Man of a Thousand Faces was one of the first bio-pics of a famous movie star: Lon Chaney. There had been a couple in the 50s, most notably The Buster Keaton Story, which by all accounts is incredibly awful. That as was supremely inaccurate, and so was this one, as not that much was really known about Cheney, who died in 1931—and so it was obviously fictionalized. It was directed by Joseph Pevney, and begins with Chaney’s vaudeville years. Pevrey was an actor turned director who had been in a couple of important noirs in the 40s before his career change. Probably his most notable credit was his final film, Night of the Grizzly, and he was tied with Mark Daniels for directing the largest number of original Star Trek episodes—including iconic episodes like the Harlan Ellison-penned “The City on the Edge of Forever,” and “The Trouble With Tribbles.”
The film stars James Cagney, who was a relatively decent choice as Chaney did have that type of face, though he might have been taller than Cagney. When Chaney was without all of the makeup, there’s a resemblance, and if he had lived longer he would no doubt have also done a lot of gangster films and maybe even derail Cagney’s rise to fame in the ’30s. Chaney’s last film was The Unholy Three, a remake of the Tod Browning original, and that was his only talkie. What everyone remembers are Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but his main director was Browning, with whom he did movies like The Unknown, which was kind of the predecessor to Freaks, and London After Midnight (lost in the ’66 MGM vault fire). It’s a sad truth that 70 percent of silent movies have now been lost or destroyed, including 100 of the 157 made with Chaney. However, as Kim Newman says on the disc, those films were still in recent memory when Man of a Thousand Faces was made.
What is best-known about Chaney is that his parents were Deaf. He had to learn to communicate without words from a very early age, which helped him to develop great skills as a physical actor. That part of the film is fairly accurate, but much of the rest is watered down. His first wife, Frances (Dorothy Malone) was mentally ill and tried to kill herself; they almost lost their son to social services—all of that is just played as melodrama. It has the usual ups and downs that you would expect from a biopic, and Cagney is pretty good in the role.
It also has a very sentimental, silly ending where Chaney encourages his son to become an actor. In the film he dies at home; in reality he died in a hospital, and he never encouraged Lon Jr. to take his place in the movies—nor did his son intend to use his father’s name, that was something the studio insisted upon. The makeup is also not very accurate, for example Chaney is shown using a latex mask as part of special effects makeup, but that’s something he never did. The reason his makeup was so effective was that it was minimal, affording more facial movement so it looked more realistic (and often better than a lot of modern special effects).
Quite annoyingly, Tod Browning is not in the movie, as scenes with him working with his main director would have added a lot to it. The main film person Chaney interacts with is Irving Thalberg, one of the first big producers. It’s interesting mostly for Cagney’s performance, which holds up against all the inaccuracies and sentiment, and its pioneering status as an actor’s biopic.
The disc includes a commentary from Tim Lucas, an interview with Kim Newman that is as much about Chaney as it is about the movie, the trailer and an image gallery. There is also a booklet in the first pressing.