Lon Chaney’s Hidden Makeup Secret

How Lon Chaney made himself into "A Man of a Thousand Faces"

Chaney in Phantom of the Opera

Lon Chaney, Sr. was an actor during the silent film era. Renowned for his application of makeup and versatility in film, Chaney became known as “A Man of a Thousand Faces.” Furthermore, there is an object that is frequently overlooked, yet integral to Lon Chaney’s makeup technique. Chaney’s hidden makeup secret was a spine-chilling wax head cast from life.

Chaney Wax Head Front View

The wax head was donated by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and is made from two different wax materials. One was commonly used to make movie props during the time period and the other is composed of the ingredients similar to Crayola crayons. Chaney used the wax head to practice his application of facial sideburns and hairlines and cotton and collodion build-ups to create a fuller look on his cheeks. 


Below: The front and back of Lon Chaney’s hidden makeup secret made from a life cast. Courtesy of the History Department, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Chaney Wax Head Tilted Front View
Chaney Wax Head Rear

This Halloween, turn yourself into your own phantom of the opera as Chaney would have more than 90 years ago. Here’s a makeup trick that can be created from the comfort of your own home using household items. In order to create a ghostly pale undertone for your makeup, you will need: 

  • White shortening (2 teaspoons) 
  • Cornstarch (5 teaspoons) 
  • White all-purpose flour (1 teaspoon) 
  • Bowl (1) 
  • Brush or make-up sponge (1) 
  • Fork (1)

Mix the white shortening, cornstarch, and white all-purpose flour in a bowl. Apply sparingly on your face using a brush or a makeup sponge in order to create a ghoulish pale, yet not ghost-white appearance. In order to create the dark circles around your eyes to complete this skull-like look, you will need: 

  • Cornstarch (1 teaspoon) 
  • Water (0.5 teaspoon)
  • Cold cream (0.5 teaspoon) 
  • Food coloring (2-3 drops)
    • Two drops of black food coloring
    • OR 
    • One drop of red, one of drop of blue, and one drop of green food coloring 
  • Bowl (1) 
  • Brush or makeup sponge (1) 
  • Fork (1)

First, mix the cornstarch and cold cream in the bowl. Second, add the water and food coloring. Continue mixing them all together until you have grey-to-black face paint. Using your application tool, apply the dark makeup on the eyelids, under the eye, and carefully encircle both eyes. Then using the same application tool, create a thin circle around the nostrils using a bit of the dark face paint makeup. This step helps elongate the nostrils as it appears on film in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) on Lon Chaney’s character. Lastly, as an optional step you can apply the dark face paint sparingly around the mouth area to create a larger contrast between the dark areas and the white face paint used as a base. Dress the rest of the costume with a top hat and a black cape. At the end of the night, remove the face makeup with soap and water. 

Face paint recipe inspiration: https://www.almanac.com/news/editors-musings/halloween-makeup?utm_source=pinterest&utm_medium=social