The Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankensteinís monster and the Mummy are from Oklahoma City: The life and work of Lon Chaney Jr.
It’s the winter of 1941, and the location is movie theaters across America. The war overseas and the recent attack on Pearl Harbor is at the forefront of the collective mind of the country. For some, a trip to indulge themselves in the horror of a movie was the best way to distract themselves from the horrors of war, even if for only about an hour. Enter Universal’s newest monster movie: “The Wolf Man.”
Though many of us might remember their titles, we may not all remember the stories of the other cinematic monoliths that would’ve been contemporaries of “The Wolf Man” like “Citizen Kane” or “The Maltese Falcon.” But most people even vaguely aware of modern fiction, in general, can likely tell you the story of “The Wolf Man”: A man is bitten by a vicious wolf and then finds that he turns into a vicious half-man, half-wolf under the light of the full moon; only a silver bullet can cure him. Yet in 1941 this wasn’t the common knowledge it is today, thus this film adaptation, starring the son of a legendary horror icon (who himself would become a renowned movie star in his own right,) Lon Chaney, Jr., was met with shock, awe and horror unparalleled. The success of the film would earn “The Wolf Man”, and thus Lon Chaney, Jr., a top spot in the prestigious lineup of Universal monster movies and even usher in a second era of them. To this very day, the influence of the Universal monsters can still be felt, as the majority of those monsters live on as Halloween staple creatures (Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, etc.).
But what does any of this have to do with Oklahoma City, right? I already hear you thinking, “Oh God, she’s not going to try to tell us that this happened in Oklahoma City or something, right? Absolute rubbish.” Well, good news. If you’ll look back at the title of this piece, you’ll see that I’m not; indeed, I’m here to tell you that the original actor who played the Wolf Man, the son of the first man to play the Phantom of the Opera on film, was born right here in Oklahoma Territory (modern day Oklahoma City) in 1906, only a year shy of statehood. In fact, not only was he the original Wolf Man, but he’s also the only actor to have played all four of Universal’s most popular monsters: Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy.
Because he had the mixed fortune of being born right before statehood, you won’t see Lon Chaney, Jr. appear on most lists of famous people from Oklahoma. Instead, you’re more likely to see him on lists of some of the most talented and respected horror movie actors who helped define the genre alongside greats like his father, Lon Chaney, Sr., Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. So in honor of the spirit of Halloween, what better day to explore the life and work of Oklahoma City’s most prolific horror movie star, the original Wolf Man himself: Lon Chaney, Jr.
Our story begins a generation before Lon Chaney, Jr. with his father, Lon Chaney, Sr. A silent movie star most well-known for his starring roles in the first film adaptations of “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Lon Chaney, Sr. would be known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and famously carried a large makeup case with him. Suffice to say, the senior Chaney remains one of the most prolific actors of the silent era of film. So what was a massive star like him doing in Oklahoma Territory? Well, at the turn of the century, he wasn’t a movie star just yet—he was a humble, traveling vaudeville actor from Colorado. After three years on the road, Chaney, Sr. met a dancer in Oklahoma City, Frances Cleveland Creighton, and they promptly got married and had a son.
In February 1906, Frances and Chaney, Sr. were living in modern-day Belle Isle when their only son was born. A surviving legend says that he wasn’t breathing when he was born, so his father plunged him into Belle Isle Lake to resuscitate him and, evidently, it worked. He was born Creighton Chaney, though he would later rename himself to Lon Chaney, Jr. to boost his career (regarding his name he once said, “I tried for three years to make a go of things without capitalizing upon dad’s name, but the cards have been stacked against me. If I had only myself to think of, I would battle it out to the end. But I’m getting older every year and I don’t think it’s right to make my family suffer just so I can fight for a principle.”). He spent his earliest childhood in Oklahoma City, where his mother continued to work as a dancer, his grandmother as a well-respected nurse, and his father as a carpet salesman and theater manager in downtown OKC. It wasn’t long, however, before his parents began touring again—Chaney, Jr. would be spending most of his remembered childhood on the road.
In 1913, Chaney Jr.’s world turned upside down when his mother made a failed suicide attempt that became a major scandal. Frances and Chaney, Sr. would get divorced, ultimately ending with Chaney, Sr. getting full custody of his son, who had lived in a foster home and his (paternal) grandparent’s home while the legal battle for him was being fought. In fact, it’s this divorce that lead Chaney, Sr. to a career in moving pictures—he wanted to prove that he could provide a more stable home with a stable income to take care of his young son.
A performer’s life was the only life Chaney, Jr. knew of, so it probably comes as little surprise that he expressed an early interest in working in show business. Chaney, Sr. would actively discourage his son from this (it’s been said that he’d often tell his son that he was too tall for show business; Chaney, Jr. would eventually stand at 6’ 3”, well above Chaney, Sr.’s 5’ 7”) leading Chaney, Jr. to instead go to business school and eventually become a plumbing contractor until his father would die of throat cancer in 1930.
1930 is when the Chaney, Jr. (whom shall be henceforth referred to simply as “Chaney” for convenience—in the later part of his career he would do the same thing, too) we’re more familiar with takes the stage—literally. Promptly after his father’s death, Chaney would enter the film industry through bit parts in films like “The Galloping Ghost,” “The Roadhouse Murder” and “The Most Dangerous Game.” The first starring role he’d get was in “The Last Frontier,” not a hugely successful serial, but it would eventually lead to more starring roles for him in bigger films like “A Scream in the Night” (this is when he changed his name to Lon Chaney, Jr.) and “Of Mice and Men.”
His portrayal of John Steinbeck’s dimwitted giant, Lennie, in “Of Mice and Men” was his first major, breakout success, as the film did exceedingly well both financially and critically. Although it wouldn’t win any, it would be nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture (it would lose to “Gone with the Wind”). Chaney’s acting career was finally starting to take off thanks to this film, and what makes this especially amazing is the fact that he wasn’t even supposed to play Lennie at first—the role was originally meant to be given to Broderick Crawford. Frustrated with the lack of starring roles he was getting in Hollywood, Chaney, Jr. played Lennie in a theatrical version of “Of Mice and Men” well before the film version was made. When it came to light that Hal Roach Studios was planning on making it into a movie, Chaney desperately wanted to continue playing Lennie, but he didn’t have an agent. He approached the director, Lewis Milestone, about the issue and the compromise they reached was that Milestone would allow Chaney to play Lennie for the other actor’s screen tests. By the time the screen tests were done, Milestone realized that Chaney was the perfect Lennie.
Two years later, Chaney would be approached by his father’s studio, Universal, who would offer him the lead role in “Man-Made Monster,” originally meant for Boris Karloff (the original Frankenstein’s monster and Mummy who, alongside Bela Lugosi, starred in most of Universal’s horror films in the 30’s). Chaney would do such a great job with this role that Universal would soon offer him yet another starring role in a horror movie: Lawrence Talbot himself, better known as the Wolf Man.
Before we go on to talk about what’s without a doubt Chaney’s most immortal role, I think it’s important, for just a moment, to remember exactly how much of a big deal this was. In 1941, despite the country being involved in a global war, cinema isn’t faltering—it’s flourishing. Universal, one of the biggest studios around, is well-known for making the best horror movies—in fact, their monsters are, to this day, basically the Disney Princesses of the horror genre—yet the audiences seemed to be losing their interest in the latest Karloff/Lugosi films now that they’ve been dominating the horror genre for an entire decade. They’re craving something—and someone—newer. And who better to breathe new life into this studio and their monster movies than the son of the man who played their very first monsters, who just had his first major success in the film industry? Tall, dramatic, troubled—this role seemed, in many ways, to have been tailor-made for Chaney.
And so in 1941, Chaney takes on his most iconic role in “The Wolf Man.” The film is an instant success, financially and critically. Perhaps the most interesting effect “The Wolf Man” has on Universal, in particular, is that they now begin making their crossover films—the multi-monster films—in which their most iconic creatures and characters interact with each other, such as in “House of Frankenstein” and “House of Dracula.” This revival of interest in characters like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster after nearly a decade made Universal have to recast the characters in some films, which ultimately provided Chaney the chance to play Frankenstein’s monster in “The Ghost of Frankenstein,” the Mummy in “The Mummy’s Tomb” and “The Mummy’s Ghost,” and Dracula in “Son of Dracula.” He was the only actor to play all four of Universal’s most popular monsters (their “big four”). By extension, this also made Chaney the only one of the Universal monster actors to never have his monster recast.
In the late 40’s Universal began to notice a definitive change in their audience’s taste; people are becoming bored of the once-great Universal monsters and their now almost constant crossovers (a critic in Harrison’s Report would say about “House of Frankenstein,” “The whole thing is a rehash of the fantastic doings of these characters in previous pictures and, since they do exactly what is expected of them, the spectator is neither shocked nor chilled.” This sentence well summarizes how many audiences were starting to feel as well). Although Universal would still try to breathe more life into the dying corpse of their monster movies (to some degree of success, in their defense) with films like “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and various “Abbott and Costello” movies, their monster movies would never again reach the heights they had in the 1930s and ‘40s. Chaney knew that soon he’d have to start looking for work outside of Universal—more importantly, he knew that he’d have to start looking for work outside of the Wolf Man and the various other monsters he’d been playing for nearly a decade.
After finishing “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein” in 1948, Chaney Jr. spent the ‘50s away from Universal, moving into the exciting new world of the burgeoning western genre that was all the rage, completely embracing his Okie roots. Unfortunately, however, his alcoholism was starting to get in the way of his work. His struggles with the bottle prevented him from getting roles as big as, say, the Wolf Man or Lennie again, even though he would still be able to find work consistently enough. Perhaps the most interesting moments during his cowboy phase were a notable background role as Martin Howe in “High Noon” that’s often considered to be another one of his most iconic alongside the Wolf Man and Lennie, and Crazy Charlie in “The Boy from Oklahoma” in which Will Rogers, Jr. was his costar.
The ‘60s was a decade of mixed fortune for Chaney. Thanks to television and the publication of “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” there was a revived interest in the Universal monsters and the actors who played them that Chaney got to capitalize on. Furthermore, he got a notable role in one of Vincent Price’s (the new face of the horror genre) Edgar Allan Poe films, “The Haunted Palace.” What could’ve been a successful decade in the prolific actor’s life, however, was interrupted by his rapidly declining health. After a worrying throat cancer diagnosis (this was, after all, the same disease that killed his father), he retired from film in 1969 and would spend the rest of his life working on a project to build up the Chaney legacy: a book that remains unpublished (though is currently being worked on by his grandson) called “A Century of Chaneys.” His final film role would be in “The Female Bunch.” He would die of a heart attack in 1973.
Chaney’s death was met with immense sorrow, but not necessarily surprise. He was well-documented for being an alcoholic and a heavy smoker. Not only that, but while he was being treated for throat cancer he was also being treated for an onslaught of other illnesses such as gout, cataracts, liver problems, pneumonia and beriberi. Upon his death, his body would be donated to science (there’s a legend, one which this writer can’t find a primary source for, saying that the interns who would get to dissect his body had never heard of him).
Even though he died in 1973, the legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr. still lives on to this day. In fact, in 1999 he was posthumously given a Golden Palm Star in California’s Walk of Stars. He was the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Mummy, Lennie, a cowboy (many cowboys, actually), and one of the most prolific actors of his era in general. He may have taken his father’s name in hopes of boosting his own career, but ultimately, he’d become an incredibly successful actor in his own right. Today, his grandson, Ron Chaney, still participates in keeping his grandfather’s legacy alive and well—even by visiting Oklahoma from time to time.