Releasing October 29, Arrow Academy presents Man of a Thousand Faces, 1957’s Academy Award-nominated biopic about the life story of Hollywood legend Lon Chaney, starring James Cagney.
Right off the bat, I must say that Cagney’s performance in the film is a revelation, likely even for people who are familiar with the actor’s work. There are none of his usual “Cagney-isms,” none of the box of tricks that have come to be associated with his performances. He fully commits to this role, disappearing into many scenes to a nearly unrecognizable state.
In particular, the scenes of physical comedy performed by Cagney are a delight. Your schtick tolerance level may vary, but I was fascinated watching Cagney perform clown acts and bizarre pantomimes, fully inhabiting goofy caricatures like an old woman character in a way similar to Chaney.
This is a man who lived a life so thoroughly theatrical that this film portrays his toddler son asking him, “Show me a story” at bedtime. Not “tell me a story,” but “show me.” It’s such a wonderful tiny detail that speaks volumes to the man’s lust for life and love of performance. It permeated every facet of his existence, giving his son the acting bug at a young age. This love for the theatre comes through beautifully in both the screenplay and Cagney’s acting.
The rest of the cast is no slouch, either. In the role of Cagney’s first wife, Cleva, Dorothy Malone is tasked with bringing humanity to a character who is honestly a tad underwritten. In the hands of the wrong performer, Cleva would come across as an absolute monster, an opportunist who looks at Cagney’s deaf parents like they’re deformed freaks and who leaves her family behind at the first whiff of success. Malone manages to make Cleva seem somewhat logical, even as she’s not likable in the slightest. It makes her choices later in the film all the more shocking for those unfamiliar with Chaney’s life story.
Jane Greer shines as Hazel Hastings, a showgirl who cares for Lon’s young son and eventually becomes Lon’s second wife. Again, this could have manifested in a character that embodied the kind of “forbidden” romances that Greer has played in such films as Out of the Past. Here, however, there’s such a genuine warmth from Greer that she never comes across as “the other woman.”
This isn’t to say that the film’s depiction of Lon is entirely rose-tinted. There’s considerable depth to his actions throughout the film, some of them rooted in old fashioned notions of himself being “the provider” for the family, which further strained his rocky relationship with his first wife, and later, his son.
Even with those complications, everything you need to know about the Lon Chaney of this film is given to you in his first scenes, when Cleva is fired and Lon goes out on stage in her stead. He improvises an entire act and brings the house down, only to quit the gig immediately afterwards out of solidarity with his wife. It may not be the right decision, but he felt it entirely and so he did it. That’s a constant that carries through the run of the film (and likely into the real life story of the man).
The film’s use of American sign language is also commendable. This is another part of the film that Cagney invests in entirely, communicating with his on-screen parents and then, in the heart-wrenching final scenes, to the loving family who have gathered around him.
The new Blu-Ray from Arrow Video presents a beautiful transfer of the film. I found the audio to be crisp, but the dialogue to be mixed somewhat lower in some scenes. Among the special features are a commentary track with film scholar Tim Lucas and a very enjoyable twenty-minute featurette with journalist and film critic Kim Newman discussing the career of Lon Chaney.
From the opening scenes of an audience gathered at Paramount Pictures to pay tribute to the legendary actor, the movie as a whole is a celebration of a man who wore masks both on and off the screen. He made a big show of making everything seem fine, even when he felt like he and his family were falling apart. That’s why the film’s occasional lapses into melodrama —mostly courtesy of the screenplay, rather than any of the actors — don’t feel entirely out of step with the story being told. This mostly feels like a presentational telling of the tale, rather than a literal one. In that sense, the film feels like an absolute success.
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