The Artrepreneur in the Lon Chaney Economy

Legend has it that Lon Chaney, Sr. sought a raise at Universal in 1918 and was refused. The studio head, William Sistrom, told him, “I know a good actor when I see one, but looking at you, I see only a wash-out.” Chaney left the studio that day determined to make more money and do more of the work he wanted to do.

Chaney had a problem. He wanted to be a leading or top supporting actor and specialize in odd character parts. No one thought it was possible. They all wanted handsome leading men, actors like Henry B. Walthall or Wallace Reid. Chaney not that kind of actor, and he knew it. He was without work for some time and finally got a break in a William S. Hart western.

Lon Chaney during the shooting of The Miracle Man, his breakout film

In 1918, Chaney was a single father with a 12-year-old son. This was when there almost were no single fathers, unless the mother had passed on. He had been in nearly 150 films at Universal, and he worked steadily, but he sought something else. He was an artist who wanted to control his own destiny, and he was willing to do what was necessary to make it happen.

Silent film accompanist Ben Model has a word for people like this. It’s a guy who is an artist and also runs his own business. It’s artrepreneur. Part artist, part entrepreneur. Chaney was definitely one, and, really, a lot of artists are, particularly in show business.

Eventually, Chaney found his niche and was able to do exactly what he wanted to do. He even got the sweetest revenge by being hired back to work at Universal, something he always demanded a premium to do. (This is partly why I have always thought that Chaney would never have done Dracula for Universal. He was in a long-term contract with MGM, a bigger, more prestigious studio that loved his work. Why would he slum at Universal?)

As a successful star, Chaney bumped into another struggling actor in about 1925. His name was Boris Karloff. Karloff was walking home from a job and Chaney gave him a ride home. He gave Karloff a bit of advice that he never forgot: “The secret of success in movies lies in being different from anyone else. Find something no one else can or will do–and they’ll begin to take notice of you.”

And, right there is the inherent disconnect in it that faces everyone in the arts: Chaney said you have to be different from anyone else, and yet he couldn’t find work because Sistrom didn’t think he was enough like everyone else. Chaney would have gotten hired, fired, and been forgotten like Reid and Walthall if he’d been as handsome as they were. He had his own idea about his own art.

The artrepeneur has a key task. The world wants to put you in a shoebox so they know how to deal with you. For an actor it’s handsome, ugly, foreign, suave, funny, something. The artist who doesn’t fit into the shoebox (and the most successful ones don’t…just like Chaney said) needs to convince people that his art is worthwhile, even though they might not understand it.

“Gee, I want to play disabled guys, people missing one limb or multiple limbs. I want to play foreigners and villains. I want the audience to be so sad for me that they root for me, even though I will almost always die in the last reel without getting the girl.”


And, in a very real sense, Chaney was crazy. He’d have been much smarter to go off and get a “real” job, like most people did at the time. He wanted his son to stay out of acting and stick with his job at the General Water Heater Company. Really. I’m not making that up.

In the 1920s and 30s, that was a good idea. The chances of making it in acting are incredibly low and you could usually count on a company taking care of its workers (that is assuming that you didn’t lose your job during the Depression of the 1930s.)

But these days, that’s all out of the window. We now live in what I call the Lon Chaney economy. Everyone is in show business. The old model, the one where you got a job, put up with the garbage they fed you for 20 or 30 years, and then retired on a good pension… well, that’s seeming more and more like science fiction.

The new model is this: “I don’t care what your education is, I don’t care what your background is. I care what you can do for me that I can’t find someone else to do cheaper. If you can’t find something, then you’re out.”

Faced with a job market in which one is basically forced to repeatedly audition to stay employed, many workers are electing to chuck the whole thing and become artrepreneurs. Hey, if the world is like that, with no security, then why not work for yourself?

Well, I can’t claim to be as successful as Lon Chaney. I’m hoping to work up to Doug McClure. However, having done this for a while, I have some suggestions:

1) Be versatile. Don’t say, “I’m an artist… I do ONLY THIS.” Your goal is to do your work and eat, so remember that doing things that encourage that goal helps you. If you need to design a web site for yourself, go to stupid parties to meet clients, or figure out how to do your own accounting, then do it. Don’t let it eat up all of your time, but do it. Budget time accordingly, like money.

2) Be prepared for indifference and hostility. You’ll have to answer the questions. “Is this your day job?” “Hey, I know a guy who does what you do, but he works for free!” “This isn’t work if it’s fun. You’re not doing real work.” I assure you, even if you love what you do, there will be a lot of unpleasant stuff around it. Your job, and you must accept it, is to enthusiastically tell them that, yes, you’re crazy, but you think the world needs what you do because….” and really work on that last part.

3) Learn how to recruit help when you need it. The artrepreneur can’t do everything, but he must learn to do some things. You’ll have to do a lot of different things, and do them fairly well, because you’ll start out having no money and people won’t believe in you. One may be good at marketing, another may be good at technical stuff. It’s a good place to start your one key marketing bit, the one only you can do. If you can’t convince another fellow traveler that your work is worth his time, then you haven’t got the spiel down yet.

I’m not going to claim I know all the answers. I’m not what you’d call a great success, and I still struggle with that key thing. People still think what I do should be for free.

What I do know is that more and more people are going to be in my shoes, because the nice thing about the artrepreneur is that he can never be downsized or outsourced. He never works for that passive-aggressive boss like the one in Office Space.

Now I just have to convince people that the Dr. Film show is cool and shouldn’t be free on YouTube. Argh. It’s an ongoing battle.

One Year Later and the Dust Settles

Last year,  on this very night, I was writing a really cool gag post on London After Midnight.  I knew it would be a perfect thing to post for April Fools Day.  This is also Lon Chaney’s Birthday…

I cooked up an  elaborate fraud and posted it, neither the first nor the last of such things,  and I made it really sound believable.  That was the problem, I guess.

It wasn’t the first one of these I’d done.  I always posted something cool on the old alt.movies.silent newsgroup, but that’s now been overtaken with spam and endless posts about whether Irving Thalberg was the spawn of satan (I kid you not on that last piece… I gave up on it after about 20 of those.)

I’d never done London After Midnight because it’s so obviously bogus,  but I had a couple of nice pictures and a good lie cooked up, and what fun it is for April 1st.

To add to the fun, and make it clear that this was a joke,  I added a news item  about the Dr. Film show being picked up by TCM.  If you follow the blog and the site at all, then  you know that this is something that is likely never going to happen, and that was the whole joke of it.

Well,  the TCM message boards got hold of it, and they went nuts.  I got emails from all over the world, my readership skyrocketed (only for a day, mind you), and people told me that I was the spawn of satan (and here I thought it was Irving Thalberg.)

Of course,  I didn’t post it to the TCM board, and I wasn’t even a member. I had to become a member to post a response to my lambasting.  It was generally felt that I was trying to get publicity for a weak and/or failed web site and that this was going to put me on the map.

Genius idea… wish I’d thought of it.  Didn’t work anyway.

The net result was that my blog posts have gained some traction, but only later in the year, I still get an occasional nastygram from someone on the TCM message boards (which I can’t do anything about), and Dr. Film didn’t get any more recognition than it had ever received… and that was pretty minimal from the start.

Oh,  yeah, there’s one more upshot.  There’s going to be no April Fool joke this year.  I can’t stand the noise.  I had a good one, too.

Last year’s blog:

And the firestorm from the TCM board (again from last year…  note that this is reverse chronological order from newest to oldest.)

Will the April Fool return next year? I’m not sure yet, but I wouldn’t count on it!

Happy Birthday, Lon Chaney! London After Midnight Found at Last!

Indianapolis, IN–Born April 1, 1883, Lon Chaney was one of the greatest of silent film stars.  Best remembered for his roles in Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Chaney was known the world over for his chameleon-like ability to inhabit strange and different roles.  One of his most famous was as a vampire in London After Midnight (1927), a film that has not been seen in public since at least 1970, and probably well before.  The last known copy perished in a vault fire, and no copies were known to exist in private hands.

Until today.

Preservationist Eric Grayson, who independently seeks out rare films to preserve and share them, discovered a print in a private collection in October.

“Like so many silent film finds, it wasn’t where you’d expect to find it at all,” Grayson said in a telephone interview.  “People have been searching for it for decades.  There was a rumor that the film had been in San Francisco, in Sweden, or that a French 9.5mm print survived.  This was in the basement of a collector in rural Illinois.”

The print, on 35mm safety stock, was a surprise to everyone.  As far as anyone knew, no prints had been made since the 1920s.

“This guy was a bigwig in the local theater circuit, and he wanted a print, so he asked MGM, and they made him one.  It was struck in 1956, so it’s in good shape and looks better than a lot of the other Lon Chaney pictures that have survived,” Grayson said.

Such things are unusual, but not unique.  A 35mm print of Chaney’s West of Zanzibar (1928), printed under similar circumstances, has been bouncing from collector to collector for some years now.  Also, Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), long thought to be lost, showed up in a near-mint 16mm print in a private collection a few years ago.

Grayson stated that the print required a little cleaning and special care, but is essentially projectable as-is.  He quietly prepared a special high-definition digital transfer and then had a special card up his sleeve.

London After Midnight will premiere on TCM,” said programming president Charlie Tabesh.  “Eric basically blackmailed us to do what he wanted.  We didn’t have a choice.”

Grayson, an ardent film preservationist, has been trying to sell an independently made television show for several years now.  Entitled Dr. Film, the show promotes film preservation while also being a silly tribute to old-fashioned movie hosts.

“He said he’d sent us several copies of his pilot,” Tabesh said, “but frankly we’d never seen it.  Then, when London After Midnight showed up, he called us and said that we weren’t getting it unless it became part of the first Dr. Film episode on TCM.”

Grayson wasn’t kidding.  He has wanted to share other films from his collection for years, but runs into a lot of audience apathy.  Having dealt with archives for many years, he knew about a special loophole that would cement his case.

“I told them if they didn’t green-light a few episodes of Dr. Film, then I would donate London After Midnight to an archive, with the stipulation that Warner Brothers, the copyright owner, couldn’t access it.  There are a lot of films at archives with silly stipulations on them like that, and they have to be honored.”

“Eric is lucky,” said another film collector, who spoke on condition of anonymity.  “Frankly, his pilot for Dr. Film was awful.  He’s so passionate about preserving oddball films that the ones he picked for the pilot episode were just appalling.  Sure, they were rare, but who cares?  TCM is so stodgy and stuck in its ways that something like his goofy take on Dr. Film would normally just leave them wondering what they were seeing.”

Instead, Grayson has a six-episode commitment from TCM for his new show, headlined by a Lon Chaney retrospective as the first installment.  He promises to showcase films that others have ignored and abused over the years.

London After Midnight won’t be the only lost film we show,” Grayson said.  “It will just be the most famous one.”

And what of the timing of the announcement?  Some might question the revelation on April Fools’ Day.

“Yes,” Grayson said, “but it’s also Lon Chaney’s 130th birthday, so we thought it was appropriate.  I can’t show any of the film because of my contractual agreement with TCM, but I’ll put up a YouTube video that should quiet most of the doubts.”

London After Midnight debuts on December 17, the 86th anniversary of the film’s release.

Dr. Film will continue on the next 5 Friday nights afterward on TCM.

“If enough people watch, then TCM will have us do more.  I’ve got more movies… we just have to see if people care enough to watch them.”

Naysayers: note this is an original 1950s paper reel band from MGM (below) and a 1920s, NO TRACK MGM Logo. This is exactly what is indicated in the press release.


OK, enough drama over this post!  It was all an April Fool, guys!  Come on!  Did you really think that if I had this movie since October that someone would have leaked info on it?

Ray Bradbury Meets the Man of 1,000 Faces

When I was a kid, growing up and watching movies on TV, I read about Lon Chaney Sr., in the magazines of Forrest J. Ackerman.  Ackerman (1916-2008) was a great friend of Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen.  As of Mr. Bradbury’s death today, Harryhausen (1920- ) becomes the last survivor of the long-lived group.

Ackerman always praised Lon Chaney and claimed he was a special actor, whose like is not to be seen today.  Even as a nine-year-old, I wanted to see more of his films.  In those days, most of Chaney’s pictures were impossible to see.  If you were very lucky, you might see a chewed-up print of The Phantom of the Opera or The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It was unlikely that you’d see any of the other ones.

As video came to the world, I got a slow trickling of Lon Chaney movies.  I was a teenager at the time.  I was mesmerized by him.  What an actor.  Ackerman was right.

Then, many years later, I attended a lecture at Butler University with Douglas Adams and Ray Bradbury, two authors who could hardly be more disparate, but were both typecast (if one may use that word for an author) as “science fiction guys.”  This, as Harlan Ellison would tell you, is considered by the literati to be one small step up from porno authors and men’s room attendants.

Adams came on and was enchanting.  He read excerpts from his Hitchhikers’ Guide books, and some other things.  He was a natural-born actor, able to put a spin on his work like no performers I had ever seen before.  I loved every moment of what he did, and since he died not long after, I’m glad I got the chance to see him in person.

Then Bradbury came on.

By this time in his life, had had a stroke, and was stuck in a wheelchair.  His speech was somewhat impaired.  His ability to move one hand seemed to be a little strained.

I realize that everyone will focus on Mr. Bradbury’s literary accomplishments, which are legion, in celebrating his life.  I don’t want to take anything away from that at all, because I love Bradbury’s work.  But there was another side to him, as a lover of film, and since this is a film blog, that’s what I want to cover here.

Bradbury called films “wonderful” and “magical,” and he wanted nothing to do with the idea that they were somehow low-class art.  He’d worked on many films himself, including the underrated Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) and Moby Dick (1956).  He did a fantastic impression of director John Huston when he spoke of the making of that picture.

He went on to talk about his favorite star when he was growing up.  Born in 1920, Bradbury was an impressionable child just as Lon Chaney was becoming a big star.  In those days, it was fairly easy to see movies reissued, so even as a youngster, he was able to see most of Chaney’s big pictures in reissue.

Chaney, he said, was able to reach into his soul and find something in some of these characters that was human and touching, despite how horrible they often were.  Bradbury often teared up a bit when talking of Chaney’s work, and how emotional it made him.

Of course, most of the audience had no idea what he was talking about.  After all, Chaney has been dead since 1930, and he only made one talking picture.  Even today, a good bit of his silent material is difficult to see and a fair chunk doesn’t survive at all.  But I had seen it!   I knew exactly what he meant.

One of the things that always annoys me in an interviewer is when they ask me, “Can you name an actor today who is like this silent star we’re discussing?”  Well, no.  Lon Chaney was unique in cinema.  There was no one ever like him, and there likely never will be again.  Despite the fact that some of his movies were clichéd and hammy, with hare-brained plots and weak direction, Chaney was always able to wring something worthwhile out of them.

He was so good at certain things that he got tagged with them and had to do them over and over again.  Weird, contortionist makeup?  He was great at it.  Playing disabled characters with deformities?  No one better.  Ethnic types?  Chaney’s your man.  And the thing that tied them together: No one, no one ever, was able to convey the emotions of traumatic disappointment and utter heartbreak like Chaney did.  One facial expression.  You felt his pain.  The man was a genius.

It was almost a given that Chaney didn’t get the girl at the end of the picture, but he sure tried and it killed him (sometimes literally) that someone else ended up with his love.  I often find that some of Chaney’s best performances are in his most conventional parts, like Tell It to the Marines (1926) or While the City Sleeps (1928).  But Chaney could still play convincingly through thick makeup.  Even a fairly conventional picture like Shadows (1922) features Chaney playing an 80-year-old Chinese laundryman.  It is hard to see the 39-year-old Chaney in the part.  After a few minutes, we simply believe he is that character.

As I continued to listen to Bradbury, it occurred to me that much of his work was colored in the same way that Chaney’s had been.  No, not science fiction, not horror, not claptrap.  Chaney was all about emotion. Often it was about a alienated person who didn’t really fit in with the rest of society.  Bradbury’s work was too.

I remembered that in high school we’d been assigned to read 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.   I know that the “English teacher mentality” taught that 1984 was a timeless classic.  I felt at the time that Fahrenheit 451 was much more interesting, because it had passion that I never felt at all in Orwell’s novel.  Bradbury’s characters deeply loved a history that society was taking away, so much that they were willing to die in order to preserve it.

It was a very Lon Chaney sort of idea.

Bradbury was moved to tears again as he recounted Chaney’s untimely death in 1930, and how it affected him personally.  This man, his hero, was dead!  It could even happen to someone like Lon Chaney!  It made the ten-year-old boy shudder at both Chaney’s mortality and his own.

We are fortunate that Bradbury lived over 90 years, just as we are unfortunate that Chaney never reached 50.  Tonight I celebrate the legacy of both men.  I hope somewhere, somehow, The Man of 1000 Faces gets to meet the creator of The Illustrated Man.

As a postscript: I have seen an artist’s picture, which I cannot find, of Death laying the final mask on Lon Chaney’s face.  I can think of no better image to include here.

Post postscript: (added 8/26/12).  Michael Blake found the picture, which I am including here.