Lon Chaney, Sr. may have had a thousand faces, but Lon Chaney, Jr. had one great face—his own. When it comes to the younger Chaney, you might think of the face he’s most famous for, the Wolf Man’s. That was the one that gave him screen immortality, the one he was most proud of (he referred to the film as his “baby”). It was the one alternate face associated only with him: the snouted, snarling, hairy visage of our suppressed, bestial nature. The one we might see in nightmares.
But I think Lon Jr.s’ own unadorned countenance is equally memorable. It’s a Golem’s face—large, slab-like, wrinkle-seamed, as rough and broken as if it were was banged out of hard stone by a sculptor with a grudge; the nose a blunt prominence, the jowls sliding off the cheeks like runny eggs, the eyes two black caves that burrow back to the beginning of time. A hard-drinking man in real life, Chaney had a face that had lived, and lived hard: it’s been used up, spit out, taken as much abuse as possible and yet come back for more. It’s more than a face, it’s a Mug, a Map, a Puss, a Pan. It’s got character, history, a bad-ass attitude. It would stop a clock. And you can’t stop looking at it, at that blocky chunk of world-weariness and gone-past-caring, and wondering what’s behind it and what it means.
God, I love those ugly mugs. And I love movies that feature them. Cinema usually focuses on the pretty faces—glamorous, beautiful, perfectly contoured. Classic Hollywood has so many of them, they give me a sense of floating in the ether, surrounded by masks. Gimme a map like Wallace Beery’s, basically a balled fist plastered with a grin. It ain’t pretty, but who needs pretty? I want the faces that scarf down unpretty food, burgers and fries and beer, so bad for you but oh so satisfying. And I want the faces that feel all the unpretty feelings: the laugh at a coarse joke, the sneer at all the oblivious jerks (who usually have the pretty faces), and the rage at the shit that life throws out, just for the hell of it. These faces have seen a lot and won’t put up with much more of it. What can I say: they’re real. You’ll see them in film noir (Mike Mazurki’s Moose Malloy, anyone?) and gangster flicks (Edward G. Robinson with a cigar and a snarl). And you’ll find them—and how!—in Men in Prison movies:
The BEST ugly mugs are found in Men in Prison movies. And that brings me to the 1955 Lon Chaney film, Big House, U.S.A., from whence yon above samples are taken. For about half its length, Big House, U.S.A. is one of the great Men in Prison movies. My sense is that film fans prefer Women in Prison movies: Ladies They Talk About or Caged or Ladies of the Big House. I gather there’s a kinkiness factor involved—sooner or later a cat fight breaks out and a lot of hair and clothing gets torn. I appreciate a good cat fight as much as anyone (hell, I can tell you about cat fights, I live with the creatures that invented them), but I’ll take a Men in Prison flick any day. Watching a really great Men in Prison movie feels like sitting on a ticking bomb. Maybe it’s the tension created from all that bottled-up testosterone; the actors always look ready to chew through the walls: Brute Force, The Big House, Each Dawn I Die, The Criminal Code, and the magnificent Riot in Cell Block 11, a film I cannot recommend highly enough, with a performance by Neville Brand, as leader of a prison riot, that burns through the celluloid. If I have a regret about Big House, U.S.A., it’s that Mr. Brand doesn’t contribute his sandpapered vocal chords and equally sandpapered features to the proceedings.
What I also like about Men in Prison films, as with film noir and gangster movies, is how they dive into reality’s undergrowth, where Life strips down to its BVDs and flaunts its chest hair. That’s where Men in Prison films really take place—not in a cement bunker but in the Jungle. They rip through the civilized wallpapering we put up around us, shredding all those pretty pictures of rosebuds and butterflies, and then whip their vines and roots right around our throats. They’re wild and violent and dirty, but also sad. Men in Prison films are not comedies. And a good Men in Prison movie gives you the desperation and fear felt by trapped humans. It’s the despair you see in the eyes of a caged animal; it’s living in hell.
But a really good Men in Prison film won’t pull its punches. All the prisoners we meet in Big House, U.S.A. deserve to be there. They’re killers, drug pushers, robbers, mobsters, their rap sheets as wide as Beery’s grin. The movie’s first half devotes itself to the horrific crime that puts its main character, Barker (Ralph Meeker), in stir: he’s kidnapped a child and let it die but he still collects the ransom. And he’s utterly cold-blooded about it; his nickname is “The Iceman.” The film plods through this earlier portion with the lack-of-style hallmark of the Dragnet TV show. We get the facts, ma’am: the child’s capture, the ransom drop, the FBI search, unrolling before us like a bolt of grey felt. But then comes the second half, after Barker is arrested for extortion, and things begin to get lively. Especially when Barker steps into his prison cell and meets the Four Horsemen:
Oh, I did say there were four guys, didn’t I?
That’s Charles Bronson, Broderick Crawford, William Talman, and our man, Lon Chaney, looking as if he’s slept in his face and hasn’t yet washed and pressed it. Make no mistake, these guys are not the Guarneri Quartet. They’re the four toughest cons in the title domicile, planning a prison crash-out and ready to drag the Iceman with them, whether he likes it or not (spoiler: he doesn’t). Talk about your unpretty pans. This is a Rogue’s Gallery Mount Rushmore. These guys might’ve been freelancing as punching bags at Gold’s Gym in their spare time.
The men of our quartet have distinct personalities. Crawford is the brains; Talman is the right-hand man; Bronson is the thuggish piece of eye candy (he’s shirtless through most of the film, the better to see his buff torso, my dears). And Chaney is the one who plays with dolls.
To paraphrase Mr. Fields, don’t let the dolly fool ya. There is nothing sugar-n-spice about Chaney or his fellow jailbirds (described as “pimps, perverts, and pot lickers”) or this movie, shot partially in an actual prison. It’s not one for the faint-hearted. Before we even get to the jail scenes, we’ve seen Meeker casually toss a child’s corpse into a ravine and think nothing of it. Things only get rougher from there. A con is locked in a steaming boiler and scalded to death; Talman breaks open Bronson’s skull with a mallet and then burns his face off with a blow torch; and Crawford shoots Chaney point blank and feeds him to the sharks. Now you know why this is a cult film.
But I want to get back to Chaney with his doll (which he’s sculpting into what looks like a dead ringer for Jayne Mansfield). It could be a bizarre, even creepy bit, but you don’t find yourself snickering. I think that was Chaney’s unique quality. He could play weird, offbeat, or over-the-top characters and not look ridiculous. About the most unbelievable I ever saw Chaney was in the film Weird Woman, in the role of a university professor. The part is just too damn normal for him (he acts if he got his Ph.D. from a correspondence school). But put him in the role of Dynamo Dan the Electric Man in Man-Made Monster, and you don’t question who or what his character is. Chaney’s electrical man is a likable lug who’s unfortunately turned into a walking nightlight via the machinations of evil Lionel Atwill; but Chaney moves you with this man’s particular humanity and suffering. And there’s his amazing performance in The Indestructible Man, as an executed con who’s brought back to life and goes on the rampage through the slummy back streets of Los Angeles. The plot may be stupefying, but Chaney is not. The film is structured around huge close-ups of his face, so intense you can see the bags beneath his eyes quiver, like seed pods about to burst. I wouldn’t have accepted Olivier in this role, but I do accept Chaney. My disbelief is completely suspended while I watch him.
And I find myself accepting his doll, which comes with no introduction; it’s just there for Chaney to work on. Chaney often fondled objects in his best performances, such as small animals in Of Mice and Men or the wolf-headed cane in The Wolf Man. That’s the kind of tic that might make you cringe, but I’ve never cringed about it when I’ve watched Chaney. It brings out something you sense beneath that blocky slab of a face: a small, surprising touch of gentleness. You see it when he plays with his little doll in the big house, his features going all soft and smiley, and you understand why; you sense his loneliness, his need for something, anything, he can lavish affection on, and his wry humor about it. He even gives his doll a name: Sadie—good old Sadie, who brings back memories of good times in the past, times he’ll never experience again.
Chaney brought that strain of gentleness to most of his performances. It’s what you see in his eyes as the retired lawman of High Noon, full of a sad, tired compassion for frightened, frail people; it’s why you can sympathize with his poor, doomed Larry Talbot, even when he’s buried under yak hair. His moment with the doll in Big House, U.S.A. is like that. It’s the one moment of tenderness in this bleak, violent, almost nihilistic film, the one instance when the Jungle gives way to a view of another, sweeter world.
And during that moment, Chaney’s face looks almost beautiful.
This post is part of THE CHANEY BLOGATHON, hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive In, from November 15-18, 2013. Please click here for a list of terrific participating bloggers, who are writing posts on both Chaneys, father and son.
BONUS CLIP: Ralph Meeker meets the Four Musketeers and receives a less-than-ideal reception in Big House, U.S.A.: