Man of a Thousand Faces is an opportunity for James Cagney, a screen legend in his own right, to pay tribute to one of cinema’s greatest icons, the irreplaceable silent cinema legend Lon Chaney.
For all his talent and success, Chaney’s life was plagued by heartache. This movie covers every step of the actor’s career, from vaudeville to Hollywood with all of the dark parts in between.
Arrow Video has brought this to blu ray for the first time and the results are amazing. This film looks gorgeous in high definition.
Director Joseph Pevney also got his start in vaudeville as a boy soprano before finding his way to the theater. He had a short career as a film actor before directing nearly 80 features and plenty of TV. He tied Marc Daniels for directing the largest number of Star Trek episodes, including “The Devil in the Dark, “Arena”, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, “Amok Time”, “Journey to Babel” and “The Trouble with Tribbles.”
Lon Chaney (Cagney) is a vaudeville actor looking for success, which means working for the famous comedy dup Kolb and Dill (Clarence Kolb plays himself in this, while Danny Beck plays his partner Max Dill). When his wife Cleva (Dorothy Malone, Constance MacKenzie from Peyton Place) is pregnant, she asks him to meet his family. He’s reluctant to do so as his mother and father are both deaf and mute. He was probably right to do so, as Cleva overreacts, worried that her child will be a freak.
The good news is that Creighton is born and is normal, but Lon’s and Cleva’s marriage doesn’t survive. She’s back in the theater life and sleeping with a patron unbeknownst to Chaney, who keeps leaving his son in the care of his platonic friend Hazel Hastings (Jane Greer, Vivian Smythe Niles from Twin Peaks), who has her own issues with her ex-husband, who has grown bitter due to losing his legs. Cleva discovers Lon consoling Hazel and runs away. Days later, our protagonist is on stage in clown makeup when his wife enters and drinks a bottle of acid in front of the entire audience.
The scandal destroys Lon’s career in vaudeville with the state taking young Creighton away from him. That’s when he goes to Hollywood and begins working with Clarence Locan (Jim Backus).
Even though Lon starts as just an extra, his work ethic makes him a featured player in short order. He’s then cast in The Miracle Man as a man who is dramatically able to walk again.
Despite the success of his career, Lon faces a rough life. Sure, Hazel comes back and marries him, leading to Creighton being able to move back, but his ex-wife also comes back, seeking to reunite with the son who believes that she is dead.
By 1930, Lon has lost his son and is suffering from cancer on the set of The Unholy Three. Of course, this being a Hollywood version of his life, he reconciles with his son and returns home to die, giving his son his makeup case, allowing him to become an actor.
There are a lot of great stories behind the actors in this film. For example, Marjorie Rambeau plays Gert, a woman who helps Chaney when he first gets to Hollywood. Rambeau started her showbiz career in Nome, Alaska, where her mother had taken her after a divorce. There, she dressed Marjorie as a boy to keep away drunken grown men as she played the banjo and sang in saloons. She made her Broadway debut in 1913 and was already a star within two years. Dorothy Parker was so moved by seeing her that she wrote this poem: “If all the tears you shed so lavishly / Were gathered, as they left each brimming eye. / And were collected in a crystal sea, / The envious ocean would curl up and dry— / So awful in its mightiness, that lake, / So fathomless, that clear and salty deep. / For, oh, it seems your gentle heart must break, / To see you weep.”
Additionally, Rambeau was so famous that restaurants often courted her to eat at their establishments. One such place was Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen in New York City, which Rambeau attended late one night after a performance. The place was nearly out of food, so the sandwich they concocted for her was a mix of different ingredients that came to be known as the Rueben.
Man of a Thousand Faces was her final film role.
Creighton — later Lon Chaney Jr. — was played by Roger Smith, who starred on 77 Sunset Strip. He’d go on to become the manager for his wife Ann-Margaret, as well as writing and producing the Joe Namath movie C.C. and Company.
The studio doctor, Dr. J. Wilson Shields, was played by Jack Albertson, who of course would later play Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and co-star with Freddie Prinze on Chico and the Man. He’s also William G. Dobbs, the man behind everything in the astounding 1981 horror film Dead and Buried.
There’s also a comedy pie fight scene that features the last surviving member of the Keystone Kops, Hank Mann, as well as Australian vaudevillian Snub Pollard.
Finally, studio mogul Irving Thalberg was played by a man who would do very much the same in his second career, shaping much of the Hollywood of the 1970’s. That’s Robert Evans, selected by Thalberg’s widow, actress Norma Shearer.
To be fair, not all of this movie is 100% accurate. Much of the movie was sanitized and fictionalized. While it’s true that Lon Chaney didn’t want his son to be an actor, the truth is that Creighton was working at an L.A. water heater company at the time of his father’s death. After that company failed, he started acting under his real name. He didn’t take on the name Lon Chaney Jr. until 1935’s A Scream In the Night.
Chaney was ashamed of taking on that name and was mostly a supporting actor until 1941’s The Wolfman, the movie that changed his career forever, with roles in horror franchises like Inner Sanctum movies and having the distinction of being the only actor to play every one of the Universal monsters: the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy and Count Dracula.
After watching this movie and learning about his life, it’s easy to see why Chaney drank for his entire life. However, there are differentiating stories about what he was really like.
Chaney was beloved and consider sweet by many, as he often befriended and protected young actors and older ones who were down on their luck. For example, William Farnum had once been the biggest silent actor in all of Hollywood. By The Mummy’s Curse in 1944, he was a down on his luck bit player. However, Chaney demanded that Farnum be given his own chair and be treated with respect — or else he’d quit the movie.
However, he nearly murdered actor Frank Reicher on the set of The Mummy’s Ghost and broke a vase over director Robert Siodmak’s head (either during the making of Son of Dracula or Cobra Woman). Robert Stack would write later than the only monsters at Universal were the drunken team of Chaney and Broderick Crawford, who would often tear the studio to bits.
Back to the film — while Lon Sr. is shown dying at home, he really died in the hospital. And the makeup in this film differs greatly from the actual work Chaney did, that was based on using a minimum of makeup, while the pieces in Man of a Thousand Faces use full latex appliances from Bud Westmore*, who also created the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the makeup for Barbie.
The extras on this disc include new audio commentary by film scholar Tim Lucas as well as The Man Behind a Thousand Faces, a newly filmed look at Lon Chaney and his legacy by the critic Kim Newman. Plus, Arrow has included the original poster artwork and new art from Graham Humphreys.
You can get this from Arrow Video.
DISCLAIMER: We were sent this movie for review by Arrow Video. That has no impact on our thoughts.
*Thanks to Craig Edwards, who let me know “Bud Westmore had almost nothing to do with the design or creation of Creature from the Black Lagoon. That honor goes to Milicent Patrick.”