Lon Chaney, Jr. (Everett Collection)
Werewolves and vampires and zombies have enjoyed top billing on the silver screen in recent years. But if anyone thinks that today's sparkly vamps and rabies-infected undead are the start of a trend, they're dead wrong. Movie monsters have been around for just about as long as movies have, and one of the greatest monster actors of them all died 40 years ago today. He was Lon Chaney Jr., and you might say he was born to be a monster.
Just as his father, Lon Chaney, had done in the early, silent days of cinema, starring in classics like The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the younger Chaney found his niche not as the handsome leading man, but in portraying the far more interesting characters lurking in the shadows. Despite being the son of a star, Chaney Jr. came to acting late. He first pursued a successful business career, and it was only after his father’s death in 1930 that Chaney Jr. began his movie career. By 1939, he had appeared in dozens of films, including an acclaimed turn as Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men, opposite Burgess Meredith.
But it would be in the 1940s that Lon Chaney Jr. would truly make his mark. When Universal Studios found success making monster movies, they made as many as they could – and over and over again, they cast Lon Chaney Jr. as the leading monster. Here’s a look at Universal's best-loved monsters of the early ‘40s, played to perfection by Lon Chaney Jr.
Werewolf: Chaney made his movie monster debut in 1941, playing the title character in The Wolf Man. He would reprise the role in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and many more.
Frankenstein's Monster: The year after The Wolf Man, Chaney broadened his monstrous range when he took on the famous monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein. Chaney worked side by side with another horror veteran, Bela Lugosi, who played Ygor.
Mummy: In 1942, Chaney morphed into yet another monster as he played the undead title character in The Mummy's Tomb, the first of several mummy films he'd make. Though the role of the mummy was introduced by Boris Karloff, it was perfected by Chaney, who created the now-familiar archetype of the shambling, bandaged corpse.
Vampire: Last but certainly not least, Chaney took on the role of bloodsucker when he made Son of Dracula in 1943. Featuring Chaney as Count Alucard (read it backwards and you, like the film's leading lady, may suspect that the vamp was actually the famous Dracula himself), it was the first film that showed a vampire transforming into a bat onscreen.
The irony of Lon Chaney Jr.'s fame as a monster? According to most coworkers, he was anything but – in fact, the most common word used to describe him was "sweet."
Written by Linnea Crowther