Director: Joseph Pevney
Script: R. Wright Campbell, Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts
Cast: James Cagney, Dorothy Malone, Jane Greer, Majorie Rameau, Jim Backus, Robert J. Evans, Celia Lovsky, Jeanne Cagney
Running time: 122 minutes
The Man with a Thousand Faces opens with the preface: “On August 27th, 1930, the entire motion picture industry suspended work to pay tribute to the memory of one of its greatest actors. This is his story. (1883 – 1930)” And so begins a film that sees one on-screen legend (James Cagney) playing another (Lon Chaney Snr).
Sadly, there will be plenty of more modern audience members who, unless they’re big horror fans, will not have heard of Lon Chaney, the lead actor in such silent movie greats as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Chaney was not just famous because of his physically demanding acting, but also from doing the actual make-ups himself, some of which took hours to apply and were painful to wear. Anyone who has ever seen his performances will certainly think that it was time well spent.
The Man with a Thousand Faces is a biopic about Lon Chaney, and one which is surprisingly not very flattering, in some ways, of either him or his first wife, who particularly comes across very badly with her fear and disgust of the thought of possibly siring a disabled person after realising that Chaney’s parents are both deaf. In fact, because of the time the film is set, PC this film ain’t!
However, there is much for movie buffs to treasure here, particularly the all-too-short re-enactments of some of the key scenes from Lon Chaney’s greatest hits of silent cinema. Unfortunately, some of the family dramas that occur between such landmark scenes are less interesting, although are important in that they help us to understand what drove Chaney to do the things that he did and to react in the ways that he did.
The film features some great sets and it looks like the studio didn’t skimp on the movie’s production values. The performances are also uniformly good, although sometimes Chaney’s performance leans a little towards a caricature of his subject, rather than a fully fleshed-out three-dimensional representation.
I would also have liked to have seen a bit more time given to Chaney’s time spent on movie sets and seen him interacting with other ‘stars’ from that period, but given Chaney’s actual life was quite dramatic it’s easy to see why the writers decided to try and shine a bit of light on that element too. Chaney’s life journey, from playing vaudeville clown to later achieving peak Hollywood stardom, is the sort of story that the movies love to share, hence why I’m not surprised that they’ve included plenty of back-story here.
Arrow Academy have done a great job presenting the movie for the first time in high definition, resulting in a lovely crisp picture, and the sound is also pretty good too; the audio being taken from the uncompressed mono soundtrack. It’s just a shame that Pevney’s direction isn’t a bit more exciting, as it’s a little too ‘stagey’ at times.
The film won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but anyone who is interested in movies, and in the movie business in general (particularly back in the day when the Hollywood-based studios ruled the roost), will definitely get a kick out of this.
Arrow Academy is distributing Man of a Thousand Faces on Blu-Ray. As per usual, Arrow Academy has provided some decent special features including:
- Audio commentary with film scholar Tim Lucas;
- The Man Behind a Thousand Faces (21 mins) – Film critic and author Kim Newman shares his appreciation for Lon Chaney’s legacy. He talks about the coming of sound in pictures and how very few of the silent stars have lingered on for so long in our cultural memory as has Lon Chaney Snr.
- Theatrical Trailer (1.5 mins) – The film’s trailer focuses more on the human drama than on the man’s filmic legacy.
- Image galleries – Includes 82 stills and 18 posters and lobby cards from the film.