Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 24, 2019)
With a title like Man of a Thousand Faces, one might expect the 1957 film to provide a horror tale or a psychological thriller. Nope – instead, it brings a biopic about a movie icon.
Early in the 20th Century, Lon Chaney (James Cagney) and his wife Cleva (Dorothy Malone) work as vaudeville entertainers. Unfortunately, Cleva’s neurotic behavior costs them jobs.
Other life complications occur as well. Chaney’s parents are deaf mutes, a fact that he obscures from Cleva. When she learns of this issue, she becomes even more erratic, as she fears their unborn child will encounter the same fate.
Although baby Creighton emerges healthy, Cleva continues to act inappropriately, and she abandons Lon to pursue fame. We follow Lon’s struggles in his personal life as well as his march toward success in Hollywood and his premature death in 1930.
Spoiler alert? Not so much - Faces opens with a dedication toward the deceased Chaney, so we know where the story will end.
Back in 1942, Cagney starred in Yankee Doodle Dandy, another show biz biopic. Cagney earned his only Oscar for his role as composer George M. Cohan, so maybe he thought another turn as a Hollywood icon would bring him another trophy.
This failed to materialize, as Cagney didn’t even land a nomination. The film’s screenplay got a nod – it lost to Designing Woman - but otherwise, Faces failed to rouse Oscar voters.
At no point will I criticize the Academy for this, and I feel more likely to look askance at the organization for the fact it honored Faces at all. Though it aspires to deliver a deep character study, instead the film brings us a massive serving of ham.
Part of the problem comes from that Oscar-nominated screenplay, as it focuses too much on the tedious Lon/Cleva relationship. Of course, I expect a movie like this to examine both personal and professional lives, but Faces leans far too much in the former direction.
Perhaps I wouldn’t object if Faces pulled off the character moments better, but these emphasize melodrama to the exclusion of all else. The Cleva/Lon moments go to such extremes that they often feel like parody.
When we do find ourselves stuck with the turmoil of Lon’s personal life, Faces goes out of its way to display all the ways our lead can be the titular chameleon. At times, the movie grinds to a halt so Cagney can show his range.
These moments flop as well, mainly because they never feel organic. They seem like the self-conscious attempts to give Cagney an Acting Showcase that they are.
Honestly, Cagney seems like a bizarre choice to play Chaney due to his age. Faces starts with Chaney at 22, and he dies at 47.
During the shoot, Cagney was almost 60 - already too old to play “final years” Chaney and laughably ancient to portray young Chaney.
Clearly the filmmakers understood this, so they “aged up” everyone else as well. Malone was 33, so she was much younger than Cagney, but still far too old for Cleva at the film’s start, as she was only 16 at the time.
The actors who play Chaney’s siblings get “aged up” as well so they don’t look ridiculous next to Old Man Cagney. Oddly, we get actors only 10 years older than Cagney as his parents.
Faces might get away with these age-related leaps if it didn’t tell us Chaney’s real age at the start. As I noted, we learn of Chaney’s death during the movie’s opening, so we know the real man was radically younger than pushing-60 Cagney.
Perhaps I wouldn’t fixate on Cagney’s age if Faces worked better as a whole, but the movie seems relentlessly mawkish and silly. You can find worse biopics but this one nonetheless sputters.