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.