Man of a Thousand Faces

Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay gives us a brief review of the biopic about one of my favorite actors, silent film star Lon Chaney.  I’m still thinking about the whole suffering servant bit…there’s a book, or at least an article, in there somewhere.

Lon ChaneyMy friend and your friendly editor, Ryan Parker, equates the roles of Lon Chaney with the suffering servant in Isaiah – the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. This biblical perspective offers a useful lens though which to view Man of a Thousand Faces, a story of an all-too-human actor who understood what it meant to be different. James Cagney reprises some of the most memorable roles of the greatest character actor of the silent era in this 1957 biopic.

The film portrays Chaney as a troubled but big-hearted man who learned to use body language to communicate to his deaf parents. The young Chaney is portrayed as a fighter, defending his family against abuse he suffered in a time that didn’t understand disability. On meeting his parents, his first wife, Cleva Creighton Chaney, played by Dorothy Malone, goes into fits thinking the child she carries might also be deaf, leading to a broken relationship between the two that never heals. Despite her lousiness as a wife and mother, Cleva comes off as a three-dimensional figure, a hurt human being in need of love, rather than a villain.

But it’s Cagney you can’t take your eyes off of. When he reproduces Chaney’s vaudevillian clown acts, and later unfolds his twisted body as the actor did in The Miracle Man, time stands still for the screen magic. Chaney originally performed these roles in his twenties, thirties and forties, making the athleticism of the 58-year-old Cagney all the more astounding.  The rest of the film is as corny and sentimental as a silent melodrama. “Brokenness, it’s just human brokenness,” I can hear my Presbyterian seminarian friends say. And indeed, the film is solid Calvinism.

Also a result of human brokenness is the setup of the DVD. This is the most basic DVD I’ve ever seen: no extras – not even chapter markers. (What, did they not have iMovies?) Universal missed a golden chance to sell some of its back catalogue by not including any commentaries, clips, or history on Chaney, an actor that deserves to be introduced to a new generation.

Editor’s Note: For a great introduction to Chaney, check out TCM’s Lon Chaney Collection which includes Laugh, Clown, Laugh, The Ace of Hearts, and The Unknown.  The collection also includes a fascinating documentary entitled Lon Chaney:  A Thousand Faces.