With his lacerations, deformities, faux stump legs, and shaved head, Chaney was the original Modern Primitive.
ReSearch Publications in SF specializes in cultural demi-mondes, everything from Burroughs and J. G. Ballard to "incredibly strange music," pranks, and "angry women." One of their most notorious recent publications is Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist! about a skinny middle-aged guy born with an allegedly fatal disease who uses ritual bondage and assaults on his own body — you know, cinch waists, meat hooks through the tits — to maintain good health. Flanagan is truly a ’90s guy, but that’s not to say there are no precedents for the happy-go-lucky, self-mutilating bottom. Lon Chaney, the 1920s silent star most famous for his title role in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is Flanagan’s spiritual father. This cinematic supermasochist had a mentor (as all masochists must): director Tod Browning, an equally "deviant" artiste who not only helped create Chaney’s persona but made his own immortal contributions to the backwaters of culture with the original Dracula and the banned carnival classic Freaks.
Chaney, like Flanagan, became an artist through direct early contact with infirmity: his mother was sickly, but more significantly, both parents were deaf, causing young Chaney to develop a repertoire of facial and body tics and gestures to communicate with them. He made his first films in the mid-1910s, and by 1920 he was already creating roles that required him to be armless, legless, crippled, or otherwise deformed. In The Penalty, he plays a criminal seeking revenge against society because a surgeon botched an operation, resulting in the loss of his legs. Ever the meticulous realist in matters of pain, Chaney created a constricting harness that forced him to walk on leather stumps.
Chaney’s obsession with physical deformity reached its apex early, with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Here the actor goes from anti-hero to practically anti-human, with hideous facial make-up and a fake hump contorting his body so badly that he could only work a few hours at a time. This is not to say the actor was simply the armless/legless wonder of the movies; he was also a brilliant actor, his early (forced) "training" in a family of invalids paying off in a series of vivid characterizations. Chaney’s settings were usually exotic, (Mr. Wu), criminal (The Black Bird, While the City Sleeps), carnival (The Unknown), even opera house (Phantom of the Opera), but always a lurid netherworld that shocked audiences and provided an appropriately bizarre background for the actor.
In modern psychobabble, writer-director Tod Browning could be seen as Chaney’s "enabler." Browning too had an unusual background. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1880 (or 1882; sources differ), he ran away from home at age 16 to join a circus, then the riverboat circuit where he played a character called "The Living Hypnotic Corpse." Eventually he became part of D.W. Griffith’s troupe, then moved into directing in 1915. His first important film was The Unholy Three, made for MGM in 1925. The title refers to carnival performers Echo the ventriloquist (Chaney), Hercules the Strongman, and an evil midget named Tweedledee. All-inclusive in his catalog of "perversions," Browning has Chaney play two roles: the ventriloquist, and "Granny O’Grady," a criminal grandmother who disguises the midget as a baby and has him loot victims’ homes. This film was remade with Chaney in 1930.
Other collaborations between Browning and Chaney include Where East Is East, where Chaney plays a disfigured animal trapper; The Black Bird, as a cripple; West of Zanzibar, as a crippled magician; and The Unknown, an early Joan Crawford vehicle where Chaney plays an armless carnival knife-thrower! Chaney’s films are filled with images of physical repression, submission, mutilation, and castration, and his taste for such motifs dovetailed perfectly with Browning’s own world-view.
Chaney, the child of deaf mutes who made only one sound film (The Unholy Three) before he died in 1930, is remembered more for his pure horror roles — Hunchback and Phantom — than his many collaborations with Browning. But Browning moved into his greatest successes and eventual failure after Chaney’s death: Dracula and Freaks.
Dracula (1931), with Bela Lugosi, provides welcome relief from the slick emptiness of recent related works like Interview with the Vampire. The atmosphere of this film — from set design and camerawork to Lugosi’s mesmerizingly slow acting style — is intense and downbeat, and Browning shows the irresistible seductiveness of the vampires’ world. This film is always worth revisiting, particularly on the big screen where its visual pleasures are shown to best advantage. Dracula launched Universal’s incomparable horror cycle (Frankenstein, The Invisible man, The Mummy) and secured Browning’s standing in Hollywood — at least for a few years.
A year later Browning made his ultimate exploration of the world of "nature’s mistakes" — Freaks. This daring film, yanked from circulation shortly after its release, uses authentic pinheads, basket cases, legless and armless men and women, bearded ladies, hermaphrodites, siamese twins, and midgets to tell a melodramatic story of the clash between the immoral "normals" and the trusting, childlike, but ultimately powerful freaks. Devastating scenes include pinheads cavorting in a glade; a bizarre marriage ceremony between Cleopatra (a full-sized woman) and Hans (Harry Earles, a midget), during which the drunken freaks chant and scream, "We accept you! We accept you!" to the horrified Cleopatra, who gallops away with her husband on her back; and the extraordinary assault on Cleopatra, which takes place during a nighttime rainstorm, as the freaks crawl and hop amid the rickety carnival carriages rolling over rocks and mud. Browning’s affection for the freaks is evident in the many quietly intense moments in the film — midgets chatting while hanging up their laundry, a legless/armless man rolling and lighting a cigarette.
Though he made a few other films (notably Devil Doll with Lionel Barrymore in hot granny drag), Browning never recovered from the reception of Freaks (it’s reported that some audience members ran screaming from the theater). Perhaps the death of his primary collaborator Chaney released Browning’s dark impulses to such an extent that his work became unmarketably "decadent." Perhaps without Chaney to "enable," Browning lost his punch.