The Man With Two Faces
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Edward G. Robinson's second release for 1934 was billed as "the most unusual picture since Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Robinson was already building a reputation for unique and varied characters outside the gangster image he established in Little Caesar (1931) when The Man with Two Faces gave him an opportunity to dazzle audiences with a dual-role acting tour de force. He plays self-confessed "Best Actor in America" Damon Welles, who takes on another identity as French producer Jules Chautard in order to save his actress sister from the clutches of her mesmerizingly evil husband. The story blends elements of mystery, crime, even a touch of the supernatural, with a generous helping of humor, much of it skillfully supplied by Robinson's performance.
Of course, credit also has to go to the authors of the Broadway play on which the film was based, George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott, two of the great wits of their time and charter members of the famous Algonquin Round Table. Their original, The Dark Tower, ran on stage for only 57 performances between November 1933 and January 1934, but their names alone carried enough clout to get their property picked up by Warner Bros. (under the banner of subsidiary First National Pictures). Prior to release, the film was known by its stage title, as well as "The Strange Case of Mr. Chautard" and "Dark Victory." Fortunately, the latter name was passed over and reserved for the acclaimed 1939 Bette Davis melodrama that earned her a fourth (out of 11) Academy Award nomination.
Robinson's thespian sister is played by Mary Astor, who harbored a rather dark secret during production of this picture that would explode into national headlines just a couple of years later. As The Dark Tower was closing on Broadway, the married Astor was beginning a torrid affair with Kaufman, also married but well known as "Public Lover Number One" for his numerous dalliances with some of the most desirable women in show business. Astor and her husband divorced in 1935; a year later, during a custody battle, he threatened to make public her diary, which reputedly made many breathless, salacious references to her sex life with the playwright. The diary was never admitted as evidence, but it became a hot topic of conversation. Although the scandal had great potential to derail her career, Astor emerged unscathed. In fact, it gave her a professional boost. As for Kaufman, well, it didn't hurt his reputation any, either as author or lover.
Also appearing in the cast were Ricardo Cortez, who had originated the role of Sam Spade in the first version of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1931), in which Astor would memorably appear when it was remade in 1941. The aristocratic Louis Calhern (Duck Soup, 1933; The Asphalt Jungle, 1950) played Astor's Svengali-like husband, and Mae Clarke was also on hand, grateful not to be taking another grapefruit in the face, as she had in The Public Enemy (1931), courtesy of James Cagney.
The look of the film was greatly enhanced by award-winning cinematographer Tony Gaudio, a longtime Warners asset who shot seven films with Edward G. Robinson, including Little Caesar.
The biggest praise for the film, however, went to the studio's decision to refashion the play (and change its ending) under the deft hand of screenwriters Tom Reed and Niven Busch. As the New York Times put it, "There may be reasons for doubting the excellence of the original work, but only a diehard will deny that the motion picture has performed an effective translation." The paper also noted that Astor "pines away so heartily...as to cause some alarm for her health." History does not record if she drew on any aspect of her private life for this performance.
The play was used very loosely as the basis for a Warners B movie a few years later, The Dark Tower (1943).
Director: Archie Mayo
Producer: Robert Lord (uncredited)
Screenplay: Tom Reed, Niven Busch, from the play The Dark Tower by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Editing: William Holmes
Art Direction: John Hughes
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Damon Welles), Mary Astor (Jessica), Ricardo Cortez (Weston), Mae Clarke (Daphne), Louis Calhern (Stanley Vance)
By Rob Nixon