1957 Lon Chaney biopic is a beautifully made classic
Generally speaking, contemporary horror fans tend to associate the name Lon Chaney with the legacy of his son, Lon Chaney Jr, the man who was – and will forever be – Universal’s THE WOLF MAN. But of course, the more seasoned cinephile knows the elder Chaney was one of the founding fathers of special effects and fantasy-film performance art during motion pictures’ pioneering silent birth. He was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and he was indeed just that, a virtuoso creator who literally did it all and perfected the craft of making the most hideous of visages sympathetic, likable and sometimes, even lovable.
In the late 1950s, perhaps due to the birth of television and the renewed interest in monsters, Chaney’s legacy enjoyed a resurgence, with late night horror shows screening Chaney classics like THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and THE MAN WHO LAUGHED and magazines like Famous Monsters offering beautifully painted covers of the master’s various guises. Enter Joseph Pevney’s Cheney biopic MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES starring the legendary Jimmy Cagney and co-written by R. Wright Campbell (writer of a handful of classic Roger Corman westerns). The 1957 Universal production was initially criticized for its altering of key facts in Chaney’s life and for the casting of Cagney, who was by this time a bit long-in-the-tooth to play the actor during his youth. But no matter. Time has proven this fine film to be the classic it is and now, thanks to Arrow Video’s licensing of the title for Blu-ray, we can reappraise the picture.
Starting from his earliest days growing up with deaf parents to his entrance into vaudeville, MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES paints Chaney as a kind of saint, a leaning that was of its time and is today forgivable. Still, even despite the obvious simplicity of Pevney’s portrait, the look at Chaney’s love for his family and empathy at the social plight of those with handicaps is profound and lays the groundwork for the emotionally complex characters he would eventually create on-screen. And his tumultuous relationship with his first wife and mother of his son Creighton (the later-to-be re-christened Lon Chaney Jr.) is, when seen from today’s more forward thinking feminist perspective, a glaring condemnation of both parties. Chaney’s wife (played by CREEPSHOW 2’s Dorothy Malone) is initially horrified by Chaney’s deaf parents and treats the family poorly due to her fear that her child might be born the same way. But though the film positions her as the heavy, we can understand her confusion at not being informed of her in-laws earlier and later, when Chaney goes back to work, removing his actress partner from her stage and turning her into a housewife, we can comprehend her creative stifling and miseries. Both Malone and Cagney sell this doomed relationship and again, it serves only to color the career Chaney would soon have.
The biggest valid issues anyone might have with MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES do not lie with its impressions of truths, nor the fine performances but rather with the poorly realized make-up effects of Chaney’s key characters, from Eric the Phantom, to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Chaney’s skills rested with the fact that minimal make-ups, wires and deft facial contortions are what made his work so arresting. Here, we have cheap masks and globby appliances dishonoring their source work, the likes of which were done for a fraction of the cost nearly forty years earlier.
Still, if you can suspend your disbelief, the lousy make-up doesn’t detract from how beautiful, moving and loving a tribute to Chaney’s legacy MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES remains. Arrow pads this top-drawer release with a typically insightful commentary by Tim Lucas and a lively video chat with author and horror scholar Kim Newman. It’s an essential piece of horror movie history hiding in the guise of a wonderful drama.