Saturday, November 16, 2013


There has been a long procession of remarkable makeup artists in the history of the silver screen, but few have reached the heights of greatness than two of its pioneers, Lon Chaney and Jack Pierce. Along with many others, Chaney had his Hunchback and his Phantom, and Pierce had his Frankenstein monster and Wolf Man. Both created numerous iconic characters that have shocked, horrified, and thrilled audiences for generations, images that will surely live on even if the names of Chaney and Pierce are ever forgotten.

So who was the best? Did Chaney have the most talent, or did Pierce?

In this short essay, we will discuss the major work of both, and compare the artistry and greatest accomplishments of these supreme masters of makeup. Who will come out on top? Read on!


Anyone familiar with the silent film era and hears the name Lon Chaney will instantly be reminded of his two most famous film roles – Quasimodo, in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) and Erik, in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). Who can forget the deformed bellringer clambering down the face of the Notre Dame Cathedral on his way to save his beloved gypsy, Esmeralda? And who can forget Christine unmasking Erik and exposing to the world the hideousness of the Phantom of the Paris Opera House? These images are indelible in the minds of horror film fans, as well as those who appreciate the artistry that go into the creation of the characters. Amazingly, it was Lon Chaney himself who designed the makeup for these early screen monsters who would live on into film legend. Most amazing of all, however, is that he’d been making himself into monsters for years.

In the early days of Hollywood, it was not uncommon for actors to carry around a makeup kit with them and apply greasepaint and pencil on the spot to become the characters that they were auditioning for. This was before the unions took hold and segregated certain tasks into specialty crafts, including makeup, which ultimately prevented actors from applying their own makeup.

Lon Chaney was among those who had found the knack of combining the right materials and the artistic ability to transform himself into a rogue’s gallery of characters that quickly became his trademark. The pain that Chaney endured for many of his makeups is legendary. Physical ugliness and disfigurement were called for in numerous roles, and he met the challenge with one amazing feat after another.

As with any legend, the truth of the matter can change over time and evolve into the stuff of myth. In Chaney’s case, tales regarding some of his makeups became exaggerated. Whether the truth got diluted by accident or as a result of purposeful publicity hype is hard to ascertain. There is no doubt, however, that Chaney often suffered under punishing conditions to bring his characters to life on the silver screen.

Lon Chaney as Quasimodo in a scene from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

There is some controversy behind the making of the grandest spectacle that was yet to be made by any movie studio thus far, Universal’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Prevailing thought has maintained for many years that that pre-MGM Universal studio manager Irving Thalberg was the driving force behind the making of the Victor Hugo novel into film. However, based on documentation in the form of telegrams and contracts discovered in the papers of Chaney’s manager, Alfred Grasso by author and makeup man, Michael F. Blake, it is now correctly established that it was instead Lon Chaney’s dream to have it made, so much that it was almost an obsession of his. Had he sensed something in its epic grandeur and tragic characters (of whom he had played many) that he felt needed to be told on screen? There was no doubt that this would also be a great opportunity for him to create his most famous makeup yet. As far back as 1921, Chaney was attempting to secure the rights to the film. He even managed to gather a small group of investors, but fell short in raising the funds to finance what would surely be an expensive picture to make for a small, independent production company. Somehow, he finally convinced Universal, and the rest is movie history.

Chaney must have been thrilled, because he even broke his long-standing rule to never to promote his films until after they had been released. This time, Lon enthusiastically appeared in a film reel showing a reporter how he, as Quasimodo, would look scaling the fa├žade of the faithfully recreated Notre Dame Cathedral that had been erected by 750 craftsmen on 19 acres of prime Universal property. “You see, there’s nothing to it,” the title card reads, as he clambers up, swinging to and fro, then drops to the ground, swinging his arms, ape-like in the bent-over posture of what would become the trademark look of the titular character. Chaney seems so exhilarated by his demonstration that he offers the newsman a cigar as they walk out of the camera shot.

Chaney’s makeup as Quasimodo was a marvel to behold. Various sources claim what type of material the hump was made from that was strapped to Chaney’s back in his role of the dwarf-like and misshapen Notre Dame Bellringer. One source says it was a 70-lb. mass of rubber. Another says it was a heavy fabricated steel frame. But, once again, it is Chaney historian (and makeup artist himself) Michael F. Blake, that offers the most realistic explanation of a 20-lb., molded plaster cast that was fitted and secured under his torso makeup. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that any kind of weight combined with the contortion of his body was easy to deal with when clambering over the concrete gargoyles and escarpments of the cathedral. That and the heavy makeup on his face that blocked the vision in his right eye made it even more challenging to navigate the nooks and crannies of the complex scenery. As a result, some of the action was deemed dangerous enough to use doubles. Stuntmen Joe Bonamo (a bodybuilder) and Harvey Parry (a professional athlete) were enlisted for some of the more risky maneuvers. Proving that the work was, indeed, dangerous, Bonamo burned his hands sliding down a rope in one scene. He wore heavy padded gloves on the next take.

All the expense and hard work was worth it. Released in the 4th quarter, 1923, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME was the top-grossing film of the year. Everyone wondered, how could Lon Chaney top even this, his greatest makeup and role to date? Chaney soon had an answer for them.

Lon Chaney "hams is up" at his makeup table.


So declared director Rupert Julian upon reading the script for THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Chaney was by now at the top of his game in the film business. He was not only a top box office draw but he could seemingly pull miracles out of his makeup kit at will.

Despite Julian’s high regard for the makeup master, during production he nevertheless alienated not only Chaney, but many others on the set with his constant temperament and hot-headed arguing. Chaney was forced to use an intermediary to communicate between himself and the arrogant director for much of the shooting, and is said to have even wrestled away some of the direction in a few scenes, including the famous unmasking scene. Julian himself even stormed off the set, leaving Edward Sedgwick at the helm to pick up the pieces of a crumbling production. Controversies aside, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was completed and premiered on 15 November 1925 to masses of thrilled audiences.

During the production, Chaney’s Phantom makeup was kept a secret up until it was necessary to film him sans mask. It is hard to imagine exactly how audiences felt when they first saw Mary Philbin’s Christine unmask Chaney’s Erik to reveal the hideous visage beneath. Nothing quite like this had yet been seen in cinematic history, save perhaps German audiences a few years before when they saw Max Schreck as the loathsome, undead vampire in Murnau’s NOSFERATU.

The Phantom makeup was based closely on Gaston Leroux’s description from his famous novel. Chaney’s expertise in makeup was, at that time, unequalled and he was more than up to the task. His job was to create a “living skull”, and create one he did. He circled his eyes with dark greasepaint to make them appear like sunken cavities, he donned a wig that suggested just the last of rotting wisps of hair, and he used a thin, transparent material called “fish skin” to pull back his nose. With the careful addition of more greasepaint for shadows, it gave his nose the look of another fleshless cavity. In other shots it is reported that he used wire and rubber for the effect, suggesting that Chaney “worked on the fly” during filming. Cinematographer Charles van Enger commented that this particular application was so tortuous that it caused Chaney’s nose to bleed. Cotton and collodion was used to build up cadaverous cheeks and he pinned his ears back with spirit gum. The overall effect was so horrifying that legend has it some theatergoers fainted at the sight of him on screen. Mary Philbin’s onscreen reaction was said to have been real as well, as she did not know what to expect until the very first time she pulled the mask away from the Phantom while the camera was rolling. Poor Miss Philbin!

Before he succumbed to lung cancer in 1930, Chaney gave his audiences one more memorable monster -- that of the shock-haired, needle-toothed vampire slinking around in a beaver top hat in the now-lost, LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927).

For all of his magnificent efforts, Lon Chaney has the distinction of being remembered as “The Man of a Thousand Faces”. After watching his films and learning how he made those faces, it is a sobriquet that was hard-earned and well-deserved.

Jack Pierce's amazing makeup in The Monkey Talks.


Jack Pierce had an unquestionably brilliant career as a Hollywood makeup artist. His specialty and monster makeups are second to none in their originality and visual impact.  Like Lon Chaney before him, he had multiple creative masterpieces which set him apart from most other practitioners of his craft.  As a result, Pierce left a legacy which continues to influence the entertainment world today, forty-five years after his death.

Pierce’s first notable work can be seen in THE MONKEY TALKS (1927), where he transformed actor Jacques Lerner into an utterly convincing talking monkey. The makeup is so believable that it impresses even today’s viewers, despite the passage of time and the poor quality of the most widely available copy of the film. As PHOTOPLAY reported at the time, “It is a performance that will make Lon Chaney cry his eyes out, because it is a real achievement in character make-up.”

The quality of Pierce’s work so convinced Universal that they brought him back to turn Conrad Veidt into the titular THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928).  Pierce crafted the now-famous exaggerated smile that was made to look like it was horribly etched upon the face of Veidt’s character, Gwynplaine. While the film is not widely seen today, Gwynplaine’s hideous face was the inspiration for Batman’s arch-enemy, The Joker, who lives on in modern comic books and movies. This is but one part of the legacy Jack Pierce has left.

Perhaps the most historically significant character Pierce created is the Frankenstein monster, as played by Boris Karloff in the 1931 Universal film.  While developing the makeup for what would be the most terrifying screen monster to date, Pierce read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein three times and then went on to study surgical techniques, medicine, and anatomy for three months in an effort to determine just how a person like Dr. Frankenstein would go about assembling his creature.  As Pierce explained in a 1939 New York Times Interview, “I figured that Frankenstein, who was a scientist but no practicing surgeon, would take the simplest surgical way [to install a brain].  He would cut the top of the skull off straight across like a pot lid, hinge it, pop the brain in, and then clamp it on tight.  That is the reason I decided to make the monster’s head square and . . . dig that big scar across his forehead with the metal clamps holding it together.”  Pierce added that he learned about an Egyptian practice of binding criminals’ hands and feet when burying them alive. This causes blood to flow to the body’s extremities, “...stretched their arms to gorilla length and swelled their hands, feet and faces to abnormal proportions. I thought this might make a nice touch for the monster. . . .”

After Pierce’s painstaking research and design work, Boris Karloff sat patiently late into the night for three weeks, allowing Pierce to apply and test makeup on the actor’s face.  The efforts paid off handsomely—or monstrously—as the impact on audiences of the first sight of the creature’s face was immediate and powerful.  FRANKENSTEIN was a huge success and Pierce’s creation instantly became a part of movie history. Film historian James Heffernan stated in 1997 that the face of the Frankenstein monster, “. . . has been reproduced and disseminated as widely and as often as the Mona Lisa.”  No other makeup in entertainment history has had the enduring impact on cinema history or popular culture more than Jack Pierce’s Frankenstein monster.

Pierce at work with Lon Chaney, Jr.


Some film critics and historians believe that Pierce’s next major makeup creation is equal or even superior to the Frankenstein monster.  THE MUMMY (1932) again placed Boris Karloff in Pierce’s barber’s chair for a grueling ordeal in the same secret room sequestered away on a Universal backlot that Lon Chaney had used not that many years before to create his Quasimodo and Erik the Phantom characters.  For the opening sequence in which Karloff’s mummy first comes to life, Pierce spent eight hours wrapping the actor in acid-soaked bandages and earth to achieve the aged, dusty appearance of the 3700 year-old Egyptian, Im-Ho-Tep.

The full mummy makeup is frightfully realistic, but it is only seen on screen for a few scant minutes. More important to the success of the film is the makeup Pierce designed for Ardath Bey, the character that the living mummy assumes for the rest of the story. As described in the January 14, 1935 issue of Hollywood Filmograph, “To make a mummy come to life and appear natural was truly a problem.” How Pierce overcame that problem led to his winning the 1932 Filmograph Makeup Award.  “After many trials and misses, [Pierce] hit upon a method of covering cotton with spirit gum, which when it dried under certain manipulation, produced mobile wrinkles and the necessary parchment effect of the mummy but allowed the actor full possession of expression.” In winning this award, the closest makeup artists came to an Academy Award at the time, Pierce’s Mummy beat out over one hundred other makeup jobs, including Wally Westmore’s capable work on DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Numerous sequels and remakes of THE MUMMY have been made throughout the years, but none of the makeup jobs have surpassed the original.

Jack Pierce’s final iconic makeup masterwork is seen in THE WOLF MAN (1941) in which ironically, Lon Chaney, Jr. is subjected to the makeup vicissitudes of the man who succeeded Chaney’s own father as Hollywood’s makeup king.  Every day of the filming, for two and a half hours, Pierce applied row upon row of yak hair to Lon’s face and head. Then the hair was curled and singed, an uncomfortable process for the actor to endure. A prosthetic wolf-like nose was applied, one of the few actual makeup appliances Pierce ever used at Universal. The result was extraordinary:  a convincing half-man, half-wolf terrorizing the English countryside (or Hollywood backlot). Jack Pierce teamed up with John P. Fulton, Universal’s top special effects man, to perfect the transition scene in which the audience witnesses Larry Talbot becoming the wolf man. This became one of the best and most memorable scenes of all the classic Universal horror films.

Over the span of Jack Pierce’s career with Universal, he created numerous additional character makeups which are both fondly remembered and critically acclaimed today, including Lugosi’s Ygor in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), Karloff’s Morgan in THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) and Mord in TOWER OF LONDON (1939). He was not limited to monsters, however, and was just as adept at applying “straight” and beauty makeup. Although he sometimes employed the use of assistants, it was also necessary for him to apply makeup and hair to the rest of the cast in each of the films that he worked on.

There can be no doubt that Jack Pierce was a consummate professional, as well as one of the pioneers of Hollywood character makeup. If anyone questions whether or not he should be considered as Lon Chaney’s successor, all one needs to do is search out the two-page spread in a mid-1930s edition of the Universal Weekly.  In large letters across the top of the pages reads, “If Lon Chaney could speak”, and introduces the reader to pictures of Karloff in three of his best roles:  FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, and THE OLD DARK HOUSE—all characters designed and executed by Jack Pierce. Although the ad is designed to link Chaney with Karloff, it really links Chaney with Pierce.

It is for one important reason that Chaney may have a slight edge over Pierce when comparing makeup artistry. Chaney had the advantage of acting in his own makeups, which enabled him to bring to life his characters exactly the way he wanted.  As Chaney himself described it, “It was not merely the applying of grease paint and putty noses to the face, but mental make-up as well,” that interested him.  He added, “I want my make-up simply to add to the picture, to show at a glance the sort of character I am portraying. . . . I want to dig down into the mind and heart of the role.”  Chaney’s habit of studying people in real life and then employing mannerisms, gaits, and gestures in his acting is well known and helped him make his characters real and believable on screen.

Conversely, with the exception of his early silent film roles, Pierce had to rely on the acting talent of others to animate his work. While Jack gave form to Frankenstein, it was Karloff that breathed life into the creature. So it was with his other great characters like Jocko, Gwynplaine, and the Wolf Men. Pierce also benefited from directors like James Whale and Karl Freund who brought out the best in the actors who wore his makeups. But it was a two-way street; it was Pierce’s creative genius that allowed actors the chance to bring life to their roles, but only if they were up to the task. Did they know how lucky they were at the time to have had the man who was creating the world’s most memorable monsters turn them into cinema icons? Great makeup effects can inspire actors to inhabit their characters fully and rise to great heights. If Karloff, Lugosi, Veidt, Chaney, Jr., Hull and the rest had not put in an honest, solid performance, Jack Pierce’s creations might not have the impact and power they did – and still do – even today. 


So, we return now to the question that this essay posed in the beginning: Who was the best makeup artist – Lon Chaney or Jack Pierce? Who was the most talented? Who was the hardest-working? Who had the most memorable characters?

In the end, the answers to these questions are not difficult to sort out at all. They are, in fact, easy. Who can say with any authority that the Phantom of the Opera’s shocking face under the mask was any more memorable than seeing the Frankenstein monster backing around into the camera for the first time to reveal his horrifying, lab-spawned countenance? Moreover, it’s not hard to imagine that both Chaney and Pierce spent countless hours testing and re-testing their techniques, getting them just right for the cameras so that the unbelievable could be transformed and come to amazing life on the screen. Finally, there can be no argument that both makeup men were supremely talented; Chaney specialized in his disfigurements and deformities based on real life and Pierce was adept with hair application and mummy wrapping based on the supernatural.

Who was the best, then? The answer is simple: there is no 1st and 2nd choice. There is not even a tie. In truth, they both win. They both deserve equal ranking and acknowledgment in their field for creating characters that will live so long as movies are made.

(C) 2013 John Navroth & Doug Brown - All Rights Reserved.


Urban Wild said...

WOW! An excellent explication of these two make-up greats! A well-researched and highly readable essay. Well done!

Oh--and the most memorable line in this essay? Got to be "...his horrifying, lab-spawned countenance..." Perfect!

Joe Thompson said...

Thank you for a thought-provoking essay. I like your conclusion. Asking who is better between Chaney and Pierce is like comparing Mozart and Beethoven.

Fritzi Kramer said...

Loved it! Thanks for all the research and for joining in the blogathon!

gail walden said...

LC WAS/IS NO. 1!!!!!!!! HANDS DOWN!!!!!


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