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Loose biography of actor Lon Chaney. Growing up with deaf parents, he learns what it is like to be different. As an actor, he puts that knowledge (together with lots of make-up and talent) to use playing a variety of strange, unusual characters, adopting their characteristics so thoroughly as to be called the Man of a Thousand Faces. Written by
Ken Yousten <email@example.com>
On a trip to Hawaii, James Cagney met Roger Smith stationed there in the Naval Reserve, impressed with his clean-cut good looks and appeal, he encouraged Smith to pursue an acting career. Following the advice and after success in several films, Smith reconnected with Cagney who hired him to play his son, "Lon Jr." in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). Cagney later cast him as his co-star in the musical comedy-drama Never Steal Anything Small (1959). See more »
Chaney died in 1930. In one scene, however he drives up to his cabin in a 1937 Packard. See more »
It's possible Jimmy Cagney couldn't resist the role of Lon Chaney here because of the opportunity it gave him to draw on his own stage and vaudeville experience to perform a couple of dance numbers. There's certainly nothing else about this film a typical Hollywood biopic that pays only loose attention to historical fact to explain why he accepted a part that he was clearly too old to play. Chaney was only 47 when he died, ten years younger than Cagney was when he filmed the role and was a rather gaunt figure whereas the middle-aged Cagney had a round face (although he appears to have slimmed down quite considerably for the part) and was noticeably short in stature. Despite these drawbacks, Cagney gives the best performance in the picture, and arguably his best post-Cody performance. Although Cagney was a thoughtful man he was also a dynamic character and the role calls upon him to rein in that natural dynamism to a large degree. Even though he manages this admirably, it's impossible for him to persuade us that he is the quiet man of few words that Chaney was. A passing reference is made to Chaney's quietness, but it plays no major part in the portrayal.
As with most Hollywood biopics, the writers select a couple of the more sensational aspects of their subjects life around which they then construct an overwrought melodrama that bears little resemblance to reality. Chaney's parents were both deaf and mute but I don't recall this causing a major rift between him and his first wife. There was also some concern that their child may inherit his grandparent's mute-deafness, but again I don't think it was the major crisis in Chaney and Cleva's relationship as it is here. I could be wrong, of course, but had only just completed reading a biography of Chaney's life when I happened upon this film. Cleva did destroy her singing voice when she attempted suicide but she didn't attempt it on stage.
The film devotes most of its time to Chaney's personal life but does offer occasional glimpses into the film-making business. A few scenes that demonstrates the chaotic process of studio film-making in the very early days of Hollywood, when the absence of sound meant that several different genres of film could be shot alongside one another in an enclosed space, are quite interesting but, while we do see Cagney re-enacting a few famous Chaney scenes, the general impression is that his career is sidelined for much of the film.
Chaney died in 1931 (after making only one sound movie a remake of his silent hit The Unholy Three). His premature death from lung cancer was the result of a lifetime of heavy smoking, but we never once see a cigarette in Cagney's hands. Even as late as the late-50s it seems that the studios were still portraying movie stars as Gods Amongst Us who could never be the instrument of their own demise. Here, Chaney develops a mysterious cough. It is never explained, but briefly described to an improbably handsome Creighton Chaney (who would metamorphose into Lon Chaney Jr.) as 'malignant' shortly before all personal and emotional problems are neatly resolved and dad can pass his famous make up box to son before ascending to the great studio in the sky.
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