It was in August 1930, aged only forty-seven, that Leonidas Frank Chaney, the “Man of a Thousand Faces” died, the actor, writer and director who appeared in more than a hundred and fifty films and whose versatility as a performer was matched by his ability to transform himself through self-designed and applied makeup into different characters, often grotesque, as the lead in such films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera.
A legend of silent cinema whose career stretched briefly into “the talkies,” it was another versatile legend of the screen upon whom it fell to portray Lon Chaney a generation later, James Cagney, actor, dancer, comedian, a man who established himself only in the decade following Chaney’s death in Angels with Dirty Faces and White Heat yet was only six years younger than him.
Directed by Joseph Pevney and first released in August 1957 and now remastered on Blu-ray from the original negative for Arrow Films, Man of a Thousand Faces received a deserved nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, a beautifully staged and performed melodrama of that favourite Hollywood genre, the biopic.
Celebrating not only Chaney but the filmmaking methods of the time and their insane schedules and casting processes, Man of a Thousand Faces offers insight into both though as with all biopics it is a dramatisation rather than a documentary, but while some elements are emphasised or arranged in order to serve a narrative point and others are glossed over, as befits Cagney’s reputation as “the heavy” his portrayal is not overly sanitised, presenting a sometimes demanding and jealous man.
The commentary by film scholar Tim Lucas pointing out details judiciously avoided in the script such as the fact that Chaney and his wife were married only days after they met while she was still a teenager, the film rightly portrays their relationship as tempestuous, culminating in her attempted suicide by ingestion of mercuric chloride at the theatre where her uncompromising husband was performing, ending both their stage careers.
Played by Written on the Wind‘s Dorothy Malone, Cleva is not unsympathetic though the reasons for the prejudices which force her and Chaney apart are presented rather than explored, her rejection of his deaf parents, something he cannot forgive having grown up under the shadow of the ignorance of those who treated his family as outcasts because of their disability.
The scenes of Chaney with his parents conducted in sign language without subtitles, they are in fact not necessary, the emotion conveyed clearly by Cagney and the wonderful Celia Lovsky who plays his proud, dignified and loving mother Emma Alice Chaney; many years later whom Pevney would work with Lovsky in a very different role as the Vulcan matriarch T’Pau when he directed Amok Time, opening the second season of Star Trek.
Lucas’ commentary containing historical, artistic and technical detail including where sets and locations were reused in later films and television productions, also included is an appreciation of Lon Chaney and his career by Kim Newman, discussing the transition of silent cinema to talking pictures and how the universal appeal of silent films made those of the era such as Chaney genuinely global stars.