October 26, 2019


Starring James Cagney, Dorothy Malone, Jane Greer, Jim Backus, Marjorie Rambeau, Roger Smith, Robert Evans. Directed by Joseph Pevney. (122 min)

Review by Mr. Paws😸

Man of a Thousand Faces is another one of those films that showcases the underappreciated versatility of James Cagney. Since he was already one of Hollywood’s most instantly recognizable faces, it’s sort of ironic that Cagney gave one of his best performances by convincingly portraying a man who made a career from being unrecognizable.

This is the story of silent film star Lon Chaney, who was quite versatile himself, but became a superstar for his iconic roles – and his own monstrous make-up work - in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera. Before that, though, Chaney was a popular vaudeville performer along with his first wife, Cleva (Dorothy Malone), who turns out to be kind-of an awful person, first-demonstrated by her reaction upon learning Chaney’s parents are both deaf and selfishly stating she no longer wants his child she’s carrying.

But their baby, Creighton, turns out fine. Chaney finds some success as a performer, but Cleva grows resentful at putting her own career on hold to raise their son. She tries to resume her singing career while neglecting Creighton and Chaney. When he manages to get her fired, she drinks a poison that permanently ruins her voice, then disappears completely. The scandal ends his vaudeville career and temporarily lands Creighton in a Foster home.

On the advice of his agent, Clarence (Jim Backus), Chaney reluctantly goes to Hollywood to try and break into movies. His work ethic and make-up skills keep him steadily employed until his big break in The Miracle Man. Star-making roles in Hunchback and Phantom soon follow. Chaney eventually finds love with former vaudeville colleague, Hazel (Jane Greer), who’s also the loving mother Creighton never had as a little boy. However, Cleva re-enters the picture years later, complicating matters because Chaney told Creighton she was dead.

Man of a Thousand Dandruff Flakes.
Man of a Thousand Faces is a film of two halves. The first half, Chaney’s vaudeville years, is probably the most revealing since it establishes the man as fiercely protective of his son, perhaps at the expense of his first marriage (she’s alarmingly narcissistic, but Chaney had a hand in driving her away). In the second half, Chaney’s movie career takes a back-seat to the turmoil of his personal life (including his deteriorating relationship with Creighton). The film takes a lot of creative liberties regarding accuracy, but it’s great dramatic entertainment dominated by Cagney’s powerful performance.

Creighton, of course, would someday become famous in his own right as Lon Chaney, Jr. and I often found myself wondering what he thought of this film. I also wonder if having him play his own dad was ever considered, especially since Cagney looked nothing like Chaney. On the other hand, Cagney manages to make Chaney a Man of a Thousand and one Faces (to riff a line from the film), giving this legend a complexity I doubt Junior could’ve mustered.

As for this disc from Arrow Academy, it's relatively light on bonus features (for them, anyway), but as usual, the restoration looks and sounds great.

"THE MAN BEHIND A THOUSAND FACES” - Film historian/critic Kim Newman (no stranger to Arrow supplemental features) discusses Chaney’s career and influence.
AUDIO COMMENTARY – By historian Tim Lucas
SUPPLEMENTAL BOOKLET – Cast/crew credits, restoration credits, film reviews from 1957 and a great essay, “Larger Than Life: Revisiting Man of a Thousand Faces,” by film writer Vic Pratt.
REVERSIBLE COVER – Features new and original artwork (we kinda like the new one).


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