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Carla Laemmle Remembers Lon Chaney

December 2, 2010

STARTS THURSDAY! friend Galen Wilkes recently had the pleasure of joining silent screen actress Carla Laemmle for the celebration of her 101th birthday.  Carla's career spans an amazing breadth of film history.  Her first screen appearance came in 1925 as a ballet dancer in The Phantom of the Opera, and she has been most recently the documentary series Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood which is currently airing on Turner Classic Movies.

Last month Galen sat down Carla and was able to capture recollections from some her early studio experiences.  STARTS THURSDAY! is exceptionally grateful to both Galen and Carla for their collaboration in recording these precious memories and for allowing me to share them with you.  What follows now are Carla's own words as transcribed by Galen Wilkes (November 2010)...

Slide for The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Slide for The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Carla Laemmle
Carla Laemmle

The studio asked me to be in The Phantom of the Opera.  I was quite young, about 16.  My dancing master was the director of the dance sequence.  He was Ernest Belcher.  I had previously studied dancing in Chicago.  Then I studied with him after we moved to Los Angeles.  I was 14 or 15 and became more accomplished under him.  He was from England and was the first choreographer hired to work for the movies.  I appeared in a lot of movies that he was hired to do.  The opera house was built exactly like the one in Europe.  It was very elaborate and enormous.  It was a beautiful stage.  It had a wonderful pit orchestra.  Everything was exactly like the original.  It still exists at Universal; they will never do anything to it, it will always be there.  I was very happy and proud that I was going to be one of the principal dancers!  I’m glad that I was trained well enough to do it.  I studied with Mr. Belcher for about 8 years.  It was a very nice time of my life. 

Galen Wilkes and Carla Laemmle (November 2010)
Galen Wilkes and Carla Laemmle (November 2010)

I didn’t get to meet Lon Chaney as we were not in the same scenes.  But I did see him in makeup!  That was when he was filming and by chance I happened to see him.  He had ruled out people coming to the set.  But somehow or other I showed up!  I gasped when I saw his face!  His makeup is just hideous.  Such a great loss when he died.  He was so young.  His parents were deaf and I think you can attribute a lot of his great talent to the fact he had this situation in his life.  He would have an opportunity to express to his parents through gestures and this was part of his training.  There’s no one that achieved what he did.  He was a very great actor, he could express anything.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Slide for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
Slide for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

I also watched him film The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It just so happened they were shooting the scene where he climbed down the cathedral.  He did his own stunts, he didn’t have a stand-in.  He never did.  Everything that was even dangerous he would do.  Because he wanted it accurate.  He didn’t want anyone to stand in for him.   He felt absolutely qualified being able to do it.  I saw HIM do it.  He had a thing against hiring somebody to do the job.  He felt so qualified that he wasn’t afraid either.  It was hazardous.  The Hunchback was really a painful makeup.  He had this thing on his back, distorting it.  And then of course he had his facial makeup.  I was really blessed to get that close to him and actually appear in one of his movies!

Poster for King of Jazz (1930)
Poster for King of Jazz (1930)

King of Jazz (1930)

Dancing on the giant piano was the scariest thing I've done.  I was dancing en pointe [on the tip of the toes] on these big keys way up high and I was scared I was going to fall!  I was right near the edge!  In the Tarantelle sequence I was on the floor, that was not scary!  I did meet Paul Whiteman.  He was very nice and gracious.  He was the star of it of course.


Rebecca Isabelle "Carla" Laemmle was born October 20, 1909 and is the niece of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle.  Her first screen appearance came in 1925 in an uncredited role as a ballet dancer in The Phantom of the Opera (1925).  Carla also appeared in another as a small role a "coach passenger" in the original 1931 Dracula.  She is the last surviving cast member from both of these early classics.

Galen Wilkes has spent most of his life researching and producing programs on films and music of the early 20th century, including silent film series, radio broadcasts, live concerts & shows, and CD anthologies.  He publishes his own music in the ragtime idiom and has garnered much attention with a number of his works which appear on dozens of CDs and in concerts worldwide.  Galen also does lectures and programs for historical & educational organizations.  Galen can be found on line at his web site:

The Phantom of the Opera slide courtesy of Frank Buxton.