When he was 12 years old, future director and prosthetic makeup artist Tom Savini went to a movie theatre in Pittsburgh, his home town. The film he watched – Man Of A Thousand Faces – had a marked effect on him, and inspired him to creating new personas, initially for the benefit of both friends and family, and then later on as a choice of career.
The movie told the life story of legendary actor and transformative artist from the silent era, Lon Chaney. Best known for his roles in features like The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and The Phantom Of The Opera, Chaney came from a tradition of Vaudeville, before working his way into the burgeoning Hollywood studio system, and proving himself as a true pioneer of makeup, at a time when there weren’t any professional makeup artists in the movie industry, so actors were expected to tend to themselves.
Chaney passed away in 1930 at the age of just 47, after being diagnosed with cancer the previous winter. However, Chaney left behind a legacy not only in his son – Lon Chaney Jr., who followed in his footsteps – but also in terms of the influence he had in the art of cinematic makeup, lighting a spark which was later kindled by those who came after his trailblazing work and built upon what he’d achieved. Not just an actor, Chaney was also a craftsman – he was so acclaimed, he was invited to write the entry on stage makeup for inclusion in Encyclopaedia Britannica.
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He’d barely had an opportunity to make the transfer to ‘talkies’ before he passed away, and Chaney appeared destined to be consigned to living memory, as silent films just weren’t in general circulation anymore. However, the 1950s started to see a trend of Hollywood doing biopics about some of its legendary figures – the 1957 picture The Buster Keaton Story is one such example. That same year, Man Of A Thousand Faces was also released, bringing Chaney firmly back to the public consciousness.
Chaney appears to have carefully crafted and cultivated a ‘man of mystery’ public persona, which undoubtedly added to his allure and mystique; the fact that he was something of a chameleon in terms of the way he transformed between his different roles meant that audiences never knew the real man behind the mask; this film came out years before the first biography about Chaney was published, so it gave people the first peek at just who Chaney really was.
It’s surprising to learn both of Chaney’s parents were deaf, but it goes some way to explaining why Chaney – hailing from circumstances where he felt isolated from others, due to the way that his parents’ disability was seen – had an affinity for some of his most famous characters. He may have been best known for playing physical grotesques like Quasimodo and the Phantom, but he never sought to try and portray them like freaks; instead, he always showed great empathy for those who were different, or had been shunned by society for non-conformity.
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The film is more of a melodrama at times than a straight biopic, and some elements are played for every drop of emotion – at the beginning of the film, for example, we see Chaney bring his new wife Cleva to meet his parents, but hasn’t been able to find the words to prepare her, so it hits her hard when she learns the truth; she’s even more upset when she realises that there’s a possibility her unborn son may also be deaf, due to the family history, and it leads to a rift between her and Chaney, which slowly festers and gradually pushes them apart over time, to the point where they eventually divorce.
The script was approved by Chaney’s son and his surviving siblings, as well as his ex-wife, and they stated it was relatively faithful to what happened; however, the finished product does take some liberties with the timing of some events, as well as changing the fact that Chaney managed to keep it a secret from his son that Cleva – who he’d claimed had died – was actually still alive until it came out after his death, making for a more ‘Hollywood’ storyline instead, by having her reappearing and in the process creating a rift between father and son.
Perhaps the biggest revelation here is the casting of James Cagney to play Chaney. His reputation is for playing gangsters and tough guys, leading to him becoming known for the commonly misquoted line of “You dirty rat!”, which – just like “Beam me up, Scotty” – was never actually said verbatim. However, this is to sell Cagney short, as he was a versatile performer – his background in Vaudeville and as a dancer in fact makes him the ideal choice to bring to life the physicality of Chaney, including the various contortions which he put himself through to portray the different deformities and disabilities of some of his characters.
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Director Joseph Pevney also happened to be an ex-Vaudevillian, which no doubt helped him when working with Cagney to portray Chaney’s early career, as well as giving insight into that lost theatrical world. It’s perhaps worth noting Pevney eventually graduated into television, and directed some classic episodes of Star Trek, including ‘The City On The Edge Of Forever’ and ‘The Trouble With Tribbles’, two examples of wildly varying content in terms of tone, so these both reflect just how well Pevney manages to perfectly balance out the comedic and dramatic (some especially dark at times) parts of the story here.
It’s quite telling that despite advances in makeup techniques and appliances, none of the work undertaken here to replicate the look of Chaney’s creations comes even close to the originals; in fact, some of the end products appear almost laughable in comparison, so it just goes to show just how talented he was. An amazingly small amount of time is spent on showing this part of Chaney’s life, and rightly so, as what we get here by focusing on the man rather than just is work is a satisfyingly rounded picture of him, whereas it would have just been so easy to reduce him to being nothing more than his on-screen personas.
The restoration work carried out on the film for this release by Arrow Films is top notch, with the picture looking especially crisp and sharp. However, the contents are disappointingly sparse – while there’s a fascinating audio commentary by film scholar Tim Lucas, the only other feature is a short piece by Kim Newman all about Chaney; while admittedly interesting, it feels as though we’re being sold short, as a documentary – whether specially done, or an archival piece – feels as though it’s needed to really round things out, so it’s a rather curious omission, and does give an impression of things being done a bit on the cheap in terms of extras.
However, that shouldn’t put you off from adding this to your Blu-ray collection, as if you have a love either of classic cinema or of Hollywood history, this is an essential must-have just for the movie alone.
Man Of A Thousand Faces is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy.