The Silver Screen Chameleons

Today is Paul Muni’s day here on TCM as we celebrate Summer Under the Stars and it immediately brings back a lot of memories.  Way back when, Muni was the first actor of the thirties that I really became familiar with and whose movies I sought out.  Once I got to see some of his work, I immediately became a fan.  It’s not surprising as I have always liked chameleon actors and Muni was one of the best.  Chameleon actors are the ones who never use their own persona in a role but adopt a new one, along with an accent, perhaps a walk, maybe even some facially altering makeup, when playing a part.   They’ve been around for a long time, long before Muni, but Muni was the first one of the Talkies Era, the late twenties and early thirties when sound transformed the cinema.Chaney1

Of course, when talking of the chameleons, there are few more notable than the king of the silent chameleons, Lon Chaney.  Chaney was so good at disappearing into roles, both figuratively as character and literally behind makeup, that most people at the height of his popularity wouldn’t have recognized him on the street.   His career started years before 1919′s The Miracle Man (sometime around 1912 but many roles and bit parts were uncredited so it’s hard to determine an exact first film for him) but that was the movie that really put him in the minds of moviegoers everywhere.  The story concerns a four member group of con artists who plan to use a faith healer’s setup to swindle believers by convincing them the healing is real.  After that, they’ll start asking people for donations to get healed and then hit the road.  Chaney plays the Frog, a contortionist who poses as a crippled man to fool the crowd.  He fools the crowd so well that a little boy watching, who actually does use crutches, is healed on the spot.

The Miracle Man is a lost film but, fortunately, the scene of Chaney writhing on the ground as The Frog in front of the crowd, and then straightening his body as he’s “healed” is available for viewing on YouTube.  Another notable Chaney film now lost, except for stills and brief scenes, is London After Midnight, directed by Tod Browning and released in 1927.  Sadly, it was not properly preserved.

Still, the work we do have from Chaney, especially The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera, show a chameleon of extraordinary skill and talent.  He died at the young age of 47 but not before completing his only sound film, The Unholy Three, in which he did five different voices, naturally.  Had he lived, the Man of a Thousand Faces might have become known as the Man of a Thousand Voices, too.

Once the sound era opened, it paved the way for chameleons from the stage to make their way to the silver screen.  Paul Muni was one of the first to really capitalize on the ability to transform into multiple characters and personalities rather than develop a popular persona which has been the Hollywood norm from the earliest days of cinema.  Actors like Charlie Chaplin stretched that to its limit but throughout the decades, actors who have a cinematic persona (John Wayne, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Thelma Ritter) have always fared better than the chameleons who change from role to role.  Muni was an exception and each new movie had moviegoers wondering what Muni would look and sound like in this one.  From his heavy Italian accent in Scarface: Shame of a Nation to his physical transformation in The Good Earth, Muni rarely played a role using his own looks and voice.  When he did though, as in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, he was as powerful as ever.  Muni was nominated for six Academy Awards for Best Actor and won once, for The Story of Louis Pasteur.  As the years progressed, his star dimmed, perhaps because he rarely let the public know who he was.

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One of the only actors in history to develop both a definite persona and a chameleon-like quality was Bette Davis.   There’s no doubt that Bette Davis was a force in the movies and no doubt she had a well developed persona built around her strength and determination.  But for every role where she used her own look and voice, like the seminal All About Eve, there were others where she became someone else (Of Human Bondage, Jezebel, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Now Voyager, Mr. Skeffington, A Catered Affair, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, etc).  Davis wasn’t afraid to look bad, sound coarse, and emote to the rafters.  She’s not thought of as a chameleon the way Chaney and Muni are but that’s because she split her time between herself and the character throughout her career.

But while Chaney, Muni, and Davis played it straight most of the time, Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers used their considerable talents for comedy.   Guinness came first and played so many different characters with different looks and accents (just contrast him in The Ladykillers with his role in The Lavender Hill Mob and it’s like looking at two different actors) that in one movie, Kind Hearts and Coronets, he played an entire extended family, the D’Ascoynes, playing a variety of ages, personalities, accents, and both genders.  That kind of chameleon virtuosity paved the way for one of Guinness’ costars in The Ladykillers, Peter Sellers.  Sellers played multiple roles himself more than once but his greatest performance is probably the three-pronged attack of President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove in the movie of the same name (Strangelove, that is, with How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb added for good measure).

Chameleon actors continue today, from the chameleon queen, Meryl Streep, to multiple Best Actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis and the always surprising Gary Oldman.  But on this day, here at TCM, we celebrate the first chameleon actor of the sound period, Paul Muni, with 24 hours of great performances.   The prime time slot goes to I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and it may be his best performance.  He doesn’t wear any prosthetics or speak with an accent but he disappears into the role as he always did.  It’s a great performance, one of many.  And his day is a great way to pay tribute to all the chameleon actors, past and present.

15 Responses The Silver Screen Chameleons
Posted By Arthur : August 6, 2014 3:02 pm

In FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG Muni, in fact, treats us to two different personas that of the fugitive and that of a lawyer. Not sure if Lawrence Olivier would fall into this category, but I sat through MARATHON MAN and never realized he was the Nazis dentist.

Posted By Arthur : August 6, 2014 3:14 pm

Let me correct that. While he does play two somewhat different personalities in FUGITIVE, there is another film where the persona of a thoroughly criminal individual and that of an eminently good man keep alternating in the same body. I cannot remember the name of that picture. . .

Posted By gregferrara : August 6, 2014 4:27 pm

Arthur, good points nonetheless. He does play two different people in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The other movie you’re thinking of may be Bordertown.

Posted By Emgee : August 6, 2014 7:24 pm

I think Arthur ‘s referring to Angel on My Shoulder, in which Muni plays both a criminal and a judge.

Posted By Emgee : August 6, 2014 7:26 pm

And how about the late lamented Philip Seymour Hoffman as a recent examle of a chameleonic actor?

Posted By Blakeney : August 6, 2014 11:03 pm

Fascinating post. Not long ago, my mom and I were discussing this very thing – how some actors (she mentioned the prolific Robert Duvall among others)seem to disappear into each new role they play, while many mainstream popular actors basically play the same persona in different situations.

Not to knock them, they are wonderfully engaging as that persona. I think one of the reasons for their popularity is perhaps a psychological public need to follow one popular persona in different situations. Whereas, perhaps the chameleon actors (who may be the purer artists) suffer a loss of such popularity through an absence of “branding”.

Posted By tdraicer : August 7, 2014 1:36 am

Another great chameleon was, of course, Olivier, who famously built his characters from the outside in, first deciding on their “look.”

My favorite Muni film (though top acting honors in that one really go to Brian Aherne) is Juarez.

Posted By Barbara : August 7, 2014 1:42 am

I noticed that the information for the movie The Last Angry Man was used for the movie information to introduce The World Changes (1933) movie. I think that this was a Bright House mistake. The World Changes was an interesting movie. Paul Muni was a very good actor.

Posted By mamasgirl : August 7, 2014 3:15 am

Re chameleon actors, I have belatedly become aware of just how truly great Marlon Brando really was. Two outstanding examples of his genius are, I think, “Mutiny On The Bounty” and “Sayonara”. In MOTB he evolved beautifully from upper-class fop to a sensitive, serious leader of men, and in “Sayonara” he was…simply amazing. Heartbreakingly good as a Korean War ace pilot based in Japan who reluctantly falls in love with a Japanese woman despite the bigotry (his own and his superiors’) and other obstacles heaped upon them. And don’t get me started on that Southern accent-! My new favorite actor.

Posted By LD : August 7, 2014 11:42 pm

Charles Laughton could also be a chameleon in roles such as Henry VIII, Quasimodo, Capt. Bligh, Ruggles, and the southern senator in ADVISE AND CONSENT, to name a few.

Posted By Doug : August 8, 2014 11:01 am

After some thought, the current chameleon, with roles as diverse as Hannibal Lecter, William Stryker in X-Men 2, the Captain in Super Troopers,’RED’,’RED 2′ and dozens of other great movies…Brian Cox.

Posted By Jenni : August 8, 2014 1:18 pm

Recently watched Sayonara for the first time; while Brando did do a good acting job in it, his southern accent was horrid. To me, Brando’s best performance is in On the Waterfront.

I want to add Gene Hackman to this chameleon list. I recently viewed for the first time the movie Marooned, about 3 astronauts lost in space during a mission to the moon, NASA has to find a way to rescue them. The 3 astronauts-Richard Crenna, James Franciscus, and Hackman each have a different persona and job to do. Hackman surprised me the most as he was the highly emotional, “We’re going to die!” hysterical member of the team. I had never seen him play such a character before and he did it without too much difficulty.

Posted By Emgee : August 8, 2014 7:08 pm

I’d say both Brando and Hackman were more versatile than chameleonic; you’re never in any doubt that it’s them. Just trying a different kind of role doesn’t make an actor a chameleon.

Posted By Arhur : August 9, 2014 12:57 am

Emgee, agreed. But I don’t think there is a bright line between “chameleon” and “versatile.” Rather, it is probably a continuum. Most, but not all, actors play at least slightly different personas from role to role.

Posted By Justin : August 18, 2014 9:58 pm

It seems a majority of chameleon actors become chameleons because they are shy and introverted and by being a chameleon it allows them to hide in the role by becoming somebody else. Many chameleons try to eschew fame and keep there private lives out of the public such as chameleon actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Gary Oldman.

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