erik lundegaard

Wednesday August 05, 2020

Movie Review: Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

There’s a better biopic to be made here. Lon Chaney’s parents were deaf and mute, and growing up he pantomimed for them, and as an adult he pantomimed for the world. It made him world famous. Deservedly so. I’ve only seen a few Chaney movies—“Phantom of the Opera,” “Where East is East”—but the  pain and power he exuded hasn’t diminished after 100 years. Then in 1930, at the age of 47, he developed throat cancer. Just as the movies were beginning to speak, he went mute. In his last months, he resorted to signing—as he had with his parents as a child. It’s circle-of-life stuff.

This is what “Man of a Thousand Faces” does with that story.

The first half is about how horrible Chaney’s first wife is. The second half is about how unforgiving Chaney becomes. The movie wrings its hands over the treatment of Chaney's parents but is as horrified by their state of existence as anyone. It’s mainstream melodrama, ’50s pablum but set earlier in our history. That may be what bugged me most: It reeks of postwar prosperity rather than turn-of-the-century struggle. There’s a sense of safety and cleanliness that feels like a ’50s sitcom rather than an era in which child labor laws hadn’t yet been established. You almost expect the Beav to enter stage left.

James Cagney is also the wrong physical type to play Chaney: that round, pudgy face rather than Chaney’s long, hollow one. He’s also too old. Sorry. Cagney begins the movie in clown makeup—not a bad idea to hide the years—but once he takes it off, well, we’ve got a 50/60-year-old playing twentysomething. And with Dorothy Malone as his wife? In your dreams, gramps. 

Chaney’s makeup was better than Cagney’s. That’s sad. It’s in black-and-white but Cinemascope. That’s odd. And the aspect of Chaney’s life that the movie is least interested in? The movies. That’s ... ironic? 

Even the movie's transitions are facile.

Mother to a dumb thing
We first see Chaney as a kid—with blonde, floppy hair like me in the 1960s—coming home bruised and bloodied because he’s been defending his parents against the taunts of bullies. His mother (Celia Lovsky, a standout), signs that he should feel sorry for those who don’t understand, then tells him to go wash up. He smiles, hugs her, goes to wash up. The camera focuses on running tap water then cuts to a rainstorm 15-20 years later. Sure.

Lon, dressed like a clown, is being called to see the boss because his wife, Cleva (Dorothy Malone), a not-very talented diva, is late for her curtain. The path from her dressing room to the stage feels like the watery pathway beneath the stage in “Phantom of the Opera,” for no real reason, and on the way she slips, falls in, can’t make the curtain. She’s fired, of course, so he goes on in her place. Performs a pantomime clown number that kills. The boss is excited but Chaney isn’t having it. “You fired her,” he says, “you fired me.” That’s the kind of loyal guy he is, see? So why go on in the first place?

We quickly discover that Cleva: 1) is pregnant, 2) has never met his parents, and 3) thinks it’s because he’s ashamed of her. But we know it’s because he’s ashamed of them. He never told her that his parents are deaf-mutes. So that’s the tension when they return home for a holiday gathering: How is she going to take it?

Not well, it turns out. His siblings are there, joyful and friendly, and then the parents come in and begin signing She stares, horrified, then runs up to the bedroom and throws herself on the bed.

He: Was it that hard to look at them, Cleva?
She: I couldn’t stand it.

Ouch. Yes, some of this is his fault for not mentioning it before, but she’s about the furthest thing from a picnic. “Ask them about my baby,” she cries. “Will it be like them? It’s in your blood, Lon, it can happen again! … I don’t want to have it! I don’t want to have it! I DON’T WANT TO BE MOTHER TO A DUMB THING!”

You’d think that would end it—how can their relationship recover?—but his mother convinces him to do right, so he sticks by her. At this point, the drama becomes: Will the baby be born a deaf-mute? Nope. It cries at birth (so not mute) and cries after Lon claps loudly by its crib (so not deaf). As the parents celebrate, Lon tells the boy, Creighton, who will become horror movie icon Lon Chaney Jr., “That’s the last time anyone will ever scare you.” Ha. Heh. Cough.

Cut to four or five years later and Cleva still doesn’t want the boy. Or she wants a career. Or something. At the  Kolb and Dill vaudeville show, where Lon works, she drops off Creighton backstage and the showgirls dote on him like in a G-rated scene from “All That Jazz.” One in particular, Hazel (Dorothy Malone), shows maternal instincts. She’s forever babysitting while Cleva goes off to sing at a cocktail lounge. Cleva has an admirer there, but when he finds out she’s married he abandons her. So Cleva shows up at Lon’s work, walks onstage, and tries to kill herself by drinking mercuric chloride.

That’s actually true, by the way. She did that. It’s also true that they finally divorced—good riddance—but he couldn’t get custody and Creighton became a ward of the state. I don’t know if this is why Lon went into the movies, but that what the movie implies. He needed to make a lot of money quickly to show the judge he could raise Creighton by himself; but no matter how much money he makes in Hollywood, how nice and 1950s-ranch-style his home becomes, the judge won’t budge. Until he marries Hazel. One night, she confesses her love for him and basically proposes. (“Oh, so that’s why you’ve been hanging around for the past 10 years …”) And the two of them get Creighton back. And they get a cabin in the mountains. And the boy signs a greeting to his visiting grandparents. And all is well with the world.

We only get three extended sequences from his Hollywood career—the making of “The Miracle Man” from 1919, “Hunchback” from 1923 and “Phantom” from 1925—and each involves some backstage drama. While filming the whipping scene in “Hunchback,” for example, Hazel, along with Lon’s press agent pal Clarence (Jim Backus), show up, and guess who they merrily bring along? Cleva! Why not, right? She’s contrite but he’s unforgiving. She wants to see her son again but he wants nothing to do with her—in part, because to spare Creighton’s feelings, he told his son she was dead. And that’s the tension for the rest of the movie. Will Creighton find out? How will he take it?

Not well, it turns out. He leaves his father—who is also against him becoming an actor—and goes to live with his mother, who welcomes him with open arms. But she’s a good person now, and convinces him to forgive his father. Which happens just in time for Lon to die.

You know what would’ve made a better story? The truth. Example. In his memoir, Cagney relays what really happened when Creighton went searching for his mother. He got a lead, wound up at a desert ranch, knocked. A woman answered. 

“Hello. My name is Creighton Chaney, and I’m looking for Mrs. Cleva Fletcher.”

“What’s the name?”

“Cleva—Cleva Fletcher.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “No one here by that name.”

Then a voice came from inside the house. “Who is it, Cleva?”

Why didn’t they use that? “The story,” Cagney wrote, “seemed both crueler and larger than life itself.” Instead we got saccharine and smaller.

Thee may leave now
Cagney came to the Chaney story not because he worked with Lon Jr. in “A Lion Is in the Streets” (my assumption), but via Ralph Wheelwright, who wrote Cagney’s previous film, “These Wilder Years.” On that set, he pitched this. He was apparently a good pitcher. A journalist in the 1910s and ’20s, Wheelwright became a PR man for the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Louis B. Mayer before getting some story credits late in his career. All of his credits are just that—stories, not screenplays. The screenwriters for this are latter-day Cagney staples Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (“White Heat,” creators of “Charlie’s Angels”) as well as a guy named R. Wright Campbell (“Teenage Caveman”).

Anyway, it doesn’t amount to much. Backus is wasted as nice guy/press agent, Greer is wasted as nice chorus girl/wife, and the four actors playing Creighton become duller versions of the gee-whiz All-American kid. Future producer/studio chief Bob Evans plays past producer/studio chief Irving Thalberg, but not well. Malone, on the other hand, is a knockout. Shame her character’s arc doesn’t ring true. (Because it isn’t true.)

Meanwhile, Lovsky, playing Chaney’s mom, so impressed me I had to look her up. She was born in Vienna, the daughter of a composer, and was a respected actress of the surrealist German stage in the 1930s when she became involved with Peter Lorre. She brought him to the attention of Fritz Lang (for “M”), fled Germany with him (he was Jewish), married him, divorced him, remained friends with him for life. In America, she continued acting, mostly in small character roles. One of those? Vulcan elder T’Pau in the classic “Star Trek” episode “Amok Time.” Yes, she’s the second person ever to do the Vulcan salute. The director of that episode happens to be the director of this movie: Joseph Pevney. “Amok Time” worked anyway.

Posted at 06:41 AM on Wednesday August 05, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s  
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