Blu-ray Review: Man of a Thousand Faces

STUDIO: Arrow Video/MVD | DIRECTOR: Joseph Pevney | CAST: James Cagney, Dorothy Malone, Jim Backus, Jane Greer, Roger Smith
RELEASE DATE: Oct. 29, 2019 | PRICE: Blu-ray $20.47
BONUSES: commentary, featurette
SPECS: NR | 122 min. | Biographical drama | 2.35:1 widescreen | Mono 1.0 PCM

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  1/2 | Audio  | Video  | Overall  1/2

Beloved by “monster kids”—mostly baby boomers who were weened on the classic monster movies when growing up—Man of a Thousand Faces is the biography of Lon Chaney, the silent screen great who gave us original permutations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera.  Cagney’s life was filled with drama, and this 1957 biopic from workmanlike director Joseph Pevney (Female on the Beach, Fox Fire) is filled with melodrama.

The great James Cagney (Here Comes the Navy) takes on the lead role as Chaney, son of deaf-mute parents, who makes his way past prejudice, marital problems with unpredictable first wife Cleva (Dorothy Malone, Warlock) and child care issues to become of one of the Hollywood’s most successful actors, using his expertise with makeup to portray a series of downtrodden characters inspired by his own past of being labeled an outcast through his early years.

The film takes the shape of a typical Hollywood success saga, with Chaney landing theatrical jobs as a dancing clown, a hoofer and as a star in comedy revues, until he makes his mark in the movies, first standing out as an extra, then graduating to leads as the Phantom, The Hunchback, and in The Unholy Three, Laugh, Clown, Laugh and He Who Gets Slapped.

The Hollywood portion of the Man of a Thousand Faces kicks in about half-way through the film, and, in addition to the backstage drama (accented by a histrionic score by Universal Picture house composer Frank Skinner), there are syrupy interludes with Chaney’s new wife (Jane Greer, Where Love Has Gone) and his son Creighton (who later took the moniker Lon Chaney, Jr. when portraying The Wolf Man, Dracula and Frankenstein over the course of his own career). Also on board for the ride are Chaney’s press agent (Jim Backus, Rebel Without a Cause) and MGM honcho Irving R. Thalberg (limned by the recently deceased producer Robert Evans).

Along with Cagney’s exuberant performance, which includes some dancing, pantomime and heavy duty emoting,  the highlights of the film are the recreations of Chaney’s best-known films and characters, something “monster kids” relished then and now.

Arrow has put together a solid package for this release of Man of a Thousand Faces, led by a brand new restoration from the original negative. Among, the supplemental goodies, former Video Watchdog publisher Tim Lucas provides a fact-filled commentary that points out the difference between real life and reel life, with several fascinating asides about the unexplored aspects of Chaney’s life and career. Also, British film critic Kim Newman puts Chaney’s screenwork into context within the world of silent movies and gives a fascinating explanation on why the actor remains a legend today, over 100 years after he made his screen debut.

Buy or Rent Man of a Thousand Faces

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.