“You know what it’s like to be different. Make people understand.”
There are a lot of ways to watch Man of a Thousand Faces – the “true” story of legendary silent film actor Lon Chaney that was just released on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy. As Hollywood’s first prestige biopic about one of its own. As a “women’s picture” whose press kit advised cinemas to “play up the heartbreak angle.” As a comeback vehicle for James Cagney, who plays Lon Chaney in the film and retired just a few years later.
Those who are coming to it for a 1950s-style parade of Chaney’s “greatest hits” won’t be disappointed, but they’ll have to wait through a whole lot of primo ‘50s melodrama to get there – at one point, the isolation of the Chaney home is underscored by actual tumbleweeds.
Billed (before the titles even roll) as “Universal International’s Special Release for Hollywood’s Golden Jubilee,” it makes sense that Man of a Thousand Faces would be a movie paying tribute to an earlier age of Hollywood, just before the dawn of the “talkies.” But it takes a while to get there.
For its first half, the conflict in Man of a Thousand Faces revolves around Chaney’s first wife, Cleva. The two seem happy enough until Cleva announces that she is pregnant and wants to go home to meet Chaney’s family for Christmas.
While Chaney and his brothers and sister are all hearing, however, Chaney’s parents are deaf, a fact that he has kept from Cleva until the moment she meets them. She reacts in typical Hollywood melodrama fashion, rushing away from the dinner table and swooning in her bedroom, concerned that her child might be born deaf and crying, “I don’t want to be mother to a dumb thing!”
Though Chaney and Cleva stay together and have the baby – who turns out to be hearing – the incident drives a wedge between the two of them that never heals. Finally, after plenty of melodrama mainstays including perceived affairs, heavy silences and darkened rooms, Cleva attempts suicide by forcing her way onto stage while Chaney is performing – this in 1913, while he is still working in vaudeville – and drinking acid!
The screenplay treats Cleva pretty poorly, but one thing you’ve got to say for her, she knew how to make a statement. If something isn’t worth forcing your way on stage and drinking acid, you’ve got to ask yourself, is it really that important?
The mercuric chloride destroys Cleva’s vocal chords – she had been a singer – and the scandal destroys Chaney’s vaudeville career. Cleva disappears from the hospital and Chaney files for divorce, only to lose custody of his son in the process, the courts ordering young Creighton Chaney into foster care until his father nails down steady work and a more suitable living situation.
At the advice of friend and PR man Clarence Locan (Jim Backus), Chaney goes to Hollywood, where his aptitude with makeup allows him to get steady work in bit parts until his big breakout in The Miracle Man, playing a character with twisted legs who is seemingly cured by a faith healer.
During this part of the feature, the main conflict becomes Chaney’s relationship with his son – first, trying to win back custody, and then keeping from him the secret that his mother is still alive, and that she’s the woman who stops by the schoolyard to watch the kids play.
It is against the backdrop of this and Chaney’s second marriage that we are treated to that inevitable “greatest hits” parade – albeit dramatized for the silver screen. In this version of events, Chaney and Cleva meet again, bitterly, in the midst of filming one of the most famous scenes in Chaney’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The film ends with Chaney’s death of a throat hemorrhage in 1930, a scene that it plays fast and loose. While the real Chaney died in the hospital, this one dies at home, surrounded by his family and only after relenting on his earlier desire that his son not pursue acting by symbolically passing on his iconic makeup kit, changing the name on the side to “Lon Chaney, Jr.”
The real Creighton Chaney did begin acting shortly after his father’s death, but it wasn’t until the mid-1930s that he changed his screen name to Lon Chaney Jr., and that at the insistence of studios who found it easier to market him that way. In interviews, he later said that he was ashamed of taking on the name, and that he was proud of the name “Lon Chaney” but not of “Lon Chaney, Jr.”
(Poor Creighton Chaney had it kinda rough. Not only did his dad disapprove of his acting bug, but his reconciliation with his birth mother wasn’t as rosy as the movie paints it, either. James Cagney recollected the story that the screenwriters couldn’t use because it was too “infinitely sad.” When the real Creighton tracked Cleva down, she wouldn’t acknowledge her identity to him. “That story seemed both crueler and larger than life itself,” Cagney wrote in his autobiography, Cagney on Cagney.)
It’s far from the only time the movie embellishes the facts. Before the film actually gets underway, we’re shown a title card informing us that, “On August 27, 1930, the entire motion picture industry suspended work to pay tribute to the memory of one of its great actors.” What it doesn’t say is that the work stoppage lasted for only two minutes – still an impressive feat, in the busy Hollywood of 1930.
Pallbearers at the real Chaney’s funeral included Irving Thalberg, Lionel Barrymore and Tod Browning, among others. There was also a chaplain and an Honor Guard from the U.S. Marine Corps, who had made Chaney an honorary member thanks to his portrayal of a drill instructor in 1926’s Tell It to the Marines. None of that shows up in Man of a Thousand Faces, though, even if Thalberg is a character in the picture.
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The movie makes much of the fact that Chaney’s parents were both deaf. In the first scene we see of him as a boy, he is coming home bloodied from a fight that he got into because other children were taunting his parents. Later, he tells Cleva that he “paid them back for my father and mother, and I grew up paying them back.”
“Ma and Pa don’t care if people make fun of them,” his sister asks Chaney, “why should you?” But Chaney does mind – at least, this film version of Chaney does. And as much as his history of living with deaf parents informs his pantomime acting style, the chip on his shoulder over them informs his desire to sympathetically portray those whom society has cast aside.
“I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice,” the real Lon Chaney wrote in an autobiographical essay for Movie magazine in 1925.
In the film, a young Irving Thalberg, producer at Universal and later MGM, asks the movie version of Chaney how he sees Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a passion project of Thalberg’s. “I see him as a man deformed, cursed, tormented, laughed at as a freak,” Chaney replies, “but his tormentors never see the heartbreak or the tears.”
“That’s just what I want the audience to see,” Thalberg crows. “The soul of a man that God made different. If you can get that on film, we’ve got ourselves a picture!”
“You know what it’s like to be different,” Thalberg continues. “Make people understand. Make them see it the way you see it.” (In a bit of casting felicity, Thalberg is played by Robert Evans, chosen for the part by Thalberg’s widow, who shortly thereafter left acting and became head of Paramount.)
My wife is hearing, but she studied American Sign Language for years. I never picked much of it up myself, but it’s always a joy to see signed language on screen.
Some modern Chaney scholars dispute the impact of Chaney’s parents’ deafness on his acting and his life, and I can’t personally speak for how much prejudice there may or may not have been toward the Deaf community at the turn of the century, but what I can say is that the film – and its version of Chaney – are both extremely respectful of the Deaf and almost reverent toward sign language.
In one scene, Chaney is shown praying in sign. Cleva, his wife at the time, demands to know why he has to “cut her out of it.” Chaney replies that he “wouldn’t know how to mean it any other way.”
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The film’s version of Lon Chaney is played by James Cagney, himself a veteran character actor whose “best years” were already well behind him. As many critics then and now have pointed out, Cagney was almost woefully miscast in the film. At nearly sixty years old, he was tasked with portraying Chaney in his 20s and 30s—indeed, Chaney was only 47 when he died, fully ten years and more the junior of Cagney.
What’s more, Cagney’s pugnacious face and boxy body look nothing like Chaney. And yet, Cagney delivers a powerhouse performance. He’s tasked with the same kinds of melodrama as all the characters around him, but that’s not where he shines.
It’s in the physicality of inhabiting Chaney that Cagney gives it his all. The facial mugging, the physical contortions and even the convincing vaudeville acts – which we see more of than we ever do film performances, ironically enough – all sell Cagney as Chaney, even if he doesn’t look the part at all.
Something similar happens with Bud Westmore’s makeup effects. Intended to evoke Chaney’s classic characters, they are achieved with immobile latex, rather than Chaney’s simple makeup. The results are Halloween mask versions of the originals – perhaps literally, as I remember reading somewhere that this take on the Hunchback of Notre Dame was later used as the basis for a line of masks – which could have come from no other moment in film history than the ‘50s.
Westmore was Universal’s go-to guy for monster makeup in those days – even if we now know that he stole the credit for his most famous design, the gill-man of Creature from the Black Lagoon, from Millicent Patrick – and the versions of Chaney’s famous faces that he presents are pure Famous Monsters of Filmland.
While I had never seen Man of a Thousand Faces before, the images were immediately familiar to me, and not just from Chaney’s originals. In the same way that my brain had – before I ever saw the original Frankenstein or Dracula – parsed all the various pop cultural incarnations of those giants into one iconic image that was immediately identifiable as such, whether it was Karloff or Lugosi or Lee or whoever under the varying makeup jobs, these faces look like Quasimodo and the Phantom, even when they don’t.
The latex masks may be less expressive than Chaney’s originals, but they have a certain B-movie appeal that still works. Perhaps the same could be said of Man of a Thousand Faces in general, though it’s certainly striving to be an A-picture, not a B.
The real-life Chaney was a notoriously private individual, who once famously said, “Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney.” He probably wouldn’t have appreciated a biopic that spends so much of its time and energy on the turmoil of his personal life – and gets so many facts wrong.
But while Cagney may be miscast in the lead role, and the Academy Award-winning screenplay may be more Hollywood fluff than historical accuracy, and the latex makeup jobs are immobile masks, they all work together to make movie magic – that “peculiar magic” that the opening eulogy for Chaney says only a precious few possess.