Separating Fact From Fiction In ‘Man Of A Thousand Faces’

by Rachel Bellwoar

A dramatized biopic on Lon Chaney’s life, Man of a Thousand Faces begins the day after Chaney’s death. Producer, Irving Thalberg (Robert Evans), is giving a speech when the film cycles back to Chaney’s childhood. From there the film moves in chronological order (the framing device, of Thalberg’s speech, having been dropped), but doesn’t get to Chaney’s film career until much later, after a long stretch on his first wife, Cleva (Dorothy Malone), and their son, Creighton (played at various ages and who in real life went on to have his own acting career as Lon Chaney, or Lon Chaney Jr.).

Structuring the film this way is a mixed bag, especially since the title makes it sound like the movie will be devoted to Chaney’s Hollywood years. It’s not that Chaney’s early years in vaudeville aren’t important or that growing up with deaf parents didn’t influence his pantomime, but if you’re here for a deep dive on how he came up with his make-ups, then you’re going to be disappointed.
There’s only one time where you really see James Cagney, as Chaney, sit down with his make-up box and set to work transforming himself into an East Indian man with a scar. In line with the film’s melodramatic tendencies (Frank Skinner’s score), everyone in the area stops to watch him but there isn’t much to see, as director, Joseph Pevney, opts not to show Chaney’s entire process (in his defense, as Vic Pratt writes about in his booklet essay, Chaney was famously secretive about his techniques).
Elsewhere in the movie, Cagney appears with Chaney’s make-ups already on (as reconstructed by makeup artist, Bud Westmore) to recreate scenes from some of Chaney’s biggest movies, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1935). The Man with A Thousand Faces may illuminate Chaney’s personal life (his second wife, Hazel, is played by Jane Greer) but as for the reason he’s known as the “man of a thousand faces,” you’re not going to garner much insight on how he came up with his characters or whether they changed from the time they were conceived, to when they appeared on camera.
Given Lon Chaney only died twenty-seven years before this movie came out, The Man with A Thousand Faces never succumbs to hero worship. Chaney and Cleva are both in the wrong sometimes, yet the film does play with the facts, and film scholar, Tim Lucas’, commentary is less of a bonus feature (though it’s that, too, with Lucas providing a lot to think about between pauses) than a necessary resource for understanding what happened.
The lies start early, with Man claiming the film industry honored Lon Chaney by suspending work for a day, when it was really two minutes. Other fibs are more major, like Cleva not knowing her in-laws were deaf before she met them (she did) or Creighton finding out his mother was alive when, in real life, that didn’t happen until the reading of his father’s will. Outside of overhearing Cleva singing in one scene you never get to see her perform on stage yet Cleva approved the script (as did Cheney’s two surviving siblings).
Lucas also talks about Chaney’s lost films (very little of The Miracle Man exists outside of Cheney’s healing scene) and in another featurette, critic, Kim Newman, talks about Chaney’s legacy compared to other silent film stars and what roles he might have gotten if he’d lived longer. Pratt’s essay focuses on Cagney’s casting, and the ways in which he might not have been the obvious choice for the role.
For separating fact from fiction, Arrow’s Blu-Ray of Man of a Thousand Faces is the best way to approach this film and is available starting October 29th from Arrow Films.

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