Lon Chaney was one of the undisputed greats in our beloved horror biz for his legendary performances as Quasimodo in 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and as the titular character in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera. So integral a part of the industry was Chaney that in 1957 Universal made a biopic and that brings us to today’s revoltin’ review of Man of a Thousand Faces!
Born to deaf/mute parents, ol’ Lon has a tough go of it… but, he doesn’t let it get him down as he goes on to be a top vaudeville performer with a knack for taking on multiple characters with ease. Along for the ride is his pregnant wife Cleva (Dorothy Malone) who upon discovering our hero’s parent’s condition completely loses her shit and becomes one of the most annoying individuals in the known universe (seriously, you’ll be begging Lon to leave her ass in the dust at every turn).
Life at home continues to be a mess, but Chaney’s career continues to flourish as he gets a start in motion pictures in order to retain custody of his son after ol’ Cleva splits the scene after a failed suicide attempt (more on that below). This all leads to the portrayals of those tragic creatures mentioned up yonder as Chaney’s make-ups reach their greatest heights… but will all remain roses and applause for our beleaguered hero?
Man of a Thousand Faces is straight-up old school style Hollywood melodrama of the highest order. It’s wrought with emotion, expertly acted, and full of all manner of crowd pleasing moments… but will it be of interest to horror hounds? It fucking should be! Besides the obvious focus on Lon, we also get plenty of attention given to his son Creighton… who you lot know better as Lon Chaney Jr.; the man who portrayed one of the sinister silver screens best werewolves of all time, Lawrence Talbot in Universal’s Wolfman series.
Speaking of the acting mentioned up yonder; James Cagney as Lon is a powerhouse, not afraid to let the man’s flaws show but also completely relatable and engaging… and he does a hell of a job emulating (but never topping) Chaney’s best roles. Also of note is Malone’s performance of Cleva. So effective was her portrayal of the absolutely insane and unlikable first wife of Chaney that when it comes to the point of the film where our hearts are supposed to go out to the character (in sequences invented for the film) it almost becomes impossible… until her performance actually makes that happen; simply amazing.
Now as briefly mentioned above, Man of a Thousand Faces does take a few liberties with the actual events of Chaney’s life in order to make the story a bit more dramatic. Thankfully the bonus material present on this Blu-ray from Arrow Films helps set the record straight! First up we get a fact-packed audio commentary from film critic Tim Lucas that details the film’s production, as well as how it differentiates from reality, in an engaging commentary that is well worth a listen. Following that comes an overview of Chaney’s legacy via critic Kim Newman, the film’s theatrical trailer, and image galleries featuring production stills as well as posters and lobby cards. Also included is a fully Illustrated booklet with a newly commissioned essay by Vic Pratt of the BFI. All of this is contained under a beautiful package illo by ghoulish Graham Humphreys.
If you’re a fright flick fanatic, you owe it to yourself to indulge in Man of a Thousand Faces; it’s a deft blend of fact and fiction that helps us humanize a near mythical figure in the horror biz!