Man Of A Thousand Faces (Cert PG)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Academy) Running Time: 122 minutes approx.
Man Of A Thousand Faces might refer to any male politicians but flippancy aside, it is in fact a biopic of an overlooked legendary trailblazer of early 20th century cinema, make-up genius and quite possibly the first method actor, Lon Chaney.
Chaney was a notoriously private man so the intimate details of his life away from the camera are not so well known, leaving it to the four Oscar nominated screenwriters to elaborate on what was available to them. Having said that, they could have consulted his son Creighton, aka Lon Chaney Jr., but his name doesn’t appear any near this project in any official capacity.
Biopics of famous performers were quite rare in 1957, especially actors since cinema was only a little over half a century old itself, and whilst modern audiences might not be aware of who Lon Chaney is, there was a better chance the film goers of the day where better informed, in part to Chaney Jr. being a prominent film and TV actor himself. Since meta cinema wasn’t a thing back then, Chaney’s story is presented as a straightforward melodrama, complete with fictionalised padding.
It begins at the turn of the 20th century with Chaney (James Cagney) already a stage performer with a comedy clown act, married to singer Cleva (Dorothy Malone), who is sacked when she announces her pregnancy. The marriage is turbulent, bolstered by Cleva’s boorish attitude towards Chaney’s deaf, mute parents (Celia Lovsky and Nolan Leary), and resentment at being a stay at home mother to son Creighton.
Eventually, things hit a tragic nadir when Cleva, angry with Chaney ruining her singing career, storms the stage as Chaney is performing and drinks a bottle of acid, destroying her vocal chords. During the divorce proceedings, Creighton is made a ward of the state as neither parent can provide a stable environment for him, Cleva having disappeared and Chaney blackballed from the theatres.
Chaney’s only chance of getting full custody of his son is to have proven regular work, so, on the advice of his press agent friend Clarence Locan (Jim Backus), Chaney moves to Hollywood to try his luck in movies. At first, he gets small parts as an extra until he decides to put his make-up skills to work and disguise himself to get niche roles, which eventually gets him noticed by the higher ups and the rest is history.
So far, so accurate in the basic details of Chaney’s career, with plenty of expedience and conflation of situations and characters to keep things moving, though the opening act is a little slow. Considering where Chaney’s reputation and legend lay, it might prove frustrating for some viewers who want to see the man at work on his most celebrated creations in the horror genre.
But we must remember Man Of A Thousand Faces was also a vehicle for another screen legend, James Cagney, perhaps a odd choice to play Chaney given his own status, but he does deliver a career best essaying of this creative genius and complex person. Though his childhood year are largely skipped, Chaney had to grow up with the prejudice of having deaf parents but he embraced this, the experience making him empathetic to the monstrous characters he would play on screen, which Cagney incisively captures.
As the public never knew the private Chaney, we can only take the veracity of Cagney’s portrayal at face value, presenting him as a hard worker and dedicated but myopic father and husband. His insistence Cleva stay home to raise Creighton wasn’t so unusual in the early 1900’s but reads as horrible chauvinistic in a modern context. He was more lenient towards second wife Hazel (Jane Greer) who was happy to give up her career, but even then, he could still be difficult.
There is also a sense that Chaney’s affection could only be shared on his terms, as by the end of the film he had alienated himself from adult Creighton (Roger Smith), having told him his mother was dead when Cleva was alive and trying to be a part of her son’s life too. Again, all true but naturally handled like your average soap opera, though the balance in showing Chaney’s flaws is brave for a film designed as a tribute to him.
His celebrated boom period in the 1920’s and the iconic horror make-up creations are represented by Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Phantom Of The Opera – the latter is a little niggling as in the original unmasking scene, Mary Philbin had black hair but the actress used here was blonde! Also, celebrated producer Irving Thalberg is played by a dashing Robert Evans, yet the real Thalberg was a slight, unremarkable Jewish chap.
With some irony, Chaney was noted for literally transforming his body and features to become these characters, yet Cagney had to make do with masks in a vain attempt to match Chaney’s natural creations. Another niggle is the laziness in not replicating the fashions of the early 1900’s as the cast are all in modern 1950’s attire! That would never be allowed today!
Since Hollywood didn’t do downbeat endings back then, Chaney’s death in 1930 from throat cancer aged just 47 is a rather light affair here and the most mendacious example of being creative with the facts. Chaney’s final deathbed act is giving his make-up box to his son by way of passing him the torch when Chaney actively forbade Creighton from being an actor (he only took it up after Chaney died).
Like most biopics, one has to approach it with a pinch of salt even if you barely know the subject; the really good ones serve as a gateway for wanting to learn more about them. Man Of A Thousand Faces may be over 60 years old – though the stunning pristine print on this Blu-ray release suggests otherwise – but definitely falls into the latter category in making Lon Chaney a figure of interest for modern audiences.
English Language Mono 1.0 PCM
English HOH Subtitles
Audio Commentary with Tim Lucas
The Man Behind A Thousand Faces
First Pressing only: Illustrated Collector’s Booklet
Rating – *** ½
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