“Don’t step on it,” moviegoers warned each other in the 1920’s: “It might be Lon Chaney!” The joke testified to the talent and versatility of one of Hollywood’s first bona fide superstars.
With an uncanny command of body language and physical gesture as well as an extraordinary genius for makeup, Lon Chaney, Sr. could convince audiences that he was almost any character. He worked hard to earn his famous nickname, “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”
For this striking, one-sixth scale, 12-½ inch tall polystone resin statue, Jeff Yagher – an actor (you might remember him as Kyle Bates from V in the ’80s or Hoyt in Six Feet Under) and a pioneer in the collectible modeling field, with 30 years’ experience to his credit—has sculpted Chaney in what is, paradoxically, one of his best-known and least seen roles: the ghoulish “Man in the Beaver Hat” from London After Midnight.
The reason for the paradox? London After Midnight is a lost movie.
Chaney’s “Uncanny Disguise”
Directed by Tod Browning (of Dracula and Freaks fame), London After Midnight did considerable box office upon its December 1927 release thanks to Chaney’s name on the marquee. He’d been acting in movies for almost 15 years, and two of his most impressive performances, as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and as The Phantom of the Opera (1925), still loomed large.
In London After Midnight, he commanded attention as a mysterious, menacing man seen in the mansion where Roger Balfour, an apparent suicide, died five years earlier. Rumors swirl he is a vampire.
Chaney certainly looked monstrous for the part!
According to writer and cinephile Richard Day Gore, the actor achieved his wide- and wild-eyed appearance by inserting wire rings into his eye sockets. False, serrated teeth and a wispy wig, all faithfully reproduced in Yagher’s sculpture, completed what the New York Times’ review called Chaney’s “uncanny disguise.”
“Mystery Thriller” Gone Missing
Despite the fact that it made money, this “mystery thriller,” as it was marketed, failed to thrill movie critics (the Times’ critic included). At least one reviewer rebuked it for drawing too liberally from the stage version of Dracula. Others simply found its characters flat and its plot convoluted.
Maybe judgments like these helped the film fade from sight. In 1935, Browning remade the movie as Mark of the Vampire (starring none other than Bela Lugosi), but London After Midnight languished in obscurity—and in MGM vaults, where the last known surviving print fell victim, along with many other old films, to fire in 1967.
Because interest in Chaney persists, so does desire to recover London After Midnight. In 2002, Turner Classic Movies aired a 45-minute reconstruction of the movie from 200 still photographs and a shooting script. If an original print surfaced, its discovery would prompt even more excitement than the occasional discoveries of lost Doctor Who episodes do. London After Midnight has achieved near-mythic status largely because of its absence.
Although the movie itself has disappeared, Chaney’s “Man in the Beaver Hat” has persisted in the public’s imagination. (He even inspired the look of the Hatbox Ghost in Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction!) And Jeff Yagher’s amazingly detailed sculpture captures all the character’s creepy coolness. It’s a magnificent tribute to one of the most creative and compelling performers cinema has seen, and will make a showstopping centerpiece for any horror or film history fan’s collection.
What’s your favorite Lon Chaney role? Tell us in the comments below!