MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957). Director: Joseph Pevney.
The life of the great silent actor Lon Chaney, with a focus on his first failed marriage and his love for, and competition with, his son Creighton [later known as Lon Chaney Jr, a talented actor in his own right.] This is one of the best backstage biopics to come out of Hollywood, with a superb performance by James Cagney in the title role. In recreations of scenes from Chaney's hits, Cagney even gets across the style of acting employed by Chaney in the silent days. Jane Greer offers one of her loveliest performances as Chaney's second wife, Dorothy Malone is vivid and pathetic as wife number one, and even Robert Evans is fine as Irving Thalberg. In addition, Marjorie Rambeau has a nice scene as an extra called the “Duchess” who shows new-in-Hollywood Chaney the ropes. If there is a problem with the film it's that there seems to be too much of an effort made to turn wife number one into a villainess. At first Malone seems to be overacting as her character overreacts to the fact that Chaney's parents are deaf mutes, but it becomes evident later on that the picture wants to paint her as being a mite disturbed. The movie works up some sympathy for Malone in the final quarter. According to the film, wife number one was bored being left home alone with a baby, desired a career for herself as a singer, and when she went out and got one was basically told to stay home where she belongs by her disapproving, chauvinistic husband. Her reunion with her son brings about an estrangement between Lon and Creighton that is movingly resolved before the former's death. Whatever its flaws and dramatic licenses, this is an excellent film that features a dead-on Cagney performance. The CinemaScope photography is not really necessary for a more intimate type of story as this, but Frank Skinner's score for the film is one of his finest.
Verdict: Great biopic. ***1/2.