Man of a Thousand Faces
Chaney (James Cagney) is the son of deaf-mute parents, so grew up communicating non-verbally through sign language, body language, and expression. After going into vaudeville as a dancer, juggler, and clown, he falls in love with and marries his assistant Cleva Creighton (Dorothy Malone). Cleva becomes hysterical upon meeting Chaney's parents, fearing that any child they have will be born deaf. She is cold and distant when their son Creighton is born, even after Chaney proves that the child is normal. Chaney becomes a popular performer in vaudeville, and the disturbed Cleva's resentment grows. She attempts suicide onstage, and eventually abandons the family altogether. Chaney divorces her and tries to break into motion pictures, but his lack of work causes the courts to place his son in a foster home. Determined to get more roles, Chaney brings his makeup kit to casting calls so that he can become any character type that is needed. His star rises in Hollywood as he creates a memorable series of film portrayals of tortured characters. His second wife Hazel (Jane Greer) is loving and supportive and Chaney's life seems tranquil, until Cleva returns to renew contact with her son.
James Cagney was acting in These Wilder Years in 1956 when storyman and friend Ralph Wheelwright mentioned to him that he had written a screen treatment based on the life of Lon Chaney. In the 1920s, Wheelwright had worked in the publicity department at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio which became Chaney's home base in his final years. (The very first film produced at MGM, in 1924, was Chaney's He Who Gets Slapped). Cagney expressed an immediate interest in the property, since he had been a Chaney fan in his youth. A deal was put together - not at MGM, but at Universal-International. Universal had released two of Chaney's greatest triumphs, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), so the production venue was entirely appropriate. Chaney biographer Michael F. Blake, in his book A Thousand Faces, reports that James Cagney received a salary of $75,000 and a percentage of the profits for his role as Chaney. The production team came together quickly; producer Robert Arthur assigned R. Wright Campbell to write the script and contract director (and former actor) Joseph Pevney was given the directing job. Cagney brought in Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, who had written such Cagney vehicles as White Heat (1949) and Come Fill the Cup (1951), for some script polishes.
In what must have been a strong selling point in accepting the role, James Cagney was delighted that the depiction of Chaney's early vaudeville career afforded him the chance to perform some dance routines. In his book A Thousand Faces, author Blake quotes director Pevney, who said, "I can't tell you how many times we shot those two dance numbers until Jimmy was satisfied. He was almost like a child in his desire to dance in a scene." Cagney even wrote the music for these sequences. Jane Greer is effectively cast against type and serves as a perfect counterpoint to Malone's intense turn as Chaney's first wife. Pevney related that it was Cagney's suggestion to cast Malone in the Cleva role: "I thought she was a little too old for the part, but she turned out great. She turned Cleva into a real bitch. We had to cut a scene of her going into the dressing room to see her son before she attempts suicide. If we had left it in the picture, it made her role too sympathetic, and she was really the villain..." Among the smaller roles, Celia Lovsky stood out as Chaney's mother Emma.
In a another small but key part in the picture, producer Arthur was intent on depicting Universal production chief Irving Thalberg, and with good reason: Thalberg had become executive in charge of production at Universal at the age of 21, and was heavily involved in the making of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. To obtain the rights to use the producer's name, the studio gave the final casting approval to Norma Shearer, Thalberg's widow. According to legend, Shearer spotted a young man by the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel whom she thought strongly resembled her late husband. He was an actor with very little experience named Robert Evans. While Evans' performance was widely criticized at the time for being "wooden," the casting now seems appropriate; Evans became a mogul himself as Paramount production chief in the 1970s.
One of the difficulties in producing a Hollywood biopic is recreating iconic movie images with which the audience is already familiar. Man of a Thousand Faces had the formidable challenge of depicting the famous makeup achievements of Chaney, and even the title of the film pointed to the importance of carrying them off. The resulting recreations, though, were seen by most as a failure. One of the reasons for their weakness is basic ¿ while Chaney had a thin, lean face, Cagney's was rounded and full, making Cagney an unlikely candidate for elaborate makeup in the first place. The movie's recreations also point out the changes that had occurred in that particular field by the late 1950s. At that time Bud Westmore was head of the Universal makeup department, having replaced Jack Pierce in 1946. Pierce created the look of the classic Universal monsters such as the Wolfman, the Mummy and Frankenstein's Monster, using a laborious "built-up" method requiring cotton and collodion. Chaney had worked with those materials too, but he was also able to use more drastic (and sometimes painful) methods to distort his features with glues, adhesives, and monofilament lines. With these, he was able to distend the corners of his mouth or bulge his eyes or flatten his nose or ears. Westmore's methods were entirely different. With his assistant Jack Kevan, Westmore fashioned large foam rubber appliances that covered Cagney's entire face, except for the mouth and eyes. While these masks were much easier and faster to apply, they resulted in clumsy, bulky makeups with none of the power or naturalism of Chaney's original creations. As John McCabe remarked in his biography Cagney, "one cannot create anything very frightening out of a cherubic countenance, which Cagney's basically was."
Man of a Thousand Faces had three successful previews, and premiered on August 13, 1957. It was one of Universal's biggest hits of the year, earning more than $2.4 million. Though several of the performances were widely praised, the only Oscar® nomination the film earned was for Best Original Screenplay. Many reviews noted the film's emphasis on melodrama, but most had high praise for Cagney's performance. In The New York Times Bosley Crowther wrote, "It may not be Chaney exactly that Mr. Cagney gives us in this film, but it is a person of reasonable resemblance and comparable complexity....There is an abundance of tenderness, sensitivity and pride in his creation of the driven actor. This is the heart of the film. Joseph Pevney's direction has a curious affection for cliches, but Mr. Cagney rises above it. He etches a personality."
Producer: Robert Arthur
Director: Joseph Pevney
Screenplay: R. Wright Campbell, Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, based on a story by Ralph Wheelwright
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Film Editing: Ted J. Kent
Music: Frank Skinner
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, Eric Orbom
Costume Design: Bill Thomas
Makeup: Bud Westmore
Cast: James Cagney (Lon Chaney), Dorothy Malone (Cleva Creighton), Jane Greer (Hazel Bennett Chaney), Jim Backus (Clarence Locan), Robert Evans (Irving Thalberg), Celia Lovsky (Mrs. Chaney), Jack Albertson (Dr. Shields), Nolan Leary (Pa Chaney), Roger Smith (Creighton Chaney).
BW-122m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by John M. Miller