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MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957)

Man of a Thousand Faces - CoverArrow Academy’ have recently released a digitally enhanced version of the Lon Chaney biopic, ’Man of a Thousand Faces’. It was directed by Joseph Pevney; it starred James Cagney, Dorothy Malone, Jane Greer, Robert Evans, and Jim Backus; and it lasts for 122 minutes. Plus, as an extra added bonus, the Blu-ray edition comes with an image gallery, the original theatrical trailer, a brand new audio commentary narrated by the film scholar, Tim Lucas, as well as a visual essay on Lon by the critic, Kim Newman. Please enjoy.


Man Of A Thousand Faces [Arrow Academy]


THE STORY:
When you look at me, Cleva (Dorothy Malone), what do you see? Do you see a foolish man who was too scared to tell his expectant wife that his mother and father were both deaf? Or do you see a troubled entertainer that gradually pushed his wife away because she put her career in front of our child? Go on, tell me which one seems more appropriate, and then once you’ve done that, roll it up, throw it away, and remember who I really am: I’m your husband, Lon Chaney (James Cagney), otherwise known as the man of a thousand faces!

Well, maybe not exactly a thousand faces, per se, but throughout my career on stage and screen, I came pretty close to that number! After all, during my time in vaudeville, I played a clown, I played an old maid, and I played a single parent father trying his best to look after his only child. While, on the big screen, I played a cripple, I played a monster, and I played a family man who got annoyed when his ex-wife eventually returned.

But then again, that’s most probably why what next transpires puts on a happy face when make-up and make-believe clash. As a child is made to look like a chump – Quasimodo finally gets the right hump – the Phantom receives a quick kick up the rump – and at the end of the day, please remember, a legendary entertainer ends his career with one final jump.




THE REVIEW:
Before we begin, please allow me to make a couple of things perfectly clear. I’m a big fan of the Golden Age of cinema and am fairly knowledgeable about the life and times of James Cagney, Lon Chaney, and Lon Chaney Junior. So much so, in fact, that I was slightly conflicted when I finally sat down to watch this film. On the one hand, I just love learning about this period of history (1890 to 1930) as well as the three aforementioned actors. While, on the other hand, I know that biopics can sometimes stretch the truth and transform what’s real into a fictional reality.

Man of a Thousand Faces - James Cagney, Dorothy Malone, Jane Greer
Well, let’s face it, taking somebody’s life and then shrinking it down to a two-hour movie isn’t always easy and isn’t always appropriate. Not only because life can be complicated and very difficult to interpret, but in addition to this, perspective can diminish over time, along with some of the facts and details associated with the person in question.

For example, in “Man of a Thousand Faces”, Lon’s first wife, Cleva, was shown to be a pretty mixed up individual due to her shameful attitude towards Lon’s parents (namely, their disability) and her need to put her successful career in front of her family's wellbeing. But in real life, the opposite was true, because she wasn’t ashamed of Lon’s parents and her career wasn’t very successful. If anything, she managed to destroy her career as she drank too much, had an affair with another man, and finally attempted to overdose on pills before disappearing from everyone’s life. After a while, though, she eventually returned to her family and reunited with her estranged son, Creighton, but not until Lon passed away and she was mentioned in his will (she was given one dollar so she couldn’t contest it).

But with that said, if you‘re the type of person who’s able to look past some of these factual flaws, overall, I’d say you’d enjoy watching this film because it was entertaining, charming, and managed to present us with some -- I repeat, some -- of the stepping stones scattered throughout Lon Chaney’s life. This included things like, who he was (Lon), where he came from (Colorado), who he was related to (Mum, Dad, Wives, Siblings, etc.), and of course, what his career was like on both stage and screen (theatrical and cinematic).


Man of a Thousand Faces - The Phantom


Admittedly, Lon's reimagined story was fairly fractured in places and didn’t go into too much depth about his creative process or his relationships with other people in the industry. But what it does do, is give us a basic impression of who he was as a human being and what he ultimately stood for. Namely, standing up for the underdog and representing those of us who don’t conform to society's conventions. The conventions he subsequently shattered when he took out his box of magic tricks and transformed himself into such characters as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, plus, many, many more.

Man of a Thousand Faces - Poster
Anyway, that’s enough of that for the time being, because now I think we should sit back, relax, and check out the following filmic facts: (1) ‘Universal’ first released this picture in New York, New York, on the exact same day Kathleen Gati was born. She’s a Canadian actress, and the date was the 13th of August, 1957. (2) Four years before playing Lon Chaney in this movie, James Cagney acted alongside his son, Creighton, in the 1953 thriller, ‘A Lion is in the Streets’. (3) In one scene featured in this film, James Cagney re-enacts the part Lon Chaney played in the 1919 silent classic, ‘The Miracle Man’. Coincidentally, the screenplay for this silent film was adapted for the stage by George M. Cohan, who Cagney played in the 1942 biopic, ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’. (4) One of the taglines used to promote this picture, states, ‘Only Two Women Knew The Secret Behind Lon Chaney, The Fabulous Man Of A Thousand Faces!’. (5) The majority of this movie was shot inside 'Universal Studios', Stage 28, located at 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, California. (6) Robert Evans was cast into the role of Irving Thalberg on the recommendation of Irving’s wife, Norma Shearer! According to her, Robert looked like her late husband and insisted that he’d get the part, despite him never acting in a film before. Afterwards, Robert continued to act for a short while, until he eventually became the head of 'Paramount Studios' and produced such classics as 'The Godfather', 'Chinatown', 'Marathon Man', and many many more. (7) There's two theatrical connections hidden within this film, with the first one going to the woman who played Lon’s Mum, Celia Lovsky, who is in fact the first wife of Peter Lorre, whereas the second connection goes to the woman who played Lon’s sister, Jeanne Cagney, who’s the sister of James Cagney. (8) Unfortunately, this film marks the last time Philip Van Zandt, Clarence Kolb, and Marjorie Rambeau would appear in a full-length feature, as Philip committed suicide in 1958, Clarence had a stroke in 1964, and Marjorie died of natural causes in 1970.


Lon Chaney


In closing my review of “Man of a Thousand Faces”, I would just like to praise some of the great actors and actresses who starred in this film. Dorothy Malone, for instance, played Cleva as if she were an angelic angel possessed by demons beyond her control, whereas Jane Greer, on the other hand, was equally angelic in her part of Hazel, albeit far more wholesome in comparison. Up next, I want to mention Marjorie Rambeau (Gert), Jim Backus (Clarence), Robert Evans (Irving Thalberg), Celia Lovsky (Mrs. Chaney), and the four kids who played Creighton (synergy) because each and every one of them gave this film a degree of authenticity by portraying real people with real personalities. And as for James Cagney? Well, in his case, despite not looking like Chaney (his face was too round), sounding like Chaney (his voice was too high), or being the same age as Chaney (he was older by twenty years), all in all, he managed to channel the spirit of Lon Chaney by acting tough, working hard, and taking on his stoic edge and versatile demeanour, regardless of the situation.

Man of a Thousand Faces - James Cagney, Robert Evans
Well, with some benefit of hindsight, it is pretty safe to say that these two men had quite a lot in common, as they were both professional actors who started their careers on stage and then gradually made it onto the big screen. They also married women who were performers, traveled from town to town for most of their lives, and they carved out their own specific cinematic paths -- crime, for Cagney; and melodrama, for Chaney -- keeping in mind that they both had an artistic yet disciplined side to their personas. That said, however, the one thing that pulls them apart, is that Cagney lived on to become an acting legend while Chaney tragically passed away at the height of his fame, 1930 (Coincidentally, this was the same year Chaney starred in his last film, ‘The Unholy Three’, and Cagney starred in his first, ‘Sinners’ Holiday’).

As for this film, though? Well, if you haven’t guessed by now, you can easily say that I’m biased, very very biased, because even though it isn’t authentic or highly accurate, at the same time, it’s a wonderful slice of cinema that's simple to follow, charming to watch, and is definitely recommended to those of you who are fans of silent film, James, Lon, and Junior.

THE RATING: A

MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957) MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957) Reviewed by David Andrews on October 28, 2019 Rating: 5

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