During the silent era, Lon Chaney made a series of unforgettable films including The Hunchback of Note Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Released in 1957, Man of A Thousand Faces is loosely based on his life story. James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy) stars as Chaney. While it’s true that Cagney was both a bit long in the tooth for the role and at fifty-seven a bit old (Chaney died at forty-seven). However, his powerful personality and strong dramatic skills make for one of the finest performances of Cagney’s storied career.
As the story opens, Chaney is a young boy. He has just gotten into a scrum with some neighborhood kids who had been making fun of his deaf and dumb parents. Communicating with his parents with his body and sign language, helped Lon develop a gift for pantomime, which years later, would land him work in vaudeville, where his clown act earned plenty of laughs. While touring with the act, Lon meets Cleva Creighton (Dorothy Malone) a beautiful young singer and his future bride. While on tour together, Cleva’s announcement that she’s pregnant has Lon insisting she give up her career and become a full-time mother. Terrified the baby will be born deaf and reluctant to give up her independence, Cleva gives birth to a son, son. The boy quickly becomes the apple of his father’s eye, but Cleva eventually abandoned the boy for a career of her own. Lon files for divorce only to have his heart broken when the courts order Creighton be placed in foster care. Desperate to get his son back, Lon heads to Hollywood, where he takes every extra job he can get. Lon’s ability with makeup is brought to the studios’ attention with the help of his agent Clarence (Jim Backus, Pete’s Dragon) and Lon’s talents are soon in demand. Lon ultimately regains custody of Creighton after marrying a former stage acquaintance, Hazel Bennett (Jane Greer), and career wise, he would go on to create some of the most memorable characters in silent film history.
Cleva’s erratic behavior is somewhat overplayed; leaving less time to play out the close, but fraught with conflict, relationship between Lon and his son Creighton (played at different ages by Dennis Rush, Rickie Sorenson, Robert Lyden and Roger Smith). It’s an underdeveloped aspect of the story, that by the film’s own admission, was the central relationship in Lon Chaney’s life. As a result, the final scene when Lon bequeaths his makeup case to Creighton (who would change his name to Lon Chaney Jr.) doesn’t have quite the emotional impact one might have expected.
Flaws and half-truths aside, Man of A Thousand Faces features a brilliant turn from James Cagney. Even when the screenplay gets a bit schmaltzy, he rises above it. Cagney is surrounded by a strong supporting cast including Dorothy Malone as Cleva; Jane Greer as Hazel; Jim Backus as Clarence and Robert Evans as Irving Thalberg.
Presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer looks quite good, though there are some slight issues. Sharpness is solid, though some wider shots exhibit minor softness. Grain looks natural. Blacks look deep and inky. Low light shots have a nice level of clarity. I noticed only a few minor print flaws. I saw some small specks on a couple of occasions and thin lines on the side of the screen three or four times throughout the presentation.
The DTS-HD MA 1.0 soundtrack is perfectly adequate for its age. Dialogue is clean, clear and concise throughout. Music is bright and airy, while effects sound widely concise. While the track is nothing particularly special, it seems well mixed.
English subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Audio Commentary with Film Scholar Tim Lucas: In this running, screen-specific commentary, he provides a look at the film’s liberties, the projects path to the screen, cast and crew information, etc.,
- The Man Behind A Thousand Faces (HD, 20:53) Film historian Kim Newman discusses silent film and Lon Chaney’s career and legacy. Provides a succinct overview.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 1:33)
- Image Galleries
- Production Stills (HD, 13:30)
- Posters and Lobby Cards (2:50)
Booklet: Featuring an essay by writer Vic Pratt, original review snippets, and photos and posters.
Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
Movie title: Man of a Thousand Faces
Director(s): Joseph Pevney
Actor(s): James Cagney , Dorothy Malone , Jane Greer , Marjorie Rambeau , Jim Backus , Robert Evans
Genre: Drama, Biography