A lot has been written about Lon Chaney Jr. as Universal’s “go-to monster-man” of the 1940s, and it tends to put him in a less-than-stellar light. He lacked the pure talent of his father, Lon Sr. or Karloff and he didn’t have the personal charisma of a Lugosi to fall back on. Even the mad doctor roles routinely essayed by John Carradine and George Zucco would seem to have been beyond him. His great gifts appear to have been a strong back and willingness to endure hours in Jack Pierce’s make-up chair in exchange for a paycheck. But I would like to shift the spotlight to a less-examined, but more interesting aspect of Chaney’s career–his work in westerns.
In the beginning Chaney toiled away in a succession of flunky roles, as Dollarhyde he toiled for Brian Donlevy in De Mille’s “Union Pacific,” as Pringle he assisted John Carradine with his dirty-work in Allan Dwan’s “Frontier Marshal” (both appearing in 1939) and as “Spike” Hudson he worked for corrupt businessman Gene Lockhart in the 1941 M.G.M. romanza “Billy the Kid.” Then came Universal and after four-years of almost non-stop horror films, he inherited the role of Grat Dalton, originated by his old “Union Pacific” boss Brian Donlevy in “The Daltons Ride Again.” The post-war years would provide Chaney with a succession of meaty supporting roles. If Randolph Scott had intimidated him in “Frontier Marshal,” in “Albuquerque” he would have none of it. As local menace Steve Murkill he engages in a prolonged bout of fisticuffs with Scott and never looses the cigarette dangling from his lips until the closing moments. To hang onto your hat is one thing, but to retain a grip on your cigarette is something else again!
At Warner Brothers he played Pete Elm, leader of a vicious gang of raiders in Andre de Toth’s “Springfield Rifle,” and in Gordon Douglas’ “Only the Valiant” he portrayed Trooper Kebussyan who has a thing about wanting to kill his commanding officer (Gregory Peck at his most upright). Kebussyan combined aspects of Lennie Small (the strength to bend the fort’s stockade bars) with his emerging persona as a surly, anti-social type. This character would crystallize in another de Toth western, “The Indian Fighter” in which he played smooth villain Walter Matthau’s roughneck companion, Chivington.
But in between he managed to appear in a bona fide western classic, Stanley Kramer’s “High Noon” as Martin Howe, the burned out former marshal who won’t help Will Kane fight the Miller Gang, but offers plenty of good reasons for Kane to run away. Dodgy lawmen would become more prominent in the final stage of Chaney’s career in westerns.
Producer A.C. Lyles’ series of 1960s low-budget westerns for Paramount have rather uncharitably been called “Geezer Westerns,” but they did provide work for aging character actors who hadn’t been fortunate enough to land TV series for themselves. Chaney appeared in at least a half-dozen of them, played crooked sheriffs, hard-luck cases and even thugs. The glory years were over for Chaney as an actor in westerns, but he did have one last memorable appearance–not much of a part in terms of screen time, but the film itself is a near-great–in Burt Kennedy’s angry revisionist western “Welcome to Hard Times.” As Avery, Hard Times’ local purveyor of girls and gin he slips Janice Rule a shiv and suggests that she use in on Aldo Ray’s out-of-control “Badman from Bodie”–with dire results for all.
Now I think it’s interesting that Chaney who was never all that convincing in his horror films could seem so authentic in his westerns. I suspect it’s because Chaney himself thought his horror films were nonsense. It’s not that the part of a living mummy was un-actable–look at what Christopher Lee did with his Kharis in the 1959 Hammer version of “The Mummy”–but the actor has to believe that it’s actable or he’s just going to phone the role in. With the exceptions of “The Man-Made Monster” and “The Wolf Man,” I think that Chaney phoned in his horror performances. I don’t think he ever believed for a moment that Larry Talbot could sprout hair and fangs during a full moon, but he could believe in greedy, guzzling, gold-hungry Chivington or the bullying Pringle who scares the dance-hall girls, but has to dance on stage at Randolph Scott’s command. Maybe he thought too much about his father’s formidable legacy and didn’t want to compete with him. But I seem to recall two things about Chaney–that at one point he actually owned ranchland, and that he drank and when he drank he could be a very mean drunk. Thus his western characters were probably closer to the real Creighton Chaney (he didn’t become “Lon” until 1935) than Larry Talbot, or even Lennie Small. I think that Chaney’s work in westerns proved that he could move beyond Lennie and Larry (pathetic victims both) and create a convincing gallery of liars, cheats, rogues and badmen–but definitely not from Bodie.