Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
When you know the name of the movie Man of a Thousand Faces, there’s no shock what it’s going to be about. Lon Chaney was a fascinating actor. While the silent era wasn’t specifically defined by him, there’s no question that his influence on early film was massive. Man of a Thousand Faces is naturally going to explore some of those early films, especially those that he was the most famous for. We’re also going to get a great deal of his home life, much of which is going to be very messed up.
We’re not going to get a great deal of Chaney’s early life. We learn really only that his parents were both deaf-mutes and that he went into show business. Chaney (James Cagney) works in a vaudeville show with his wife Cleva (Dorothy Malone), who is a singer. She’s also perpetually angering the owners of various shows and theaters by never being ready in time. When she’s late again, Lon covers for her, but she is still fired from the show. Lon quits, too. Cleva tells him that she’s aware he was contacted for a show in California, and that she is pregnant.
So off they go, stopping to meet the family on the way. It’s here that Cleva discovers that Lon’s parents are both deaf and unable to speak. It’s also here that we in the audience learn that Cleva is not really a very decent person. This knowledge makes her, more or less, reevaluate her marriage and her pregnancy since she doesn’t want to have a child who might be deaf. Yikes. Seriously.
Anyway, eventually the child is born, and anyone who’s seen a cheap horror movie from the ‘50s or ‘60s knows that their son Creighton eventually became Lon Chaney Jr. However, things are not rosy in the Chaney marriage. Cleva, without Lon knowing it, starts working again as a singer and also starts being romanced romanced by a man who frequents the club. Because of this, young Creighton is often dropped off at Lon’s theater and, when Lon is on stage, left in the care of Hazel Hastings (Jane Greer). When Lon gets his wife fired so that she will take care of their son, she runs off, and eventually shows up on stage during Lon’s act and drinks a bottle of weak acid that destroys her vocal chords.
The next bit of trauma happens after the divorce. While Cleva obviously can’t be given custody, the court decides that Lon isn’t an appropriate parent either, since he has no regular home and no regular income. Creighton is placed in an orphanage, and, needing the work, Lon heads to California and starts to work in film. After a few years of fighting to get his son back, Hazel shows up again, escorted back into Lon’s life by Lon’s long-time friend and press agent Clarence Locan (Jim Backus). They marry, Creighton is returned to the fold, and Lon’s career continues to take off.
The trauma in the second half of the film comes from two places. As expected, a great deal of it comes from Cleva, who tries to insert herself back into her son’s life despite his having been told that she is dead. The other problem is the death of Lon Chaney, which happened far too young.
There are a few things that make Man of a Thousand Faces worth seeing. The first and main reason is James Cagney. Cagney was usually worth watching; here he is the main reason that this film is memorable at all. When he had a good role, Cagney could do just about anything and do it well. Here, he is immediately compelling, and demonstrates that he was a very capable physical actor as well. While the various makeups that Chaney used for his characters are mainly duplicated with masks here, there is a sequence where he duplicates Chaney’s work on an old film called The Miracle Man that is truly impressive.
The history of some of these films is impressive as well. It might be lost on a people who aren’t interested in the silent era or in Chaney specifically, but it’s great to see some of this stuff. I’d have loved quite a bit more of it, honestly. Seeing scenes from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera are expected, of course, but I’d have loved to have seen Laugh, Clown, Laugh more or something from The Unknown or The Penalty.
The rest is, well, just in support of Cagney’s performance, and it’s pretty straightforward and pretty standard, tropey film stuff. Jim Backus is surprisingly good and entertaining, but everything else strikes very close to melodrama. Dorothy Malone does her best to play up the crazy, but it’s a pretty thankless role. For her part, Jane Greer exists only to support Lon Chaney and doesn’t have much of a personality otherwise. Perhaps the weirdest performance comes from Robert Evans as Irving Thalberg, who doesn’t seem to fit at all.
Man of a thousand Faces is an interesting film in a lot of ways because of the history it shows. As a biopic, it also seems to come pretty close in the main to the actual life story of Lon Chaney. The problem is that these are really the only interesting parts of the film, and there should be a lot more here that’s interesting.
Why to watch Man of a Thousand Faces: When Cagney had a role to sink his teeth into, there were few better.
Why not to watch: Chaney’s first marriage.