Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
The title refers to Lon Chaney, whose abilities as a makeup artist and actor saw him transform himself into some of the screens’ most memorable characters. His creations were not mere monsters. Chaney imbued their misshapen figures with a humanity that demanded some sympathy from the audience. It is that same degree of complexity that James Cagney gives the silent film star, for his man of 1000 faces is a man of many facets.
His skill at pantomime was no doubt influenced by his being a child of deaf parents, as was his empathy for those who were ‘different’. Yet this biopic is no hagiography. Chaney’s self-destructive hatred of his first wife and protectiveness of his son make it clear he was not the easiest person to live with, let alone love.
In the title role, Cagney gives a tour de force performance. There is no need for subtitles when he signs at various times throughout the movie. His performance alone conveys the message. Dorothy Malone and Jim Backus lend good support, and though his performance as Irving Thalberg was widely ridiculed, Robert Evans isn’t too distracting. Not so the music score, which is overly dramatic to the point of being intrusive.
Though purists may quibble over the depiction of Chaney’s make-up application, the film does illustrate the physical pain he endured in contorting his body for his film roles. Such was his skill that a popular joke at the time, repeated in this biopic, was “Don’t step on that spider. It might be Lon Chaney”.
The first appearance of Chaney's mother is when she returns from a night out shopping. This is unlikely as Mrs Chaney became very ill when Lon was young, and remained bedridden throughout her life.
Cleva Creighton was aware Lon Chaney’s parents were deaf before she married him. Also, she was also only 15 years old when they married, and gave birth to Lon Chaney Jr one year later.
Lon Chaney Jr was not born in a hospital. He was born prematurely at his father's home in Oklahoma City, Weighing only two and a half pounds, the delivering doctor picked the baby up and ran into the freezing water of Belle Isle Lake to shock him into life.
Cleva's suicide attempt actually took place backstage while Lon was performing.
“When we shot the recreation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I wanted it to be very important. I requested a large number of extras, and the morning we shot it on the back lot, I had only 75 extras! Well, I couldn’t shoot this big scene with only 75 people. I mean, I have this big square and I wanted to fill it up just like the Chaney picture had done. So I went to the unit manager and said, “Look, I can’t shoot his scene without more extras.” He asked me how many I wanted, and I replied 300 or 500. Well he almost had a heart attack! I think he was expecting me to say 10 or 20. But 300 or 500 was a lot of people and Universal was extremely tight with a buck. So he said I’d get more tomorrow and to make due (sic) with what I had for the day. So I would bunch these people up in one section and then when we moved the camera, I would move ‘em around so you couldn’t recognise anyone and bunch them up in another area. The next day the studio gave me an additional 100 extras!”
Joseph Pevney (director)
by Michael F Blake
Biopic features many scene recreations from Chaney’s film career, including The Miracle Man (1919), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Also depicts the making of Chaney's only sound film, The Unholy Three (1930), but not feature a specific scene recreation.