Father and Son

The Halloween treats at the Redford Theatre this year included movies on consecutive weekends that starred the master of makeup Lon Chaney and his son Creighton Chaney, better known to movie fans as Lon Chaney, Jr.

The scary fun started on October 17 and 18, 2014, when the Redford hosted three performances of the silent 1925 chiller The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, Sr. and other silent movie stars that included Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry.

The movie was accompanied by Barton Theatre Organist Tony O’Brien, whose skill with classical music was especially useful in the scenes in the depths below the Paris Opera House, when Chaney played an organ on screen to celebrate his love for Mary Philbin.

Chaney’s organ playing came powerfully to life when Tony played two melodies at the same time in several scenes. The primary melody matched the playing of Chaney onscreen, and the secondary melody was background music for the scene.

Tony’s accompaniment was so precisely in sync with Chaney’s organ playing that when Chaney lifted his hands from the organ, Tony immediately stopped his primary melody. The secondary melody would continue, and maintained the dramatic power of the scene.

The big screen is the best place to see one of the famous moments in both silent movie and horror movie history – the stunning scene where Mary Philbin unmasks Lon Chaney. Chaney’s gruesomely scarred face filled the screen enough to still include Philbin’s horrified reaction in the background, with the surging live organ music adding emphasis to the dramatic moment.

I set up an informational display for the weekend, and the newspaper advertising at the time of the movie’s release carefully concealed the image of Chaney that we all now associate with his performance in The Phantom of the Opera.

Detroit News, October 18, 1925

Detroit News, October 18, 1925

For more information about the original release of The Phantom of the Opera, see the Looking Back web page for October 1925.

The Wolf Man

Lon Chaney, Sr. died in 1930, but his son Lon Chaney, Jr. continued the horror film tradition of the family at Universal Pictures, which released The Phantom of the Opera. In 1941, Chaney, Jr. starred in Universal’s The Wolf Man, which the Redford screened on October 24 and 25, 2014.

I tried to see resemblances between father and son. Both had rectangular faces that slightly narrowed towards the chin. Both had a gentleness that added pathos to their characterizations of the grotesque.

The elder Chaney’s accomplishments are obviously more impressive, with the range of roles, acting styles, and makeup. But it was still intriguing to see the younger Chaney on the big screen only one week after seeing his famous father on that same screen. You could almost imagine the burdens of being the son of one of the most famous actors in the history of film.

The Redford’s presentation of the The Wolf Man was part of a nostalgic weekend that paid tribute to the famous Detroit TV host of horror movies, Sir Graves Ghastly. Sir Graves was on the air from 1967 to 1982, and the Redford skillfully recreated a typical Saturday afternoon at the movies with Sir Graves Ghastly.

That re-creation included the intermixing of video of Sir Graves host segments with the The Wolf Man. The video from the early 1980s included introduction and closing segments, with lots of Sir Graves humor and commercials from the era mixed in.

A particularly poignant moment was a replay of the old Faygo Red Pop Bob-Lo boat commercial. The audience spontaneously sang along with the words that were displayed across the screen.

One feature of the Sir Graves show was the display of pictures of Sir Graves that were sent in by young children. At the Redford tribute shows, modern kids had the chance to do the same, drawing pictures of Sir Graves in the front lobby of the Redford, and later seeing them projected on the big screen.

The Redford’s re-creation of the Sir Graves show came off very well. The technical staff did a great job of mixing slide shows, digital video, and the 35-millimeter print of The Wolf Man on the big screen.

And once again, both the style and substance of the Redford helped visitors connect to a past that is long gone but fondly remembered.

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2014 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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