By far and away the best thing about this dramatic biography is James Cagney’s portrayal of Lon Chaney at work. Whether clowning around with his shadow in a vaudeville routine, miraculously bringing his crippled body back to health (The Miracle Man), whipped and ridiculed (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) or famously having his mask ripped off (The Phantom of the Opera), Cagney wears the silent film legend’s skin with enough conviction and brilliance to come very close to equalling the master’s storied art of playing the “different” amongst us.
For the rest of the film, writers Ralph Wheelwright, R. Wright Campbell, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts have crafted a script that is long on melodramatic scenes and short on character development. As Chaney’s first wife, Cleva Creighton, Dorothy Malone is asked to be an unfeeling, selfish bitch when meeting the actor’s deaf-mute parents for the first time, then morph into a devoted mom and transgression forgiver after walking out on her family and symbolically ending her own stage career (quaffing a vial of acid before a horrified audience as her distraught husband begged for a curtain). What’s not revealed is their ages at the altar: the bride was just 16 (Chaney 22); abundantly clear, if hard to swallow, is Chaney letting his nervous spouse meet his mute parents without any warning as to their situation. Christmas dinner is ruined (another saccharine touch) and the entertaining duo’s first baby-on-the-way now viewed with the horror of genetic recurrence by the stunned wife.
Moving to San Francisco for a change of scene (and steady job for Chaney), gives the couple and son (intriguingly named Creighton) the chance for a fresh start. Inexplicably, the makeup wizard buys a house in the middle of nowhere, providing the estranged pair with yet another symbol of silent isolation. Malone, the consummate pro, does everything asked of her yet their scenes together only fill the time instead of divulging important details around the inner workings of Hollywood’s “man of mystery.”
Revelling in the angst and misery of the narrative is composer Frank Skinner. His lushly orchestrated original score flows nicely in tandem with the action where only a few moments of untidy ensemble detract from its effect.
The supporting cast is superb. Jim Backus plays press agent Clarence Locan like he’d actually been one for years. Jane Greer’s portrait of wife No. 2 (Hazel) is wonderfully innocent and a great foil for Malone (until the sudden conversion from manic depressive to devoted mom—from there on out it’s doting sisters all the way home). Son Creighton at 4 gets a charming, emotionally dynamic performance from Dennis Rush (unlike the lore of W.C. Fields, such were Cagney’s skills, he never has to fear a stolen scene from his young sidekick). Seventeen years later, Roger Smith gives the role of the future Lon Chaney Jr. just the right mix of hotheadedness and compassion, making the final moments some of the best in the production.
Veteran director Joseph Pevney does a remarkable job in keeping the fantastic story moving steadily forward, but like Chaney’s best pictures, the considerable allure stems almost entirely from those miraculous moments when the legions of deformed, distraught souls step into the spotlight. JWR