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Man of a Thousand Faces
One of the best-ever Hollywood biopics, Universal's Man of a Thousand Faces is an almost completely fictionalized telling of the story of Lon Chaney, one of the most interesting of the silent film talents. Chaney's makeup skills were as admired and clucked over as today's CGI special effects, and only decades later did biographers bring out the facts about his fascinating life behind the cameras.
This picture captures some of the flavor of silent Hollywood while grossly misrepresenting Chaney's career; it's really a showcase vehicle for the estimable talents of James Cagney, who takes the movie and runs with it. Half Sirkian soap opera and half showbiz legend, Man of a Thousand Faces proves that historical accuracy isn't essential for great entertainment.
Man of a Thousand Faces combines Universal's penchant for horror films with their upscale women's dramas. In the guise of a reverent eulogy to one of the studio's most revered talents, we see Lon Chaney as a dedicated, warm-hearted and supremely talented trouper (cue James Cagney, in a firmly controlled performance) dealing with prejudice, hardship and heartbreak. In contrast to the flimsy plotting of earlier musical biopics, Chaney's problems are the kind that would make a lesser man bitter and spiteful -- mainly an unfaithful wife who abandons her child and leaves Chaney to the mercy of an unfeeling foster child program.
Cagney's winning personality glosses over the rough edges of the story. Prejudices against hereditary handicaps were so strong in earlier eras that Cleva's fears are entirely understandable. Chaney selfishly hides the information from her and immediately resents her lack of compassion, so it's no surprise that she turns against their relationship. His later grudge against Cleva is the only hint in the movie of the real Chaney's reported unforgiving nature. Modern audiences are likely to regard Cleva in a much more sympathetic light.
Cagney charms us with clever stage clowning and dancing (not in his usual tap style, either) and then fascinates us with his early days as an extra, putting on makeup scars to instantly turn himself into a nefarious-looking Asian pirate. This part of the film is really a valentine to the early days at Universal City, where hopeful extras hung around the casting lot in cowboy duds and tuxedoes, hoping to be chosen by the assistant directors. We see Chaney immediately graduating to star roles and moving from one bizarre makeup triumph to the next. Scenes are recreated from The Miracle Man, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera and The Unholy Three.
Almost everything about this section is inaccurate, presenting Universal as a fairy-tale moviemaking paradise. Chaney worked for years as a respected character actor before getting star roles, and Irving Thalberg (played by the oily Robert Evans) was much more than a rubber stamp for film projects sent from cinema heaven. In fact, Chaney jumped ship to MGM not long after Thalberg became enthroned as Louis B. Mayer's right hand man. The most ironic compliment for the wholly fabricated screenplay by Ralph Wheelwright, R. Wright Campbell, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts is that it was nominated for an Academy Award!
The Universal experts turned their full resources to imitating Chaney's famous makeups, putting Cagney in a series of rubber masks that bear little resemblance to the master's amazing work. Cagney grunts behind a frozen expression as The Phantom and his Hunchback looks like someone poured a ton of latex over his head. Film fans that have read about the real Chaney are right when they say that the actor deserves a more accurate biopic, one that reflects the man's much more troubled personal life. Chaney was no monster, but he also wasn't the essentially warm and softhearted man seen here. The film ends with Chaney and Chaney Jr. spending days of loving harmony on vacation. In real life, young Creighton was starved for fatherly attention of any kind and was harshly dissuaded from even thinking about a life in the movies. The scene of Chaney giving Creighton his makeup kit on his deathbed couldn't be farther from the truth.
Cagney's magnetic presence makes Man of a Thousand Faces great entertainment. His very presence perks up Joe Pevney's direction and inspires a good cast to do exceptional work. Dorothy Malone has one of her best roles as the misunderstood Cleva, while the dreamy Jane Greer (those eyes!) is almost supernaturally patient as the woman waiting to catch Chaney when he's free. Jim Backus is charming as the agent, dispensing details about the silent film period's relationship to vaudeville. Celia Lovsky is endearing as Chaney's mother, bringing forth amusing comparisons between this film and Cagney's White Heat. Marjorie Rambeau's career extra is nicely observed -- really a paycheck-to-paycheck pauper, her Gert lives by putting on dress gowns and pretending to be a society dame. Cagney's sister Jeanne is in the cast, along with bits by Snub Pollard, Russ Bender, Billy Curtis, Troy Donohue, Charles Horvath, Sammee Tong and James Seay. Only Robert Evans seems discordant; he always looked like a weasel stuffed into a tuxedo.
Universal's DVD of Man of a Thousand Faces looks great in enhanced widescreen at its correct CinemaScope aspect ratio; Russell Metty's B&W cinematography is excellent, as is Frank Skinner's sentimental score. But there are no extras, not even the trailer that was on the old MCA laserdisc. Fans intrigued by the legend of Lon Chaney should search out a copy of the fine TCM docu on this unique silent-movie actor. An original trailer (with a commentary by makeup man Rick Baker) is up and viewable at the Trailers from Hell website.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Man of a Thousand Faces rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 20, 2008
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