|Available at Amazon.com|
Lon Chaney made himself a legend by portraying the unusual—the outcasts shunned by society who were often made to feel monstrous—and sometimes had to act that way because the world left them no other choice. Billed as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” Chaney used a combination of makeup, pantomime, and special effects to bring these characters to life, often at the risk of his health. For one of his most famous roles—Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame—Chaney reportedly wore a fifty pound hump harness to more effectively play the character. When the actor died in 1930 MGM halted all production for the day and observed a moment of silence. This is where the movie begins.
In an interesting bit of metafiction, the movie opens with legendary producer Irving Thalberg giving a eulogy for Chaney in front of a blank projection screen. Thalberg speaks of the indelible impact Chaney had on the motion picture industry and hints at the trials and sacrifices the actor had to overcome to achieve success. From there Thalberg steps aside and the movie begins.
What follows is an accurate yet skewed abbreviation of Chaney’s life. One of the most interesting things I learned was that his parents were both deaf. This impacted his entire life; as a boy he spent most of his time either taking care of them or defending them from bullies. Later on, as he grew, the skills he learned in non-verbal communication served him well in vaudeville and later the movies. The movie portrays Chaney as being conflicted about his parents’ disability—alternately proud and ashamed.
I think many viewers will share my reaction to this part of Chaney’s life. At first I couldn’t understand why this was such a big deal. Chaney’s shame over his parents’ disability seemed childish and soured my view of him; however, I had to remind myself that this was a different time with a different set of values.
Of course, Chaney’s reaction is nothing compared to that of his first wife, Cleva Creighton. She saw the Chaneys as freaks, as monstrosities, taking her revulsion to the point where she didn’t want to have Lon’s son for fear that he would turn out deaf. I spent most of the movie hating Cleva and wishing she would die, and I have to wonder how much of her portrayal was history and how much was Hollywood revision. But that’s a problem found in most biographical movies, and certainly Man of a Thousand Faces is unashamedly pro-Chaney.
If you can get past that skepticism, though, you’ll find that this is a good movie. It’s nothing particularly great or innovative—in fact, you could easily diagram it using the standard plot model—but it’s enjoyable, especially because of James Cagney’s performance as Lon Chaney.
Like Chaney, Cagney has pretty much been typecast by history, but where Chaney is seen as a master of horror, Cagney is best remembered as the gangster. ‘Top of the world, ma,’ and all that. So I found it refreshing to see him in a different role, and I can definitely see why he’s considered to be such a good actor. He definitely does Lon Chaney justice with this portrayal.
The movie was presented in 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen and it looks very good. It’s been digitally remastered for this DVD release, and it’s clear that a great deal of time and effort was put into the restoration. The same goes for the sound, which was Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono.
There were no special features for this DVD production.
This is a great piece of old Hollywood filmmaking. Anyone interested in Lon Chaney or anyone just out for a good old black and white movie could do a lot worse than this. Recommended.
Universal Studios presents Man of a Thousand Faces. Directed by Joseph Pevney. Starring James Cagney, Dorothy Malone, and Jane Greer. Written by R. Wright Campbell, Ivan Goff, and Ben Roberts. Running time: 122 minutes. Rated NR. Released on DVD: June 24, 2008. Available at Amazon.com.