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Man Of A Thousand Faces
cast: James Cagney, Dorothy Malone, Jane Greer

director: Joseph Pevney

122 minutes (PG) 1957
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
It is a truth universally acknowledged that no man's life is so interesting that Hollywood can't dick around with it. Just as Peter Sellers famously claimed on The Muppet Show that there once was a 'real me' but that he had it removed, so Lon Chaney Sr boasted that biographers would have little to go on as between pictures he did not exist.

The film opens with Irving Thalberg (Robert Evans, producer of Chinatown, and The Godfather) opening a soundstage in honour of Lon Chaney (James Cagney). He explains that the actor's portrayal of the suffering of outsiders came from his own background. We then see the young Chaney returning from school where he has been fighting bullies who have been mocking his parents who are deaf-mutes.

The action moves on to where Chaney is a vaudeville performer with his young wife Cleva (Dorothy Malone, Basic Instinct). Cleva announces that she is pregnant and eager to meet her husband's family. It is clear that Chaney has not told her about his parents. Christmas with the Chaneys is a disaster as Cleva reacts to her husband's parents as if she has stumbled onto the set of Tod Browning's Freaks. Cleva's reaction seems excessive to a modern sensibility, although explained to a degree by her fears for her unborn baby.

The worries surrounding their child and Chaney's work-ethic causes a rift between the pair that the birth of a normal baby boy does nothing to heal. As Cleva pursues her own singing career, drawing the attention of a wealthy admirer, Chaney devotes his own life to work and his son. Having sabotaged his wife's career, in order to try and ensure a 'normal' family life for their child, Chaney is repaid when Cleva drinks acid on stage during his act.

In the fallout from the scandal Chaney seeks a divorce from Cleva but sees his son Creighton put into care as a result. Needing to show that he has steady work and a sound home in order to win the child back, Chaney embarks on a career in motion pictures. Despite success and wealth Chaney is unable to convince the authorities to release Creighton into his care until he accepts a marriage proposal from lovelorn former chorus-girl Hazel (Jane Greer).

Working with producer Irving Thalberg, Chaney goes on to create some of the greatest roles in silent movie history in The Phantom Of The Opera and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. A family rift opens up when Creighton discovers that his real mother is still alive contrary to the story his father has allowed him to believe. Father and son are reconciled in time for Chaney Sr's death from complications following bronchial lung cancer.

Cagney is impressive in his portrayal of the enigmatic Lon Chaney, sacrificing attempts at sympathy in an effort to express the complexities of the man. He is not helped in his endeavours by a script that occasionally seems to yearn for melodrama. One imagines Cagney might have had some empathy in the role being used to masks and disguises as a dancer and a wonderful player of comedy who nevertheless was best known for his roles as sociopathic hoodlums. Dorothy Malone is fine as the troubled Cleva, and Jane Greer impresses as the stoical Hazel.

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