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Man of a Thousand Faces

USA 1957
produced by
Robert Arthur for Universal
directed by Joseph Pevney
starring James Cagney, Dorothy Malone, Jane Greer, Marjorie Rambeau, Jim Backus, Robert evans, Celia Lovsky, Jeanne Cagney, Jack Albertson, Nolan Leary, Roger Smith, Robert Lyden, Rickie Sorensen, Dennis Rush, Simon Scott, Clarence Kolb, Danny Beck, Philip Van Zandt, Hank Mann, Snub Pollard
screen story by Ralph Wheelwright, screenplay by R. Wright Campbell, Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, based on the life of Lon Chaney, music by Frank Skinner

review by
Mike Haberfelner

Available on DVD !

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Young Lon Chaney (James Cagney) has a nice career as a clown in a revue, and his charms soon get him friendly with Cleva (Dorothy Malone), so much so that the two eventually marry. But then she learns that his parents (Celia Lovsky, Nolan Leary) are deaf mute, and that kind of throws her off. So when she has little Creighton (with increasing age played by Dennis Rush, Rickie Sorensen, Robert Lyden and Roger Smith) she can't really love him, always fearing that he might turn deaf mute himself (even though there are no signs for this). Before long, too, she starts her singing career again behind Lon's back, and their relationship becomes more and more strained - while little Creighton's care is more and more put in the hands of chorus girl Hazel (Jane Greer), who adores Lon from afar ... which makes Cleva suspect Lon has an affair with her, and she tries to poison herself, but only destroys her vocal chords (and thus her career). She skips town - and Lon is through with doing reviews, that scandal destroying his career as stage clown. But his best friend Clarence suggests he should try his hands on then then new-fangled medium of movies. Lon moves to Hollywood and becomes a very in-demand extra due to his makeup skills, so much so that he eventually attracts the attention of young super producer Irving Thalberg (Robert Evans), who tries him in a lead role - to great success. Soon, Lon has made a name of himself as a go-to actor for freaks, monsters and malformed of all kinds, landing one success after the next - but young Creighton has been taken in by child care as Lon can't provide a mother for the boy he loves beyond everything else. Re-enter Hazel, who offers to marry Lon, whom she has always loved anyways, for the sake of the boy. Lon wills in, and with Creighton back, they soon are the picture book happy family. That is until Cleva shows up, not in an intrusive way but observing Creighton from afar. This throws Lon off, and he insists Creighton must not know his mum is still alive. Of course, Creighton finds out eventually anyhow, and he breaks with his father, also to support his mother (he's in his early 20s by then). It's only in the last days of Lon's life that he and Creighton make up again, and Lon even gives Creighton his blessings to start an acting career as Lon Chaney jr ...

 

Now if you want to find out everything you always wanted to know about Lon Chaney, look elsewhere, this film does take extensive liberties with Lon's life and career, so much so that it contorts huge chunks of his life story to fit the rather old-fashioned blueprint for an epic drama with all the beats in the right places and a reconciliatory resolution to round the story off.

True story aside, if an old-fashioned, classic Hollywood drama is your thing, then you might as well feast on this one: James Cagney is brilliant as Chaney, and even if the physical resemblance is only fleeting, he's very believable in the role, and he leads a top notch cast. Also the sets, including many recreations of Lon's old movie sets, are breathtaking, and it's all captured by very smooth camerawork. That said, sure the film's cheesy at times, and some of the plot feels fabricated rather than real, but it's a beautiful film and awesome trip down nostalgia lane all the same.

 

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review © by Mike Haberfelner

 

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Robots and rats,
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Tales to Chill
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Tales to Chill
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the new anthology by
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