famous film looking back that Lon ever appeared in.
I is for …. Inner Sanctum Mysteries. Remember the series of Inner Sanctum films? The ones that started with a warped looking face in a fish bowl warning us of what was to come? Lon headlined six films in the series that originated on radio. I for one love these mysteries and revisit them from time to time. Lon played everything from a Doctor to a Magician in these fast paced B’s for Universal. The titles as are as follows …. Calling Dr. Death (1943), Weird Woman (1944), Dead Man’s Eyes (1944), and a trio of titles released in 1945, The Frozen Ghost, Strange Confession and Pillow of Death.
J is for …. James Cagney. In 1953, Lon, joined the legendary James Cagney on screen in Raoul Walsh’s A Lion In the Streets. The film marked the only time the two appeared in the same film despite both beginning their careers at the dawning of the 1930’s. Of course this isn’t why I’ve selected Cagney for the letter J. It’s the fact that Jimmy played Lon’s father, Lon Sr. the silent film legend in the 1957 bio-pic Man of a Thousand Faces. In the film there are four youngsters playing Creighton Chaney as he ages over the course of the film with an ending that is sure to please Lon’s fans. Even if it’s a bit of Hollywood nonsense.
K is for …. Kharis.
In 1940 Universal Studios resurrected The Mummy for the first time since Karloff’s 1932 classic. Going in a new direction this story featured plenty of footage featuring the cloth wrapped guardian of the Princess Ananka. The first film titled The Mummy’s Hand starred Tom Tyler in the Kharis role. The final three starred Lon. The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (1945). Creaky they may be and yeah the Mummy may be slow footed but I love them and to be honest am just about due to binge watch them once again.
L is for …. Lennie.
Prior to his role of the Wolf Man, Lon, found critical acclaim as Lennie Small to Burgess Meredith’s George Milton in the screen adaptation of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I would suggest it’s a character that Lon revisited in part in many of his future roles. That of the big friendly fellow, not to bright and capable of violence when pushed. Directed by Lewis Milestone, this is easily one of the best film’s that Lon had the opportunity to appear in. For more on the film, click here.
M is for …. Morgan Whitlock.
Here’s another Chaney character. This one from the 1960’s gem, Witchcraft. He plays the elderly warlock in a coven of witches. It’s a black and white chiller from noted director Don Sharp who had already worked with Hammer and would continue to direct some above average thrillers in the years to come. Witchcraft has to do with an ancient family curse and even netted Lon the cover of Famous Monsters Of Filmland in his warlock getup.
N is for …. Northwest Mounted Police. This 1940 release was one of two films that Lon appeared in for legendary movie maker, Cecil B. DeMille. The other being 1939’s Union Pacific. Police was also the first time he had co-starred with Gary Cooper. Still to come was High Noon and another 1952 western Springfield Rifle.
O is for …. Ouspenskaya.
Maria Ouspenskaya is for film fans better known as the old gyspy woman, Maleva. It is her on screen son, Bela, played by none other than Bela Lugosi, who is himself a werewolf. When Bela attacks Lon Chaney in The Wolf Man, the story is set in motion for the doomed Lon. Maria, originally born in Russia, will try to help Lon deal with his curse and to hear her say lines like, “The way you walked was thorny though no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Now you will have peace for eternity.” is fitting for Lon’s grim destiny. Maria would also appear in the first sequel alongside Lon before bowing out of the series. A graduate of Stanislavski, Maria defected to Hollywood a found a career on stage before making her film debut in 1936’s Dodsworth. She continued appearing on camera till her death in 1949.
P is for …. Pardners. Lon was recruited to co-star opposite Martin and Lewis for their 1956 comedy western Pardners. Of course by this time the pair were anything but Partners. And don’t expect Lon to play nice either. He’s riding it rough and isn’t to be trusted and better still, his saddle pal is none other than western favorite and all around villain, Lee Van Cleef. Lon was always a good foil for comedians. He tormented Bud and Lou in Here Come the Co-Eds and threatened Bob Hope for the entirety of My Favorite Brunette in 1947. Oh and let’s not forget that comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson that he plagued in 44’s Ghost Catchers.
Q is for …. The Q in the character name Hugo McQueen. It’s either that Q or Anthony Quinn since the pair appeared in De Mille’s Union Pacific. As for Hugo McQueen, it’s an early credited role for Lon under his Creighton name in the 1934 film, The Life of Vergie Winters. Though I haven’t seen it, the film stars John Boles and Ann Harding. Unbelievably it’s the story of a married man running for Political Office who is having an affair with another woman. Something that would never happen in today’s day and age.
R is for …. Route 66.
Though Route 66 is a television show, I’m including it here for the must see episode titled Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing which was first broadcast in 1962. Lon plays himself and is joined by Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre for some comical thrills. What makes this episode so special is that the trio are residing at a hotel and in discussions to star in a new film together. But are the monsters of old still scary enough to thrill today’s audiences? It’s a reunion of sorts as Lon puts on his Wolfman get up and Boris for one last time will play his beloved Monster. Peter? He just plays Peter and is of course a hoot. It’s nostalgic fun at it’s best for us Monster Kids.
S is for …. Spider Baby.
Directed by Jack Hill, Spider Baby, represents a Lon film that has only grown in cult stature since the home video market picked it up for a VHS release allowing more fans of low budget horrors to finally see it. It’s subtitled The Maddest Story Ever Told and that fits. Lon plays the caretaker of a family that has descended into madness or are well on their way. He even sings the title track over the opening credits!!!! Modern horror fans will take notice that Sid Haig is one of the family members who is clearly already over the edge of insanity. Not to be missed. Creepy, comical and an all around cult classic with what is probably Lon’s best performance post 1960.
T is for …. Talbot.
Lawrence “Larry” Talbot is for fans of classic monster movies THE Lon Chaney role we all know and love. The nice guy who has been cursed for eternity to change into a werewolf when the autumn moon is bright. From 1941 to ’48, Lon, played sat for Jack Pierce’s famous make up job five times. The films…. The Wolf Man (1941), Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and finally in the spoof classic, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
U is for …. Universal Monsters. To this day the world of Universal Monsters is a money generator for the studio. From VHS tapes to blu ray box sets, the films are continually in rerelease for sale to collectors and then there is the merchandise that comes with them. Action figures, model kits and even Lon’s image as the Wolf Man on a U.S. stamp. Of the 6 accepted classic monsters the studio created, Lon played The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Frankenstein Monster and Dracula. He was never cast as The Invisible Man and I would suggest he wasn’t considered to play The Creature From the Black Lagoon for rather obvious reasons come 1954.
V is for …. Vampires.
Lon made appearances in a number of vampire films but only ever donned a set of fangs once. In 1943’s enjoyable Son of Dracula. He famously played Count Alucard upon his arrival in the Deep South. Have a closer look at Alucard if you’re new to the world of classic monster movies. Dracula in the guise of John Carradine in the Chaney flicks, House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein. Tangling with Lugosi’s Dracula in the Abbott and Costello classic. A vampire segment in the anthology film, Gallery of Horrors and the atrociously watchable Dracula Vs. Frankenstien in 1971.
W is for …. Westerns.
I’ll be honest. The last thing that comes to mind when I think of Lon Chaney Jr. movies are westerns. Like most of you stopping in I think of the horror genre and his Wolf Man. But if one looks past the obvious you’ll see that he co-starred in numerous westerns over the course of his career. From famous titles including 1939’s Jesse James, 1941’s Billy the Kid and 52’s High Noon to the low budget fodder of A.C. Lyles and playing heavies in first rate 50’s actioners like The Indian Fighter opposite Kirk Douglas or signing on with Gregory Peck in Only the Valiant, Lon has a long list of westerns to his name. He’d also appear in plenty of the TV westerns that populated the small screen in the 50’s and 60’s. Shows like Bat Masterson, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman and Rawhide.
X is for …. X-9. The X-9 comes from the 12 part serial, Secret Agent X-9 which found it’s way to movie screens in 1937. The lead role is played by actor Scott Kolk while Lon is playing a character going by the name, Maroni. Not having seen this before I lifted this brief synopsis from the IMDB …. A secret agent goes after the gang that stole the crown jewels of a European monarchy …. If you’ve seen it let me know what you think.
Y is for …. Young Fury.
Released in 1964, this is one of the low budget westerns from producer A.C. Lyles that employed old time movie stars. By my count Lon appears in 8 low budget westerns produced by Mr. Lyles in the 1960’s. This time he’s playing Ace the Bartender in support of Rory Calhoun and Virginia Mayo. Also turning up for a paycheck are William Bendix, John Agar and Richard Arlen. For the record the other Lyles/Chaney westerns are Law of the Lawless, Stage to Thunder Rock, Black Spurs, Town Tamer, Apache Uprising, Johnny Reno and Buckskin. All were on the market between 1964 and 68.
Z is for …. Zucco. It’s never easy to come up with a Z but thankfully when featuring an Icon of Classic Horror films, one can always connect the subject to George Zucco. The long time character player dabbled in most any genre but seemed to excel at playing demented scientists or in connection to Lon, the High Priest who served as the protector to Kharis The Mummy and the guardian of the sacred Tana Leaves. Zucco played the role in three of the four films to feature Kharis. Two of which starred Chaney.
Lon Chaney Jr. (1906-1973)
“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”