As we continue on with our Star Of The Month celebration for James Cagney, we’ve got his 1957 film Man Of A Thousand Faces!
Coming Up Shorts! with… Pink Panic (1967)
(available on Blu-ray and DVD as part of The Pink Panther Cartoon Collection: Volume 2 (1966-1968) from Kino Lorber)
(Length: 6 minutes, 1 second)
Coming out of a storm, the Pink Panther tries to spend the night at a haunted hotel in a ghost town. This one is a fun Halloween-type cartoon, as the Panther tries to deal with a ghostly sheet and a skeleton. The fun at first stems from the Panther not realizing the sheet is a ghost (and the various things he does to it in the process), before the ghostly shenanigans come through. I know I enjoy it all the way through, and it’s definitely a fun one to revisit here and there!
And Now For The Main Feature…
As a kid, young Lon Chaney constantly gets into fights with other kids when they make fun of his deaf parents. As a grown adult, Lon (James Cagney) is successful as a clown on the vaudeville stage. However, his wife, Cleva Creighton Chaney (Dorothy Malone), struggles as a singer alongside him. When she is fired at one theatre, Lon decides to leave, too. She convinces him to accept another offer (without her) after she tells him she is pregnant. On the way to his new job, she pushes to meet his family. However, she is shocked to find out about his parents being deaf, and, worried that their future child might also be deaf, declares she doesn’t want this baby (but decides to have it anyway). They continue on to San Francisco, where Lon gets work at the theatre, but his relationship with Cleva is increasingly strained, as she resents being stuck in a home far from the city. When their son Creighton is born, they worry about whether he can hear or not. After a while, they see proof that Creighton can hear, and they are relieved (but their relationship doesn’t improve). After several years, Creighton spends a lot of time with Lon at the theatre, and dancer Hazel Bennett (Jane Greer) helps watch him for Lon. With Creighton spending so much time at the theatre, Cleva decides to go back to work as a singer. Lon is reluctant to let her do so, but he goes along with it. That is, until Creighton gets a little sick at the theatre, and, angry at her not being there to mother their son, he gets her fired. In revenge, she comes to the theatre and drinks poison on stage. She survives, although with a more limited ability to speak, but her actions have effectively blacklisted Lon now, too. When she disappears from the hospital, that is enough for Lon to decide to keep her out of both his and Creighton’s lives. He gets a divorce, but, in the process, the judge deems him an unfit father, and makes Creighton a ward of the court (at least, until Lon can provide a better home). At the suggestion of press agent Clarence Locan (Jim Backus), Lon decides to go to Hollywood. There, he gets a lot of work as an extra, due to his talents with makeup. After a while, his performances gain some attention, and he is given a chance at better parts. Lon is reluctant to share his personal life with the press, and Clarence is able to use that to spin him off as a “man of mystery.” However, his newfound success is still not quite enough for the courts to let him have his son back. Seeing Lon’s frustration, Clarence convinces Hazel to come see him. Given that they both have feelings for each other, they decide to get married, which is enough for the courts to believe that Creighton can come home to be with his father. But trouble is brewing as time goes on, as Lon told Creighton that his mother had died. When he is older, Cleva starts coming back around to see him (although she doesn’t reveal who she is to him). Lon tries to tell her to go away, but she refuses. Eventually, Creighton finds out from Hazel that his mother is still alive, and, after he and his father fight, he goes to stay with her. Can the two reconcile, or will they be forever separated because of Lon’s lies?
Writer Ralph Wheelright had put together an idea for a movie based on the life of actor Lon Chaney. When his friend James Cagney learned of it, he hoped to do the film, as he himself had been a fan of Lon Chaney when he was younger. The film was made at Universal-International, the studio where Chaney had made some of his best-known films like the 1923 The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and the 1925 The Phantom Of The Opera. To fill the part of Universal’s production manager for the time period, Irving Thalberg (and obtain the rights to use his name), they turned to Thalberg’s widow, Norma Shearer, for help. She suggested Robert Evans, whom she thought resembled her late husband (and, ironically enough, Robert Evans would later go on to be the production chief at Paramount Studios in the 1970s). The film proved to be a hit for Universal, with several of the performances (Cagney’s in particular) being praised highly.
Now, I will readily admit that I have no experience with any of Lon Chaney’s films (just a few with his son, like some of the Abbott and Costellos and a few appearances as the Wolfman). My main reason for wanting to see this film was James Cagney himself, and he did not disappoint! I really liked his performance, as a man who grew up fighting for his family, when others looked down on them. We can see that as well (at first) with his wife Cleva, as he tries to stick by her when nobody wants to hire her. Which makes her betrayal when she meets his family all the more heartbreaking, as he finds himself fighting her, too, even after their son is born able to hear and speak. But, everything he does is for his close family (he doesn’t always do the right thing, but he tries). To me, James Cagney does a great job with all this, and makes the movie an easy watch!
Obviously, being a biopic, this movie is certainly not without its fictionalized moments. Considering this is a film about Lon Chaney, one of the worst is the fact that the real Lon used makeup and other things to work with his own face, while Cagney is, at times, very obviously wearing a mask (like for the Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Phantom Of The Opera stuff). And maybe the stuff with his first wife was played up a bit (in a very melodramatic fashion) to make her into more of a villain. Still, I found this film fascinating (and, of course, we get James Cagney’s real-life sister, Jeanne Cagney, playing his onscreen sister, just as she did in the classic Yankee Doodle Dandy). We even get to see James Cagney do a little dancing (which I hadn’t expect going into this movie)! Overall, this movie was well-acted by everyone, and it was a very unexpected pleasure to see this one! I certainly would recommend it without hesitation!
What’s Old Is A New Release Again (2019) with… Man Of A Thousand Faces (1957)
This movie is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Films, featuring a 2K scan from the 35mm camera negative. This transfer looks quite good, with pretty good clarity. The picture has been cleaned up of all dirt and debris. There is a commentary by film scholar Tim Lucas, and a twenty minute featurette on Lon Chaney. Overall, this movie has been given a good release here, and it comes recommended as the best way to see this film!
Film Length: 2 hours, 2 minutes
My Rating: 9/10
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List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections
Mister Roberts (1955) – James Cagney – Never Steal Anything Small (1959)