I recently set aside some time to watch all six of Universal’s Inner Sanctum Mystery films starring Lon Chaney Jr. Seeing these relatively short (60-67 minute) B-movies back to back over a couple of days was a joy and I found new things to admire and appreciate about the film’s leading man. But afterward, I made the mistake of scouring through various film books and poking around websites looking for background information about the movies and I shouldn’t have bothered. What I found angered me, then it depressed me and, finally, it just made me sad so I decided to share my frustration with you dear readers.
I knew that the Inner Sanctum Mystery films had plenty of critics who didn’t appreciate these low-budget productions with minimal thrills and chills but I wasn’t prepared for some of the thoughtless scorn I saw hurled at them. One complaint that was leveled at these films over and over again was the apparent miscasting of Lon Chaney Jr. as a romantic figure.
Critics seemed to revel in coming up with new ways to insult and degrade Chaney’s physical appearance and acting abilities while continually pointing out how utterly absurd it was to have him playing an unassuming lady’s man and an object of desire. After enjoying these films and appreciating the way Chaney was cast against type, I found these comments particularly painful to read. After all, these films were made between 1943- 1945 and Chaney’s lifelong battle with alcoholism and reoccurring health problems hadn’t taken their toll yet but many critics were all too eager to pigeonhole the broad-shouldered, soft-spoken, and sad-eyed actor as a dimwitted lump and a crude brute that women couldn’t possibly find appealing.
While Chaney might not be conventionally handsome by today’s standards or anyone’s idea of a typical matinee idol, he was an attractive man at one time with his own distinct charm. His boyish good looks may have started to fade by the 1940s as he finally gained the kind of roles that would make him a star but his natural charisma was always evident. Was Lon Chaney Jr. a lady killer? Not unless you count the dead bodies he may have left in his wake while playing various monsters and madmen but he also wasn’t the mindless murdering oaf that he was forced to depict throughout most of his career. And this was largely due to his unforgettable and deeply touching portrayal of Lennie Small in OF MICE AND MEN (1939).
I grew up watching and loving the Universal monster movies and THE WOLF MAN (1945) has always held a special place in my movie-loving heart thanks to Chaney’s nuanced and moving performance as the doomed Larry Talbot. My admiration for Chaney’s unique talents continued to grow over time as I was exposed to more and more of his work. I’ve enjoyed watching the actor appear in everything from gangster pictures (THE SHADOW OF SILK LENNOX, EYES OF THE UNDERWORLD) to westerns (HIGH NOON, THE INDIAN FIGHTER) and dramas (NOT A STRANGER, THE DEFIANT ONES) but I’m particularly fond of the numerous horror pictures and thrillers he appeared in.
The Inner Sanctum Mystery films (CALLING DR. DEATH, WEIRD WOMAN, DEAD MAN’S EYES, THE FROZEN GHOST, STRANGE CONFESSION, and PILLOW OF DEATH) are special and unique because they gave Chaney the opportunity to play a variety of roles at a time when he was just hitting his stride as an actor. These quickly cobbled together B-movies were made in a couple of short weeks and were never intended to make a huge profit or win any awards but they were surprisingly successful. That was partially due to Chaney’s star appeal and his ability to play a sympathetic man caught up in strange circumstances beyond his control.
The actor grew up in the shadow of his hugely successful and domineering father who insisted that his son avoid show business and get an education as well as what he considered “real” work experience. But young Chaney had always longed to follow in his father’s big footsteps. Chaney Jr. held various menial jobs before he finally broke into acting in the early 1930s after his father’s death but it would take another decade before his talent was recognized. It was when producers insisted that he change his name to Lon (his birth name was Creighton) followed by his breakout role as the simpleminded Lennie Small in OF MICE AND MEN that finally propelled Chaney Jr. into stardom. Soon afterward Universal decided to start casting him in horror films and thrillers in an attempt to cash in on his family name.
His first monster movie for Universal was MAN MADE MONSTER (1941) and that was quickly followed by his iconic role in THE WOLF MAN (1941). During the 1920s Universal had produced a hugely successful string of beloved horror classics starring Chaney’s father and the studio continued to make crowd-pleasing horror films well into the 1930s starring European and British performers such as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Claude Rains. But with WW2 looming and the threat of international enemies waiting in the wings, Universal was smart to invest in an American star with a familiar name. Lon Chaney Jr. was quickly embraced by horror film audiences in the 1940s that were partial to his all-American appeal and it was his sensitive portrayal of a tormented man struggling to make sense of the monster within that won him a legion of fans and admirers. THE WOLF MAN was the most successful horror films Universal released in the 1940s and it generated a number of sequels all starring Chaney Jr. who relished being able to play the misunderstood beast.
“Out of all the characters I’ve been I like Lawrence Talbot, the wolf man, the best because he belonged only to me. The others such as Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the mummy I only followed. I didn’t create. I seem to identify with the wolf man. He never wanted to hurt anyone. During his period of sanity in-between full moons he begged to be confined, chained and even killed to avoid the horrible consequences of his curse. He was a classic product of misunderstanding and I knew him well.”– Lon Chaney Jr.
Much like the wolf man that he once portrayed, Lon Chaney Jr.’s personal demons would eventually get the best of him. His lifelong battle with alcoholism ultimately took its toll and was undoubtedly exasperated by his inability to get roles that would allow him to stretch his acting muscles. After his success in the early 1940s producers and directors insisted he play the dimwitted Lennie Small or the tortured Larry Talbot over and over again. This is why I find the Inner Sanctum Mystery films so much fun to watch. They gave Chaney Jr. the rare opportunity to play doctors, college professors, and artists. They also allowed him to portray a devoted husband as well as a desirable man who has to parlay the advances of multiple female admirers.
These movies are particularly fun for film fans who should enjoy seeing Chaney working with some of classic horror’s most memorable leading ladies including Evelyn Ankers (THE WOLFMAN, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, SON OF DRACULA), Anne Gwynne (THE BLACK CAT, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, TEENAGE MONSTER.) and Elizabeth Russell (THE CORPSE VANISHES, CAT PEOPLE, BEDLAM).
While critics continue to debate the merit of Lon Chaney Jr. and his legacy he remains the only Universal horror star without his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. When his name is mentioned today it’s often followed by a callous remark or off-color joke about his lifelong battle with alcoholism. But he’ll always be an important figure worthy of more praise in my mind who has rightfully earned his place alongside such iconic actors as his father as well as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
Lon Chaney Jr’s appeal lies in his humble but imposing stature along with his wide and welcoming smile. He’s the boy-next-door all grown up with nowhere to go. Like a lot of men, he’s a little awkward in his own skin and still waiting for his father’s approval that will unfortunately never come. But Chaney’s soulful puppy dog eyes are full of compassion and his deep voice communicates an endless well of emotion.
He had a good sense of humor and by all accounts was beloved by most of his costars. He also looks damn good in a tailored suit and once cut a dashing figure before the ravages of time and the toils of substance abuse took their toll. A quick glance at these photos I’ve shared makes me wonder if I’m the only person who wants to run their fingers through that dark mop of hair that sits slightly askew on his big head?
Watch the Inner Sanctum Mystery films because they’re fun B-movies with a solid cast of players and some surprising twists and turns. But don’t dismiss the appeal of Lon Chaney Jr. and his pencil-thin mustache. Some of us ladies find him very attractive and endlessly fascinating.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com in 2013