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October 22, 2019

Man of a Thousand Faces

man of 1000 faces.jpg

Joseph Pevney - 1957
Arrow Films BD Region A

I first was aware of Lon Chaney several years before I saw any of his films. I was ten or eleven years old when I discovered a magazine, "Famous Monsters of Filmland" in the early 1960s. There was always something about Lon Chaney in what seemed like every issue, usually stills from his films, made in that long ago silent film era. My memory may be off, but it seems like the first time I actually saw a film starring Lon Chaney, and not some brief excerpt, was sometime in the later half of the 60s, when The Hunchback of Notre Dame appeared on the educational TV channel. Not too long after that, I saw the biographical film starring James Cagney as Chaney, on late night broadcast TV.

Disregarding the fictionalization of events, revisiting the film was a pleasant surprise. Pevney may at best be regarded by film critics as a journeyman, but seeing Man of a Thousand Faces in its intended CinemaScope presentation displays interesting, if not consistent, use of the wide screen. There are several shots of two characters where Pevney will have one actor in the foreground with the other actor on the opposite half of the screen seen further back. Most of the time, the actors are filmed in medium or full shots. The one tight close-up is that of Dorothy Malone as Chaney's first wife, Cleva, crying about the possibility that her yet to be born child may be speech and hearing impaired. There is also the use of shadows. A stage act with Chaney as a comic tramp shows him dancing with a giant shadow in the background, a shadow that sometimes has its own dance moves until it is unceremoniously yanked off stage. But there are also several moments that visually recall film noir. In one shot of Lon and Cleva Chaney in their home, the shadow of intricate lattice woodwork makes it appear that Dorothy Malone has been caught in a web.

Taking the narrative on its own terms, two of the major dramatic moments are tied to family secrets withheld by Chaney. There is also the instant karma where Chaney has decided to leave Cleva after discovering her infidelity. Cleva walks in to see Lon showing friendly, though not sexual, affection towards Hazel, the chorus girl who later becomes his second wife. Soon after, Lon knocks down a tall man who is threatening Hazel. That particular scene packs a punch, as the man who grew up sensitive to his parents teased by other for being differently abled, finds himself on the wrong side.

At age 57, James Cagney was ten years older than Lon Chaney at the time of the actor's death. In spite of being too old to be convincing as a younger man, Cagney's casting plays on some similarities of both man. Cagney also began his career on stage as a dancer and comic. While Cagney's comic timing found its way on film, his skill on his feet were never properly exploited with the obvious exception being Yankee Doodle Dandy and a remarkable moment of the still fresh actor skipping across a dance floor in Other Men's Women from 1930. There is a joy in watching Cagney showing off his hoofing abilities several times as the comic tramp, letting the audience know that he's not diminished by age.

For the facts about Lon Chaney's life, as well as notes about the production of Man of a Thousand Faces, there is the commentary by Tim Lucas. This is a deep dive into the ways in which the film takes artistic license with the facts, with various anecdotes along the way, such as how a young business executive, Robert J. Evans, was cast due to his resemblance to studio executive Irving Thalberg, with life following art almost a decade later when the former actor was in charge of production at Paramount. A more factual film might have been even more dramatic as indicated by such incidents as the premature birth of son Creighton Chaney. Lucas also points out how the film came just prior to Universal selling its older horror films to television to renewed popularity, as well as producing several horror tinged science fiction films.

Film historian discusses Lon Chaney's career in a short supplement. He makes an interesting point about the perception of time regarding film history. While Man of a Thousand Faces was released about thirty years after the end of the silent era, the films and actors of that time were perceived of as older than the way many of us think of actors and films from the 1980s or 90s. Taken on its own terms, Man of a Thousand Faces is fairly solid entertainment. Better are the still available films starring Lon Chaney.

Of additional note is that the SDH captions are useful in providing captions for the sign language used in the scenes with Lon Chaney's parents.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 22, 2019 07:53 AM