The Blog

Chaney in Chicago: The Story of 'Thunder'

It doesn’t carry the same reputation or notoriety as The Phantom of the Opera or London After Midnight, but Thunder is a MGM-produced Lon Chaney vehicle that’s notable for a number of reasons. Not only was it his last silent film and his penultimate film, it was also filmed in Chicago.

Thunder follows the story of Grumpy Anderson, a longtime railroad engineer who is obsessed with keeping his train running on schedule. Anderson’s obsession with the railroad puts others off, but when a blizzard and subsequent flood hit, he’s their only hope at getting desperately needed Red Cross supplies to the victims who need them.

Lon Chaney in 'Thunder'

Chaney played the role of Anderson and, aside from a mustache and grayed temples, Chaney didn’t use his signature makeup skills for the performance. The rest of the cast included Phyllis Haver -- a former Sennett Bathing Beauties who had hit the big time with the 1927 version of Chicago) and James Murray -- who had recently found acclaim for his portrayal of John in King Vidor’s The Crowd. Despite a stellar cast and promising storyline, the production faced problems from the outset.

Shooting 'Thunder' at the Northwestern Railroad Station in Chicago. 1929. (Chicago Daily News/Chicago History Museum Archives)

Filming began in the Midwest in early 1929. Manitowoc and Green Bay, Wisconsin played host to the cast and crew, as did Chicago, with many scenes being filmed at the Northwestern Railroad Station. The crew spent four weeks in the cold and snow. Chaney, who was already battling cancer, contracted walking pneumonia. His poor health suspended production for a week, but he trudged on, choosing to work days that should’ve been spent in bed. His determination to see the picture through was stymied when James Murray failed to show up on set. Despite reprimands, illness and cast changes, the $750,000 film was completed. Unfortunately, the film made greater headlines for the circumstances surrounding it than the story itself.

Lon Chaney on the set of 'Thunder' at the Northwestern Railroad Station in Chicago (Chicago Daily News/Chicago History Museum Archives)

Haver became engaged and announced that she was to retire from the screen with Thunder marking her final picture. Murray’s performance had garnered him critical acclaim, but his sudden success was too much for him to bear. Soon after this performance, he began to find solace in alcohol, and by 1936, he was dead. Chaney complained about the “flu” he had contracted as well as the illness he said he’d acquired during a fake oatmeal “snowstorm.” In reality, his throat cancer had advanced, and his health was in severe decline. He spent weeks quietly recovering before taking on his next role, but that film -- a talkie remake of The Unholy Three -- was to be his final film appearance.

James Murray in 'Thunder'

Although the film is an important marker in the careers of Haver, Murray and especially Chaney, it’s not a piece of film history that we can study easily. The film is considered lost and only a few fragments have survived. You can watch one of the surviving fragments below.