Lon Chaney was among the last few big stars who held out from making the transition to sound films. He had witnessed the careers of long-standing silent film stars get wiped out almost overnight. While a few like Greta Garbo and Ronald Colman were able to make the change over to sound films (achieving greater stardom in the process), others, such as John Gilbert - once the idol of millions - were ruined once they opened their mouths. Chaney had dedicated too many years to his art to chance watching his own career fizzle. Although he initially frowned on this new innovation of sound in motion pictures, he was aware that he either had to make the change over to "talkies", or announce his retirement at the relatively young age of 46. When he finally made his decision in early 1930, Lon was quoted: "No, retirement is the bunk. And, yes…I am going into talkies! I'll tell you frankly that my first talking picture is going to make - or break me! Inside. I mean…in here…" as he tapped on his chest.
Chaney immersed himself in technical research around the sound rooms; studying the art of recording and learning about the recording devices of the era. He spent hours inside the mixing stages, not only to observe the mixers at work, but to occasionally mix and experiment himself. Chaney was making a study of sound recording techniques with the same intensity and discipline that he'd previously applied when studying the intricacies of physical and facial make-up.
Chaney's first sound film would be a remake of one of his greatest box-office successes, "The Unholy Three", which also re-teamed him with Tod Browning. There were delays in the production of the film though, as Chaney was apparently still ill from shooting his last film Thunder. He was far more ill than even he thought so at the time. Unable to fully recover from complications resulting from bronchitis and a throat infection, Chaney underwent a tonsillectomy. Still weak and considerably ill, he continued to shoot The Unholy Three, although there were reports of a few occasions where he could not summon up enough strength to leave his own dressing room. After completing the film, Chaney immediately went to New York to undergo medical tests. After consulting with several leading specialists, he returned to his mountain retreat situated in the High Sierras of Inyo National Forest.
The Unholy Three would be Lon Chaney's last film. Released in July of 1930, the film was an instant success. Old and new fans alike were anxious to hear Chaney talk for the first time. He proved his versatility once again by imitating the voice of an old lady, in addition to performing three other parts in the film. The film received glowing reviews, and exceeded everyone’s expectations of Lon Chaney, as it was now being pronounced that the "Man Of A Thousand Faces is also The Man Of A Thousand Voices!" The studios were already bus lining up new productions for him. Projects such as Cheri Bibi, The Sea Bat, The Bugle Sounds, and Dracula were being groomed for him. There were even rumors of Chaney being considered for Universal's Frankenstein.
His strength failing rapidly, Chaney was brought into a Hollywood hospital on August 1, 1930 for what was being diagnosed as "acute anemia". After a number of blood transfusions, Chaney seemed to be improving and was even removed from the critical list, having safely gotten through a 10-day struggle. By the morning of August 25th, he was reported in better condition; he had displayed an appetite and was even reported to be somewhat talkative. At midnight, he suffered from a lung hemorrhage that occurred so suddenly and unexpectedly - the physicians failed to reach him before he passed away at 12:55 A.M. He was only 47. On the day of his funeral, Thursday, August 28th, all work ceased throughout the Hollywood film industry for five minutes. At that time a genuis of the silent era was indeed silenced...
Thank you for this account and for your blog. Now I'm interested in seeing "The Unholy Three".ReplyDelete
It turns out my great grandfather who was a Lt Col and Chaplain in the USMC at the time and stationed nearby actually performed his funeral and I found a letter from Louis B. Mayer on his personal stationary thanking him for on behalf of the stufio and himself personally for doing it. Signed at the bottom as well.ReplyDelete
Pretty cool thing to find. Lucky I took a second to read it instead of tossing it.