Judge Daryl Loomis only has one face: angry.
"I'd buy a ticket to see a mystery man!"—Press agent Clarence Locan on Lon Chaney.
Hollywood has a long history of successful biopics. From early films about great world leaders to modern blockbusters about recently passed musicians, audiences have proven that they'll come out in droves to revisit the lives of their dead heroes. While there are certainly exceptions, I have problems with modern biopics because their subjects are people whose lives have been extensively documented. While a film about a sixteenth century artist, because no footage exists, allows for a lot of interpretation of a role, films about Muhammad Ali and Johnny Cash, with scores of film and video footage for the actors to draw from, turn into mere impersonation. Why do I need to watch Will Smith perform a choreographed version of Ali vs. Forman when I can watch the fight itself or, for that matter, the fantastic documentary When We Were Kings? Older films were long immune from such criticism but, with the advent of home video, audiences have every chance to see much of the entire history of film and video. While not the fault of the old celebrity biopics, the way we watch film has changed, turning what once were acceptable, if melodramatic, homages to the past into cringe-inducing impersonations that only make audiences yearn for the original star.
Facts of the Case
Born of deaf parents, Lon Chaney (Cagney, Public Enemy) grew up having to express himself in sign language. As a young actor, he took this fluency in pantomime to Vaudeville, where he became a star on the stage as a silent clown. An on-stage suicide attempt by his troubled singer wife Cleve (Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind) not only ruined her own singing career, it caused an irreconcilable rift in their marriage, bringing an untimely end to his own stage career and separating him from his baby son, Creighton. Desperate to earn money and reclaim his son, Chaney ventures to Hollywood to try these moving pictures everybody's been raving about. After a few years making ends meet with bit roles, he broke through with an outstanding performance in the 1919 film The Miracle Man. A star was born and the rest is history. He built a legend for himself as the "Man of Mystery" in roles such as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the title character in Phantom of the Opera but, upon his death at the young age of 47, he left behind an unknown personal life shrouded in mystery. Man of a Thousand Faces attempts to fill in those gaps, telling the story of his complex relationship with his son who would later take his name.
Lon Chaney is one of my favorite actors, silent film or sound, and is one of the single greatest actors America has ever produced. His unique combination of skills with pantomime, facial expression, rhythm, comic timing, and makeup made him a character actor virtuoso and one of the best-loved actors of his time. The force of his personality came through each of his thousand faces; no matter what mask or prosthetic he wore, he turned monstrous characters into sympathetic ones and made the subtlest actions meaningful. His skills with ventriloquism were equally renown as his others, and it is a shame that he only got to demonstrate this in one film, the remake of Tod Browning's The Unholy Three before he died. He was everything an actor could possibly be and is one of early Hollywood's highest-grossing stars, but his death at the dawn of talkies made much of his work, at least until the home video revolution, inaccessible to audiences. Those who could remember having seen his pictures three decades later would have had but vague memories of his work in 1957 when James Cagney starred in this love song to his favorite actor and his performance must have brought back great cinematic memories. Today, to the benefit of film fans but the detriment of Man of a Thousand Faces, much of Chaney's important catalog has been released to video. Having seen much of it, there is no doubt in my mind that James Cagney, popular as he may have been, is no Lon Chaney, not by a wide margin.
Cagney truly relishes playing the role and he can't be faulted for wanting to emulate his hero's screen work. His impersonations of Chaney look like he'd practiced them all his life. It's what happens at the other times that Chaney can't compare. Where the original, during a time in film when overacting was often the norm, knew the value of a subtle change in expression, Cagney chews massive holes in the scenery. Most of the time, he looks about to push grapefruits into Jane Greer (Out of the Past, who plays Chaney's second wife, Hazel) and Dorothy Malone's faces and, even if Chaney was that angry of a person, the performance doesn't fit with the character they've built. This, more than Cagney's performance, is the ultimate failing Man of a Thousand Faces. While alive, Chaney's personal life had been off limits to the press. Maintaining his persona as the "Man of Mystery" made the studios a lot of money, but it makes everything but the bare details of his life completely obscured. All but framework in this film is fiction and, because the public had little information about him, the writers and producers could easily construct a dippy, whitewashed story about Chaney's unwavering love for his son without anybody possibly calling shenanigans. As much as this is homage to the great actor, it's also a love song to early film, so Chaney and Hollywood are lionized at the expense of everyone else, who are portrayed as ignorant or evil. The character of Chaney's first wife Cleve is given the worst treatment. At every step, she is portrayed as the worst possible mother. From the beginning, when she lives in mortal fear that her son will be born, God forbid, deaf, to the end, when she is stalking her old family, all the blame for their marital problems and Chaney's rift with his son is placed squarely on her shoulders. The only performance worth watching here is from Jim Backus (Rebel Without a Cause), who plays Chaney's best friend and press agent. He is a lot of fun in a minor role. Also of interest: look for future producer Robert Evans in a bit part as Universal head of production Irving Thalberg.
Universal presents a bare bones release of Man of a Thousand Faces, though with a remastered image. This is a big improvement over Image Entertainment's 1998 release. The anamorphic image, originally in Cinemascope, looks fantastic, with clear contrast levels, deep blacks, bright whites, and no transfer problems to speak of. The sound could have used more work, however. It sounds fine much of the time but, when the voices get loud (which is often in Cagney's case), the sound becomes very tinny at reasonable volume. There are no extras at all, which makes no sense given that Universal owns much of the vault of Chaney's work. Some comparisons between Cagney's performance and Chaney's in the corresponding role would have been very welcome, but it also would serve to diminish Cagney's performance, so I understand why they wouldn't want to. Anything would have been nice, however, but Universal elected to stop at improving the picture, to be fair, the most important part of the release.
Maybe it's just that I've never been a fan of biopics, let alone Hollywood's white washed versions, but if I have access to Chaney's films, I don't get why I wouldn't want to watch those. With impersonations that are no match for the original, a supporting story that is one sided and oversimplified, and a barebones, lazy DVD release, I see no reason to recommend Man of a Thousand Faces.
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