The extraordinary Jon C. Mirsalis has led a life of varied and far-flung interests thus far. Not only is he an excellent piano accompanist of silent films, he is considered one of the top authorities on the life and films of Lon Chaney. He edits and maintains the Lon Chaney Home Page. By day his alter-ego is Jon C. Mirsalis, Ph.D., D.A.B.T., holder of Ph.D. degrees in genetics and toxicology and Director of the Toxicology Laboratory at SRI International.
Mirsalis has composed and performed music scores for the DVD home video edition of Othello and LSVideoâ€™s VHS edition of Victory (1919), among others for Kino International and Sinister Cinema.
Jon was kind enough to let me bounce a few questions about Chaney off of him, after listening to his excellent commentary on the must-own Blu-Ray edition of “Phantom of the Opera”.
GS: Lon Chaney once described his work as that of “extreme characterization”. He also felt that his most beloved characters (Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame) were of the “noblest ideals”. Do you think that those rich, Romantic ideals can still be found in any contemporary film characters?
JM: There’s certainly no one today quite like Chaney, at least not in the makeup area, but I think there are fine character actors working today who can inhabit almost any character and make it come to life. Daniel Day-Lewis, Chris Cooper, William H. Macy and Meryl Streep are a few that come to mind.
GS: As compared to his father, “The Man of a Thousand Faces”, do you think the new mediums required more or less of Chaney, Jr as an actor? Do you think they require more or less of an actor, in general?
JM: I think new technologies have lessened the skill demands for all of today’s actors. A slip in sound or facial expression can be touched up with a computer. Films like Avatar are starting to cross the line between acting and animation. Zoe Saldana was terrific, but she didn’t win an Oscar because voters couldn’t be sure whether it was her or CGI they were watching. Anyone can sing (almost) like Ella Fitzgerald with the help of Auto-Tune. I don’t object to the use of technologies because you can do amazing things with them (for example, see Hugo), but it really does call into question where acting ends and technology begins. Whether Chaney Jr struggled with his own generation’s technology changes I can’t say. He was a pale shadow of his father and I have little interest in his career so I haven’t given it much thought.
GS: There is a great debate over how Chaney would have adapted to sound. Clearly, he was the master of silent film with his physical acting. But would he have transitioned smoothly, or fallen to the side like Chaplin and Keaton (in your opinion)?
JM: He would have transitioned very smoothly, but given his age and the roles he was playing late in his career, I believe he would have become the Wallace Beery of MGM (which raises the question of what Beery would have done). I could absolutely see him in Min and Bill opposite Marie Dressler, and he would have been terrific in The Champ. If he hadn’t been such a heavy smoker and lived into the 1950s we would have seen him doing Walter Brennan-like roles in classic westerns.
GS: You have said that many consider “London at Midnight” to be the Holy Grail for Chaney fans, yet you are not one of them. Which is your Grail and why?
JM: For me I think A Blind Bargain or Tower of Lies would rank well above LAM. All indications are that LAM is a lousy movie. But to see something like Tower of Lies with Chaney working under Victor Seastrom at the peak of his directing career (same period as The Scarlet Letter and The Wind) would be really something. I would also love to see more of the Universal teens pictures. If I had to make a list of lost silent Chaneys I would like to see, LAM wouldn’t make the top 25.
GS: TCM recently broadcast “London at Midnight” as composed by still photographs. What was your impression of this attempt to reconstruct the picture?
JM: Rick Schmidlin did a terrific job of working with almost nothing and I think the end result gives a reasonably good impression of what the film must have been like.
GS: At what point was Chaney typecast as a “horror” icon?
JM: I don’t think he was ever typecast as a horror icon during his career, because they didn’t really have “horror” films in the silent area. I think he was considered a masterful character actor, but look at the peak of his career…While the City Sleeps, The Big City, The Tower of Lies, Thunder, The Unholy Three. None of them are really even makeup roles, let alone horror roles, except for a little bit of whiskers for aging.