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Man of a Thousand Faces

Theatrical poster
Directed by Joseph Pevney
Produced by Robert Arthur
Written by R. Wright Campbell
Ivan Goff
Ben Roberts
Ralph Wheelwright
Starring James Cagney
Dorothy Malone
Jane Greer
Jim Backus
Robert Evans
Marjorie Rambeau
Music by Frank Skinner
Cinematography Russell Metty
Editing by Ted Kent
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date(s) 13 August 1957
Running time 122 min.
Country USA
Language English, American Sign Language

Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) is a film detailing the life of silent movie actor Lon Chaney, in which the title role is played by James Cagney.



In the early 1900s, actor Lon Chaney (James Cagney) is working in Vaudeville with his wife Cleva (Dorothy Malone). After Chaney quits the show he has been performing in, Cleva announces that she is pregnant. Lon is happy with the news, and tells Cleva that he has been hired by the famous comedy team Kolb and Dill for an upcoming show. Cleva pressures Lon to take her to visit his parents (whom she has never met) in his home town of Colorado Springs. Lon is reluctant, because his parents are both deaf mutes, a fact Lon has never shared with Cleva.

After meeting Lon's family, Cleva reacts with disgust, and runs off. Lon confronts Cleva who tells him that she does not want to give birth to his child, fearing that the child will be a deaf mute like Lon's parents, and that she doesn't want to be the mother of a "dumb thing". When Lon later tells her that he wants this baby, Cleva tells him that she does not, but that she will have it.

Months later, the baby Creighton is born and after several days it becomes clear that the child is not deaf, and will likely learn to speak. Despite the news, Lon and Cleva's marriage continues to erode over the next few years. Soon Cleva has taken a job as a singer in a nightclub, and decides to drop young Creighton off to his father backstage at his theater before being driven to work at the club. Meanwhile, Lon has developed a close but platonic friendship with chorus girl Hazel Hastings (Jane Greer). Hazel is happy to help with watching after young Creighton. After Creighton gets sick at the theater, Lon complains to Cleva's employer who reluctantly agrees to terminate her. When confronting Cleva in her dressing room, Lon discovers that Cleva has been dating Bill a wealthy patron. When Lon tells Cleva that she's been fired, Cleva reacts by screaming, which causes Bill to enter the dressing room. Bill comforts Cleva and then asks Lon who he is. Lon responds by telling Bill that he is from the collection agency, and that he is here to collect his wife. Bill looks at Cleva with contempt and walks away. Lon returns to the theater to retrieve Creighton, and discovers Hazel being accosted in the corridor by a tall thin man. Lon punches the main in the face and tells him to get up. Hazel explains that he can't and the man lifts up his trousers to the knee revealing two wooden legs. Lon comforts Hazel, who reveals that the man is Carl Hastings, her former husband, once rationale, but now consumed with bitterness as the result of his accident. Cleva enters the dressing room to find Lon with his hands on Hazel's shoulders. Cleva screams that she will not go back to being a "nurse maid" so that he can play around with a chorus girl. Soon thereafter, Cleva leaves home and vanishes. Days later, Lon is performing a dance routine in clown make-up at a matinee, when a now totally deranged Cleva walks on stage and swallows a bottle of acid in front of an audience permanently damaging her vocal chords.

After Cleva is hospitalized, and later runs away and vanishes once more, the surrounding scandal essentially destroys Lon's career in Vaudeville. The state takes custody of young Creighton as they deem his home situation to be unsuitable, and Lon reacts angrily. On the advice of his friend Kolb & Dill's press agent Clarence Locan (Jim Backus), Lon moves to Hollywood to try his luck in the then new field of motion pictures. After starting as an extra, Lon's tireless work ethic, and his expertise at make up, soon cause him to be an in demand bit player, and later a feature player.

Lon is cast in the silent film The Miracle Man as a man thought to be physically challenged who is seemingly cured by a faith healer. His success in this film starts him on the road to stardom in such films as 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' and 'The Phantom of the Opera'. As his career soars, Lon face personal challenges. After marrying Hazel and regaining custody of Creighton, Cleva re-appears seeking to spend time with Creighton (Who has been told by Lon that she is dead). Hazel reveals the truth to Creighton, who leaves to stray with his mother, after angrily confronting Lon about the deception. Lon becomes ill on the set of the sound version of The Unholy Three and is diagnosed with bronchial cancer. Hazel and Locan decide to (initially) hide the truth of his condition from him. Creighton and Lon reconcile their differences, and take a fishing trip at Lon's mountain cabin. After returning from his fishing trip, Lon collapses and is returned home to live out his final days. On his deathbed, the dying Chaney (now unable to speak due to the cancer) reverts to the sign language he used with his parents during childhood, to express his love for his friends and family and to ask for forgiveness for unspecified transgressions. Lon signals Creighton to bring him his makeup box. Upon receiving it, Lon removes a stick of greasepaint and ads a "Jr." to his own name on the box, signaling to his son his desire for him to carry on his work in film. Lon then dies, as Creighton slowly starts to leave the room with his makeup box in hand, seemingly ready to start his film career as Lon Chaney, Jr..

Plot Accuracy

Creative license was used in writing the screenplay, and many incidents were sanitized and fictionalized, including the following:

Creighton Tull Chaney was not born in a hospital as is depicted in the film. He was born at his father's home in Oklahoma city.

Lon Chaney, Sr. had stated in interviews at the time that he did not want Creighton (later Lon Chaney, Jr.) to be an actor as is clearly depicted in the film's conclusion. Creighton Chaney had been married for two years, and was on his way to becoming a plumber when his father died. When financial problems became overwhelming for Creighton, he started to accept film work and was billed under his birth name. It was only in the mid 1930's that he allowed himself (at the insistence of film producers) to be billed as "Lon Chaney, Jr.", an action he often said he felt ashamed of. In later life Chaney, Jr. stated that he was proud of the name "Lon Chaney", but not of the name "Lon Chaney, Jr."

In the film, Lon is depicted as being at home, and surrounded by family and friends when he passes on. In reality, Chaney died in his hospital room after suffering a hemorrhage.

The depiction of Lon Chaney Senior's makeup for 'The Phantom of the Opera' and 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' differs significantly from Chaney's original make up for these films. Cagney's (as Chaney) face appears partially immobile behind an elaborate full latex mask and other make up. Lon Chaney, Sr. actually took great pride in his ability to distort his appearance using only a minimum of makeup, which still allowed for a great deal of facial expression. For instance, Chaney utilized thin wires in his nose and around his eyes, false teeth and dark paint around his eyes and nostrils, plus other methods.

Bud Westmore's recreations of these original make ups are clearly partial masks which vaguely resemble the originals. Cagney's face in some scenes is fairly immobile, such as the scene where he speaks to Creighton while wearing his 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' make up, and when he speaks to the actress at the conclusion of 'The Phantom of the Opera's' unmasking scene.


Lon Chaney, Jr. lobbied unsuccessfully to play his father in this film.

Robert Evans, who plays Irving Thalberg in this film was discovered by Norma Shearer-Thalberg's widow, who was amazed by Evan's strong resemblance to her late husband.

Lon's sister Carrie Chaney is portrayed by Jeanne Cagney, James Cagney's real life sister.

James Cagney was 58 years old at the time of the film's release, a full 11 years older than Lon Chaney, Sr. at the time of his death.

Given that the film covers events spanning twenty four years starting in roughly 1906 (shortly before Creighton's birth), and ends in 1930 (Lon's death), Cagney (who was almost fifty eight years old at the time of filming) plays Chaney from the age of twenty four to the age of forty seven.

Chaney biographer and Hollywood makeup artist Michael Blake and make up/effects artist Tom Savini were inspired to seek careers in make up after seeing this film as youths, as were numerous other film makeup artists.

In the Trailer for the film, the announcer speaks that Lon Chaney has played the parts of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", "The Miracle Man" and "The Phantom of the Opera". Lon Chaney didn't play the Part of "The Miracle Man", he played the Part of The Frog, the Fake Cripple, who pretends to be cured by the Miracle Man

Universal Pictures released this film on a double bill with Interlude.

External links




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