or ‘Of Mice and Mustaches’
Mary Astor plays Jessica Welles a Trilby-Like Sylph who falls under the spell of her treacherous husband played by Louis Calhern. Robinson’s role the tagline would suggest, “It’s the most unusual picture since “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” is quite misleading as his character Damon is not a split personality, induced by mad science or a fractured id run amok. He is simply impersonating a fictitious mustache, spectacles and goatee wearing Frenchman in order to lure his vicious prey into his vengeful murderous trap. Louis Calhern is an archetypal Svengali/Caligarian figure and ultimately it’s Damon’s fake mustache accidentally left in a Gideon’s Bible that gives the crime away. Archie Mayo had actually directed Svengali in 1931.
The Man With Two Faces is a mystery thriller with comical overtones. Invoking Jekyll & Hyde is far off the mark as Edward G. Robinson only dons a disguise to rid his bewitched sister of her treacherous, conniving, abusive and murderous husband. The character of Damon is more like Zorro or The Lone Ranger exacting out a theatrical brand of vigilante justice. As an actor the milieu is perfect for him to wear a ‘mask’ posing as a producer to lure his tortured sister’s husband Vance (Yiddish for bedbug, pronounced ‘vants’ but it applies as Stanley Vance is quite the vermin) into his trap so he can kill him…
Mary Astor has a classy, understated beauty. She’s sophisticated and smart, refined and polished and worldly-wise. Often poised and self-possessed with a simmering kind of sexiness. Yet here in The Man With Two Faces, her light is just a bit diminished by the role of Jessica Welles who is forced to shape-shift from lovely star of the stage into a doll imprisoned in a fugue state.
I was thrilled when Dorian from Tales of the Easily Distracted and Ruth of Silver Screenings let me participate in The Mary Astor Blogathon. I wanted to pick a film that I hadn’t seen in order to enhance the fun of bringing some of her films to the attention of readers and really be inclusive while paying tribute to this great woman. I adore Mary Astor. And as much as I like The Maltese Falcon 1941, and simply adore Bogie, it wasn’t that iconic bit of Film Noir flight of fancy that brought Miss Astor to my attention. I hadn’t truly started to notice her work until I did an extensive feature on Robert Aldrich’s Grande Dame Guignol masterpiece Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte 1964 It was then that I became taken in with Mary Astor’s performance as the bitter and time worn Jewel Mayhew. Then of course being a huge fan of Boris Karloff’s Television series Thriller, I am one of the few people who actually think Rose’s Last Summer was one of the finest episodes of that series. Mary Astor bringing her classy swank and snark to the role of Rose French. I became a devout fan of hers from that time on, and have started trying to devour as much Mary Astor as I can…
It’s funny how most people might connect her with her role as Brigid O’ Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon 1941, but I think of her other contributions like Sandra Kovac in The Great Lie 1941 Mme. DeLaage The Hurricane 1937 Antoinette de Mauban The Prisoner of Zenda 1937 and of course in Dodsworth 1936 as Mrs. Edith Cortright.
The Man With Two Faces is a Warner Bros. black comedy not so much of a mystery, with tinges of the 19th Century melodramatic tradition written for the stage by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott with a screenplay by Tom Reed and Niven Busch. The original play opened in New York City in 1933 and had 57 performances. Margaret Dale who plays Aunt Martha originated her movie role on the stage. The original cast included Porter Hall and Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West from Oz)
Produced by Hal Wallis, Jack L Warner and Robert Lord and Directed by Archie Mayo (Svengali 1931, Bordertown 1935, The Petrified Forest (1936) Moontide 1942 Angel on My Shoulder 1946) and with the production and art design by John Houghs (Treasure of the Sierra Madre 1948, The Thing From Another World 1951)
Mary Astor as well as Mae Clarke (Frankenstein 1931, Waterloo Bridge 1931 and Public Enemy’s memorable grapefruit in the face girl) seem to be wasted in both these roles where the women are subverted ridiculed, demeaned and inconsequential. I wish Astor had more presence in the film… even the housekeeper Nettie has more spark to her character as does Aunt Martha. Astor just isn’t given enough layers to work with because she is in a trance most of the time, her character Jessica’s lack of affect doesn’t suit her usual spirited performances, here there are only little bursts of the dimension she is capable of.
Mary Astor who plays actress Jessica Welles, is a delicate Trilby-like sylph who is married to a cold-blooded cad Stanley Vance (Louis Calhern The Asphalt Jungle 1950) Vance is a conniving, controlling Svengali/Caligari-esque cutthroat who not only bilks old ladies out of their fortunes but actually murdered his first wife. He seems to possess the art of hypnosis and uses it to manipulate Jessica into a state of virtual somnambulist enslavement. With the mere tilt of his head and leering eyes that penetrate she goes deeper under his control. In his presence she is a wilting flower, powerless, catatonic and as submissive as Trilby, a piece of clay to be molded in any form Vance desires.
Jessica is a talented actress who has returned to the stage after a three year hiatus due to a mental breakdown stemming from the abuse of her venomous husband, she had started to recover during his absence believing that her long lost straying, evil and cruelly criminal minded husband was dead. Astor as Jessica starts out ebullient on the opening night of her play, The Dark Tower. She is in love with her manager/producer Ricardo Cortez, (Thirteen Women 1931, The Walking Dead 1936) who plays Ben Weston. The young couple glow with affectionate feelings for each other. As the family gathers at Aunt Martha’s house, (Margaret Dale in her last performance who was also in the stage play The Dark Tower) The vain and shady conman Vance walks into the house after a stint in San Quentin bringing with him a heaviness and transforming Jessica back into a listless doll with no more glimmer to her cheeks, the entire household, even Hattie the housekeeper is stunned, as they all are look shocked at the sight as the resurrected smarmy ghost in a fedora comes in out of the foggy night…
The larcenous and flamboyant Vance begins his mesmerizing spell over Jessica turning her into a mindless puppet. He knows that she holds half the rights to the play, and he wants the money as it has the potential to be a huge hit. Jessica’s brother Damon Welles is star of the stage played by the wonderful Edward G. Robinson. Damon is an acerbic and urbane brute who verbally bullies his girl friend who’s got gumption, Daphne Flowers played by the adorable Mae Clarke. Damon treats her like dirt, drinks too much and throws out bitter and witty asides yet till exudes a mysterious kind of gentle nature toward his sister. He’s invested in helping her acting career get back on track, and so Damon helps out as coach to Jessica plus his presence in the play brings a bit of theatrical prestige to his sister’s comeback.
The verminous Vance oozes a vile toxicity where ever he goes, the scene where he literally punches Jessica in the face for not repeating his commands properly is down right brutal. When this vicious devil actually hits her in the face the scene truly pushes the envelope for me, considering it’s not a Pre-Code film. According to the suggested guidelines by the Production Codes Dont’s and Be Carefuls the film breaks the rule of number 6. Brutality and possible Gruesomeness. I was quite startled by the brutality of the moment, and his flagrant abusive as he continuously points his fingers and waves directives at Jessica (as well as all the women), handing them things to hold like his hat!
Or his traveling companions, his cage of little white mice. He is an eccentric dandy who is dazzled by his stylish silken ties and carries around the cage of mice feeding them cheese, demanding that the cage be cleaned, giving him an almost flamboyantly cartoonish sort of dastardly persona, relishing the discomfort he causes.
Aunt Martha orders him to leave her house, but he ignores her and proceeds to boss Hattie the housekeeper around as well. Everyone realizes that his presence is detrimental to Jessica’s physical and mental well being as she has already slipped back into a state of dissociative fog.
So, brother Damon concocts an elaborate bit of subterfuge by masquerading as a French Theatre Producer named Jules Chautard. He offers to purchase the play from the scheming Vance. Damon dons a goatee, mustache and glasses telling Vance that he will buy out Jessica’s half-interest in the play. He lures Vance to his hotel room in order to poison his drink, then stabs him to death off screen in the closet. He then wipes down the room, exits the hotel, thinking that he’s left no trace of Jules Chautard in sight. Leaving little red herring clues for the police to throw them off his trail. Unfortunately he’s overlooked a small detail, a piece of his theatrical whiskers in the leaves of a Gideon’s Bible.
David Landau plays the sharp Sergeant William Curtis who figures out the crime when he discovers Damon’s fake mustache inside the Gideon’s Bible and deduces that the murderer is most likely an actor. Sergeant Curtis is sympathetic toward Damon, saying that he’d like to give him a medal for killing the rat, and hopefully the District Attonry will take mercy on him and the jury will be impressed with his acting skills, since he essentially did society a favor by taking this murderous villain out of the picture.
At the conclusion, Jessica is all smiles and kisses again with Ben in her dressing room. The film ends with the camera showing us Jessica from a distance emoting on stage to a thrilled audience. She’s been set free from Vance’s control but we never truly get close enough to her to say goodbye, she is still an unapproachable sylph. The film closes as it opens, with Daphne and Damon in the wings waiting for his cue to enter the stage. Sergeant Curtis has allowed Damon to finish the night’s performance and hopeful he will receive some leniency. The film is a bit of a sarcastically dark little romp, with some great dialogue thrown in, and the presence of wonderful actors even if the plot is a little contrived.
But as a fan of Mary Astor and Robinson alike it’s not one of my favorite performances for either of them…
Emily Fitzroy adds a bit of comic relief as Martha’s housekeeper Hattie. Mae Clark (Frankenstein 1931) also lightens up the air a lot with her witty comebacks even after Damon chides her at every turn, treating her like a pack mule with no talent. Adapted from the stage play The Dark Tower, the film itself flows like a stage play. Robinson although a verbally abusive alcoholic and a bit of a dismissive snob, as Aunt Martha comments,
Aunt Martha-“It’s just like him turning his back on anything that’s not to his taste.”
Damon is the savior of the story, while Ben (Cortez) who is madly in love with Jessica isn’t very effective at helping the object of his affections., it takes Damon’s brotherly protectiveness, wile and theatrical talents to pull off the subterfuge in getting Vance to fall for his trap, ridding Jessica of his demonic possession of her for good and cleansing the world of his vile presence. No one mourns the loss of Vance at all, not even the police.
Stage actor/brother Damon and the bearded French Producer is the man with two faces, thus the film loses the play’s original title of The Dark Tower giving us more of a peek into the plot design. Originally the play had a surprise ending, here the film lets us in on the dual role from the beginning but delivers an ending that leaves us with ambiguity, wondering if the jury will show mercy on Damon. Mary Astor’s Jessica Welles drifts back onto the stage,having been freed by her brother’s crime of murder, and we are left feeling that her life will move on in a bright direction with Ben… perhaps a happy ending that brings some finality to a bit of a horror story all neatly conforming to the Production Code Era guidelines that dictate the murderer be punished, however the plot device twinkles out at the end.
I thought there were some Pre-Code elements that were rather present in the film in terms of Vance’s abuse, in particular that scene where he’s coaching her what to say to her manager boyfriend Ben and then striking her hard in the face. The allusion to Damon going back into the closet with the knife to dispose of Vance’s body is quite effectively gruesome, and the sense of Jessica’s helplessness creates a disarmed sexuality in her that is a bit racy for 1934 when the guidelines were starting to be inforced. Also, it didn’t slip my attention that brother and sister kissed each other on the lips at the police station. Queer ain’t it. But that’s a whole other cage of mice…!
So if you haven’t seen The Man With Two Faces, try and get your hands on it and let me know what you think. It’s still a hoot watching Mary slink around in those gorgeous gowns. I’ve tried to find out who designed the clothes for the film, but couldn’t track down any info. If any of you know, please drop me a line…
The Girl With Only One Face… that of Joey (MonsterGirl)