Now that we can read the real story of the great silent actor and makeup magician Lon Chaney, the inaccuracies are fairly glaring in this well-received biopic about his career heights and difficult personal life. But it remains a compelling James Cagney movie, allowing the actor to try on different acting styles (and even a dancing style). The dramatic conflicts may be invented, but they’re compelling just the same. The movie works even as it represents Chaney’s original fantastic makeup creations with a series of ever-worsening rubber masks. Excellent supporting performances from Dorothy Malone, Jane Greer and Celia Lovsky. This one carries a good Tim Lucas commentary as well.
Man of a Thousand Faces
1957 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 122 min. / Street Date October 29, 2019 / Available from Arrow Video / 34.95
Starring: James Cagney, Dorothy Malone, Jane Greer, Marjorie Rambeau, Jim Backus, Robert Evans, Celia Lovsky, Jeanne Cagney, Jack Albertson.
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Film Editor: Ted J. Kent
Makeup: Bud Westmore, Jack Kevan
Original Music: Frank Skinner
Written by R. Wright Campbell, Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts from a story by Ralph Wheelwright
Produced by Robert Arthur
Directed by Joseph Pevney
Opinions flip-flop about Universal’s Man of a Thousand Faces: its representations of some of the greatest film makeups of all time are weak at best. We don’t expect a ‘legendary’ horror face to look like it belongs in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But the serious show-biz drama is energized by the great James Cagney, who clearly believed in the show and puts everything he has into it. Most backstage clich&ecute;s are avoided, and those that aren’t have a renewed freshness.
This is one of the best-ever Hollywood biopics despite being an almost completely fictionalized telling of the story of Lon Chaney, one of the most interesting of the silent film talents. Chaney’s makeup skills were as admired and clucked over as today’s CGI special effects, and only decades later did biographers bring out the facts about his fascinating life behind the cameras. This picture captures some of the flavor of silent Hollywood while grossly misrepresenting Chaney’s career; it’s really a showcase for Cagney, who takes the movie and runs with it. Half Sirkian soap opera and half showbiz legend, Man of a Thousand Faces proves that historical accuracy isn’t essential for great entertainment.
Vaudeville clown Lon Chaney (James Cagney) has career problems when his wife and stage partner Cleva Creighton Chaney (Dorothy Malone) is adjudged a liability to his act. Cleva loses all interest in her marriage and her new baby when she discovers that Lon’s parents can neither hear nor speak. She becomes unfaithful, and strikes out on her own. When Lon retaliates by getting her fired from an important singing engagement, Cleva takes poison. Her voice ruined, she disappears. With the help of agent Clarence Locan (Jim Backus) and sympathetic showgirl Hazel Bennett (Jane Greer), Lon restarts his career as an extra at Universal, working overtime to earn legal custody of his young son Creighton. That doesn’t happen until his career takes off playing characters with bizarre infirmities and frightening faces, all conjured from Lon’s seemingly magical makeup kit.
Man of a Thousand Faces combines Universal’s penchant for horror films with their upscale women’s dramas. In the guise of a reverent eulogy to one of the studio’s most revered talents, we see Lon Chaney as a dedicated, warm-hearted and supremely talented trouper (cue James Cagney’s firmly controlled performance) dealing with prejudice, hardship and heartbreak. In contrast to the flimsy plotting of some musical biopics, Chaney’s problems are the kind that would make a lesser man bitter and spiteful — mainly an unfaithful wife who abandons her child and leaves Chaney to the mercy of an unfeeling foster child system. We do wonder about the episode where Chaney brings Cleva home to meet his parents, without telling her that they’re deaf-mutes (an outmoded term). The movie shows quite a bit of sympathy for Cleva, yet ends up condemning her for the usual ‘woman’s sins’: not supporting her husband’s family in all things, abandoning her child. There are enough hints to show that Cagney’s ‘warm, feeling’ Chaney has poor Cleva in an emotional corner, and she just wants out. Sure, she’s unreasonable and prejudiced about a potentially inheritable problem — as was the majority of the U.S. population in 1905. She’s supposed to trust a husband who blindsides her with that?
Cagney’s winning personality glosses over these rough edges. Chaney’s later grudge against Cleva is the only hint in the movie of the real Chaney’s reported unforgiving nature… the vindictiveness toward women that critics suggest may have been worked out in many of his movies. I should hope that modern audiences regard Cleva in a much more sympathetic light — and Dorothy Malone plays her with much sensitivity.
Cagney charms us with clever stage clowning and dancing — and not in his usual tap style, either. He then fascinates us with his early days as an extra, advancing in the extras pool by slapping on a dramatic makeup scar to instantly turn himself into a nefarious-looking Asian pirate. This part of the film is a valentine to the early days of Universal City, where hopeful extras in cowboy duds and tuxedoes hung around the lot, hoping to catch the eye of an assistant director with a casting call. Chaney immediately graduates to star status and movies from one bizarre makeup triumph to the next. Scenes are recreated from The Miracle Man, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera and The Unholy Three.
Almost everything about this section is inaccurate, presenting Universal as a fairy-tale moviemaking paradise. Chaney worked for years as a respected character actor before getting star roles, and Irving Thalberg (played by the oily Robert Evans) was much more than a rubber stamp for film projects sent from cinema heaven. In fact, Chaney jumped ship to MGM not long after Thalberg became enthroned there as Louis B. Mayer’s right hand man. The most ironic compliment for the wholly fabricated screenplay by Ralph Wheelwright, R. Wright Campbell, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts is that it was nominated for an Academy Award. Perhaps conservatives in the 1958 Academy liked the positive image of Hollywood history, as opposed to the acid treatment of Billy Wilder’s earlier Sunset Blvd..
Universal’s famed makeup department was still going strong in 1957, but their specialty had become elaborate foam rubber monsters — Chaney’s silent movie makeups remained unique. Probably for speed as well as practicality, the experts fitted James Cagney for a series of rubber masks that bear little resemblance to the master’s amazing work. Cagney grunts behind a frozen expression as The Phantom, and his Hunchback looks like someone poured a gallon of latex over his head.
Only diehard silent movie fans will be seriously offended, as Cagney’s magnetism makes Man of a Thousand Faces great entertainment. His very presence perks up Joe Pevney’s direction and inspires a good cast to do exceptional work. Dorothy Malone has one of her best roles as the misunderstood Cleva, while the dreamy Jane Greer (those eyes!) shows an almost supernatural patience as the woman waiting to catch Chaney when he’s free. Jim Backus is charming as the agent, dispensing exposition that relates the silent film period to the fading vaudeville circuit.
Celia Lovsky is endearing as Chaney’s mother, bringing forth amusing comparisons between this film and Cagney’s White Heat — when Lon wakes up from a nightmare about his parents’ infirmity, it’s almost a reprise from the gangster movie about the psychotic Cody Jarrett. Marjorie Rambeau’s career extra Gert is nicely observed — although she lives by putting on dress gowns and pretending to be a society dame, Gert is really a paycheck-to-paycheck pauper. Cagney’s sister Jeanne is in the cast, along with bits by Snub Pollard, Russ Bender, Billy Curtis, Troy Donohue, Charles Horvath, Sammee Tong and James Seay. Only future producing mogul Robert Evans seems discordant; he always looked like a weasel stuffed into a tuxedo.
Film fans knowledgeable about the real Chaney are right when they say that the actor deserves a more accurate biopic, one that reflects the man’s much more troubled personal life. Chaney was no monster, but he also wasn’t the unusually warm and softhearted man seen here. The film ends with Chaney and Chaney Jr. spending days of loving harmony on vacation. In real life, young Creighton was starved for fatherly attention of any kind and was harshly dissuaded from even thinking about a life in the movies. The scene of Chaney giving Creighton his makeup kit on his deathbed couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Man of a Thousand Faces is a fine, flawless presentation of the B&W show. It has always looked good on home video, and a thousand times better that what we all originally saw on TV, pan-scanned. The sometimes-interesting sets show that Universal didn’t want to let Cagney down. The same year’s Slaughter on 10th Avenue, even with some location exteriors on the docks, looks as though it were filmed on sets for a TV show. I particularly like the vaudeville theater with the flooded basement, where the Chaneys’ dressing room is located. The sentimental music score by Frank Skinner is a big plus too.
Arrow’s extras offer input from two of the best, Tim Lucas and Kim Newman. Tim’s commentary delivery is as smooth as they come, and is packed with good info from the very top. He opines that Thousand Faces was not as part of any Universal ’50s monster trend, but was initiated on the heels of Cagney and Doris Day’s gangster moll biopic Love Me or Leave Me, something I had not thought of and that makes perfect sense. Lucas points out the constant parade of anachronisms and Fact Fudging by which the screenwriters mold Chaney’s career and personal life into something more narratively symmetrical, but without crying foul: Hollywood biopics of everybody from composers to presidents to historical figures often stretched and chopped reality to better fit the needs of a star vehicle. Roger Corman’s screenwriter R. Wright Campbell retained his credit, but the team of Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts apparently performed a rewrite. Tim reminds us that Goff and Roberts were almost surely brought in by James Cagney — they wrote his big hit White Heat.
My favorite on-camera horror expert for disc added value videos remains Kim Newman. Other commentators must literally read from text (cough), or ramble about hoping to stay in the general neighborhood of the topic at hand. Newman’s mind must be organized like the Smithsonian, for his light-conversational musings deliver an entertaining and enlightening lecture with nary a hem or a haw, and plenty of personality as well. Even his surroundings (always a cluttered writer’s corner) and his dapper threads add to the air of thoughtful bemusement — if only somebody with his personality had taught me algebra in high school. Of course, the commentary and half-hour video talk add up to time well spent because both Tim and Kim are so thoroughly versed in their subject — we know they’re relating salient points of interest, not simply everything they know. Lucas excels in subtext interpretation, while Newman’s take on relevant film history context always seems spot-on.
And both experts know better than to rag on the rubbery makeups, that should be considered only place-holders for the Chaney originals.
The revised book of Reynold Brown posters (and other) art Reynold Brown A Life in Pictures has before-and-after examples of his work for Thousand Faces, that further demonstrate that Universal was pushing Cagney, not Chaney or monsters. In the first sample the visual montage of Chaney horror faces is the main element, and they’re all in full detail. In the final they’ve become sketchy illumination, with glamorous portraits of Cagney and Malone dominating.
I think it needs to be remembered that, in 1957, Chaney’s films had long been out of view — one might see images of The Hunchback or The Phantom in Life Magazine, or a short clip in a theatrical short subject. But things like ‘Mr. Wu’ and The Unknown had dropped off the cultural radar completely. Sure, in 1958 Forrest Ackerman introduced Lon Chaney to a new generation of kids, as well as a new wave of makeup artists. And Chaney’s legacy is today kept reasonably alive on TCM, and through The Warner Archive Collection.
Written with an assist from Kenneth Henderson.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Man of a Thousand Faces
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentary by Tim Lucas; video talk with Kim Newman, image gallery, original trailer; Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys. First pressing only, illustrated booklet with an essay by Vic Pratt.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 10, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson