I always enjoy participating in actor/actress blogathons as they finally force me to open up those individual DVDs I purchased months ago. My choice for the James Cagney blogathon also worked for this week’s Biopic Theater, thus why you’re seeing this post on Monday. Man of a Thousand Faces is a meant to be a biographical dramatization of actor Lon Chaney’s life and death, but it does so by way of James Cagney. The core flaw of the movie though is that Cagney is such an indomitable persona that you never separate Chaney from Cagney. I never felt I was seeing Lon Chaney at all; outside of the recreations of Chaney’s famous film characters, Cagney never physically changes his appearance to look like the man he’s playing (and Lon Chaney bore little resemblance to the actor we’re honoring today). With that being said, Man of a Thousand Faces is a well-put together film that enmesh the melodrama against a heartfelt story of a man who understood adversity, and wanted to change it without words.
Lon Chaney (Cagney) has grown up with taunts of “freak” in his head due to his parents being deaf. As he grows up, he dreams of getting into movies and being able to tell stories for, and about, those less fortunate. Throughout, he wants to protect his son who is at the center of a custody dispute with Chaney’s ex, Cleva (Dorothy Malone).
Man of a Thousand Faces can be compared, and widely contrasted, with Donald O’Connor in The Buster Keaton Story. The 1950s appears to be a good decade for biopics, and both these tales focus on a well-regarded actor known for making audiences laugh and cry, with no words; relics of a silent era that the nation wishes to mythologize. With that, both movies are also grandly fictionalized and are keen on discussing the actor’s relationship with women and family. Where Man of a Thousand Faces diverges from The Buster Keaton Story is in the presentation of the family amongst the melodrama. We don’t forget for a second that Chaney’s inspiration is his parents, and his fierce love for them. As a disabled film lover, it’s hard to watch highly dramatized stories about “overcoming adversity” without finding it gimmicky and here you don’t get that. We don’t pity Chaney or his parents, in fact we respect them for all the crap they’ve put up with. When an ignorant man makes a comment about Chaney’s parents being “mutes,” and quickly backpedals the actor demurely says “Don’t be bothered, it doesn’t bother them.” The writing focuses on a man whose heard it all, and fights back with nonchalance. Him and his family have dealt with ignorance their entire lives, and they’ll keep meeting it. I found the adversity plotline to be developed further than Chaney’s actual film presence. Every decision Chaney makes in his film career, or personal life, is determined by his desires to portray “freaks” as real people. I’m not sure how historically accurate that is, but I applauded it. The movie continues to have Chaney and his family talk via sign language to emphasize it’s not a throwaway gimmick, but truly how they communicate.
The runtime is lengthy, clocking in at two-hours, and Chaney’s acting is an afterthought in the morass of plot points brought together. I’m not sure if this is because Chaney only did so many films, or that audiences are only aware of the horror ones, but there’s not much depth given to his film performances. As with biopics of the 1950s we get several extended sequences of Chaney performing on-stage. Scenes like this always act as if they’re giving the audience a free performance, as well as showcasing the actor’s talents; for me, it’s the best time to get something to drink. Cagney, himself, proves he’s an impresario of vaudeville and physical comedy, but if you know the basics of Cagney’s upbringing then you shouldn’t be surprised. Over an hour into the plot the audience sees Chaney made up as Quasimodo and The Phantom, two of the actors iconic roles. Chaney says, “I got a box full of faces…A whole box full” which we see throughout the tale. The story doesn’t necessarily resolve what Chaney’s “faces” mean to him. The issue is, that the plot wants to make the various faces be an extension of Chaney himself which doesn’t always work, particularly once Chaney has a falling out with his son. We’ve never seen Chaney outright hostile to those he loves, so when he turns on Creighton (aka Lon Chaney Jr.) it’s the script’s attempt to inject the movie with a father/son drama focused on the son desiring to take over the father’s role.
Speaking of, let’s look at the melodrama, and make no mistake this is a soapy melodrama. It’s not a criticism against the movie, per se. The script and acting are so fantastic that the story never completely crumbles into the typical “I love you, I hate you” of 1950s melodrama; it’s just that this becomes a kitchen sink tale with every complication thrown in; and not all of it actually came to fruition in Chaney’s biography. We first meet Chaney with his wife Cleva, nee Frances Chaney. Malone is right at home in this, and does play an overall nicer character than she did in Written on the Wind, which was the last thing I saw her in. In the few scenes where the Chaney’s are happy, we understand their dynamic; they’re not compatible for each other, but they’re crazy for each other in spite of it. That all changes once Cleva meets Lon’s family. Now, according to what I read on Chaney prior to this review, Frances was aware Lon’s parents were deaf and had met them several times. Portrayed here, Cleva is incredibly uncomfortable (I guess because she assumes deafness is contagious) and doesn’t want to have Lon’s baby because she’s afraid she’ll be mother to a “dumb thing.” She went from sweet character to Devil’s wife in thirty seconds, and the movie never really explains her logic for this personality shift. Yes, she’s afraid of the baby being deaf, but Lon tells her that he and his three siblings are all fine. The script doesn’t imbue Cleva with enough personality to make this anything more than forcing her on us as the villain. I will say that Dorothy Malone is great in these overwrought moments, and Cagney meets her measure for measure. Later on, the movie doesn’t seem to like the tactic of Cleva disliking deaf people – especially once it’s discovered that little Creighton isn’t deaf – so the Chaney’s separate over Cleva wanting a career as well as a family. Being 1957, we can’t have that, and with all that’s happened before, we’re supposed to see it as a smokescreen. When Chaney, dressed as Quasimodo, confronts Cleva after several years, it’s almost comical in the way we see a makeshift Quasi confronting his Esmeralda
The other female in Chaney’s life is his second wife Hazel (Jane Greer). Geer gets to be the second banana playing the sympathetic and compassionate wife. She’s the mother figure, and the role doesn’t do anything to stretch Greer. We get a moment where Chaney punches out her rough-handed beau, only to discover the man has no legs. It feels like an apocryphal story, especially since we’ve seen Chaney’s drive to highlight adversity. Hazel’s moment in the spotlight comes when she proposes to Lon, and while the audience understands her love for him, she posits it under the guise of getting Creighton back (who has been in foster homes since his parents divorce). The entire Creighton storyline is the weepy element that becomes laughably ridiculous. According to sources, Lon Chaney Jr. grew up in various boarding schools, and I never found anything about his time spent in an orphanage as the narrative claims. Second of all, the court would consider a “suitable home” one that has a mother? It must be true because once Lon and Hazel get married, little Creighton is back at home. So remember all, if you lose custody of your children, and you’re single, just get married and all is right! Again, this makes Hazel a character too willing to grovel, and Greer spends far too much time sitting in corners looking concerned. It’s not the best role for her.
Of course, the biggest flaw is Cagney’s own limited ability to transform. He’s fantastic in the role, but he’s fantastic in the role of James Cagney, not Lon Chaney. Outside of the makeup from Chaney’s role, we never see Cagney play anything beyond that. He’s a tough presence, works well with the material and the other actors, but he’s James Cagney. I would never consider this a perfect Lon Chaney biopic, but I’d recommend it to fans who want to see Cagney at his best. Keep in mind, Cagney’s persona is so profound, I had to reread this and change several sentences where I meant to say “Chaney” and typed “Cagney,” that’s how pervasive his persona is.
Overall, I’d recommend Man of a Thousand Faces to fans who want to see James Cagney take on a man whose face was just as famous as his. The movie is a soapy melodrama that gets in over its head, but the performances from Cagney and Dorothy Malone are spellbinding.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.