Guest Blog: Scott Essman's They're Still Alive - The Universal Classic Monsters
In celebration of the October 2nd Blu-ray release of the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection from Universal Studios Home Entertainment, veteran horror historian Scott Essman has prepared a truly monstrous trip back through time for you classic horror fans!
It’s a quiet dusty morning in the summer of 1916 and all but a small eastern region of the San Fernando Valley is largely undeveloped, to say nothing of unpopulated. For the past year, inside of an unassuming front gate just over the hill from Los Angeles proper, two men are trying to forge their path in the fledgling motion picture business: Lon Chaney and Jack Pierce. Nascent actors Chaney, 33, and Pierce, 27, were completely unknown, but each had an angle; they could both work magic out of a simple makeup case, fully transforming their faces and even parts of their bodies to put themselves into a better position to be cast in a role. They often worked out of Universal’s “bullpen,” getting chosen to play Indians, cowboys, pirates, or virtually any part called for in the roundup of silent shorts at the time. Little did these men know that, less than a decade later, they would initiate a cinematic movement that would change history.
Of course, the place was Universal Pictures, which had been founded by Carl Laemmle, a former midwestern haberdasher who consolidated several distribution enterprises into one operation in 1912, then claimed the named land, opening Universal City in 1915. Surely, Chaney and Pierce engaged in very different career trajectories, but both became key players in the boom of both Universal and the American monster movie. With Universal now celebrating its 100th anniversary, those early years are an essential chapter in the studio’s history, the days when the brand surged to new heights at the box office by taking giddy moviegoers into the dungeon depths of their collective imagination. The magic of those characters, films, actors and filmmakers has never really left us, ever since Dr. Frankenstein famously bellowed, "It's alive!"
Even after leaving Universal to become a freelance actor in 1918, Chaney returned to make the smash hit The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Universal in 1923. Although the grotesque titular character was a makeup landmark, “Hunchback” was never considered a horror film and Quasimodo not a horror character, that honor not bestowed upon Chaney until his next Universal film, made as a loaner from the newly formed MGM Studios. The Phantom of the Opera in 1925 was another unbridled hit, with Chaney’s unmasking as the named Phantom resonating as an all-time classic moment in cinema.
Taylor White, publisher of The Man of a Thousand Faces, a book of Bill Nelson’s illustrations of Chaney’s vast and varied characters, noted why the Phantom has resonated among Universal’s greatest characters. “Chaney's Phantom continues to be an indelible character for two reasons,” White said. “On the exterior, Chaney's unforgettable makeup is still terrifying and obviously set the standard long before any other classic monster. And second, Chaney's skills as an actor managed to convey both the physical pain and emotional wrenching of a shattered heart in losing his beloved Christine.”
Source: Courtesy of BTL