False Faces (1932) Review, with Lowell Sherman

Dr. Silas Brenton
Lowell Sherman
Dr. John Parker
Benton Churchill
Georgia Rand
Lila Lee

Directed by Lowell Sherman
Released by World Wide Pictures
Runtime: 73 minutes

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • Dr. Brenton (Sherman) assails himself with a bevy of women. We see one arrive in his apartment and we cut to a short while later with her redressing and the bed sheets crumpled. Another hangs about in his apartment in her pajamas. With a third he clearly uses his position as her mother’s caretaker to guilt her not only into bed but possibly towards the wedding chapel as well.
  • “Hey, Sy, did you hear that one about the girl who went down to pay her income tax?” “You mean with the adhesive–”
  • A pair of drunken starlets assault a cop with a champagne bottle. One brags later, “I’ve got one of his ears in my pocketbook. I’m going to use it for chewing gum!”
  • Our lead character is unrepentant monster until the last frame.

False Faces: A Nip & A Tuck

“I want you to make known the name and reputation of Dr. Silas Brenton. […] There are a great many people, Mr. McCullough, in the world who will give everything they possess to fight off the ravages of… well, let us be generous and call it ‘middle age’. For those people I can work miracles. I can take 20 years from a woman of 50. I can remove battle scars from a pugilist. I can remove scars of former operations from men and women. For those who are able to pay, I can restore youth and beauty!”

Ego nips at us all. Today I won an award– a quarterly award in a very narrow job category– and I almost had a good day. Almost! But it’s 2020, let’s not kid ourselves.

As strange as it may be, it hasn’t always been the year of our lord 2,020, and egos have been known to flourish. False Faces, based disturbingly close to a true story (more below), revolves around one such man of ego whose hubris not only blinds him to the horrors he commits but successfully ensnares him, protecting him from the consequences to his nefarious actions.

Driven from New York after he was caught by hospital administrators extorting patients, Dr. Silas Brenton (Sherman) runs to Chicago. He’s turned onto the idea of becoming a plastic by a dimwitted intern and quickly finds that he can exploit a group of private investigators to sell his services to the rich and famous. With consultation from his oft-drunk pal Dr. Parker (Churchill), he gives a nose job to a Broadway actress, declines a check, and then sues her for non-payment, reaping a bonanza of publicity. His notoriety grows and, as happens in this kind of film, soon Brenton has his own radio show and newspaper column, all extolling the dream of becoming an Aphrodite in life with just a little cut here and there.

In seeking to grow his celebrity, we’re treated to some wild incidents, most notably one wherein a pair of singing sisters go on a drunken binge and end up beating the shit out of a traffic cop, including smashing a bottle over his head. Brenton swoops in, dolls up the actresses, and then accuses the police of beating them. The ploy works and they’re freed, while Brenton’s star grows.

There are a number of women in this movie who all fall for Brenton (with Lowell Sherman forever and always the least likely ladies’ man in any film). There’s Georgia, the nurse ‘who clearly cares for him’ and tries to stick by him even after he’s long ditched her. There’s also his secretary, Elsie (Peggy Shannon), who is hired on after she smiles at him and says, “I smoke, drink, I don’t live with my parents, and I’m not in love.” Then there’s also the socialite Florence Day (Geneva Mitchell) who could get Brenton into some real dough. There’s a lot to be made of how he uses women interchangeably, but if anything this drags the movie down, feeling like too many of these scenes just pad the film out.

However, it is a relief to find that the movie makes no simple excuse for Brenton or his behavior. No base mommy issues or dead siblings as seems so necessary today to ground characters. Dr. Brenton is first driven by money, then by fame, then by ego, which becomes so massive as to completely consume him.

Spoilers.

Brenton’s climactic case, agreeing to ‘fix’ the legs of bow-legged Mrs. Finn (Nance O’Neil) though he’s mostly become a drunken burnout, takes the grotesque proceedings to another level. The surgery almost leaves Finn dead, and it’s only because of a last minute inspection by the local medical association that she is discovered and saved. Brenton uses the confusion to try and skip town, but his tangled web of lovers proves his undoing and he is arrested.

Though the prosecution puts on a noble case, Brenton serves as his own lawyer and casts doubts on the medical association, saying that had they not intervened, his treatment would have worked. He works himself up into a frenzy at the very concept of medical ethics and every obstacle that has stood in his way, saying that they’ve only served to hinder his brilliance all the while he feigns empathy for Mrs. Finn’s near-fatal plight. It’s a chilling speech, matched only by the moment where we see the jury file in and condone his argument with a stunning not guilty verdict.

“You old medical fogeys have too many ethics!”

It would have been easy for this Poverty Row production to condemn him from the jury box, but it instead serves as an ever-prescient showcase of how one man’s narcissistic personality disorder can connect readily with the deeply American distrust of institutions and professionals. Even if Brenton gets his due justice (which a member of the press unblinkingly notes is “tough, but he had it coming to him”), this finale makes False Faces feel decades if not almost a century ahead of its time.

End spoilers.

Lowell Sherman, pulling double duty as the lead actor and the film’s director, is the weakest part of the proceedings. He’s always on a hair’s breadth towards camp, undercutting some of the dramatics. While I find little fault in his directing, it would have been a wonder to see the same part played by someone with a little more of an amoral flair, like Warren William or William Powell. (Not only a wonder, but a miracle considering how much they’d be asking and how much World Wide Pictures would have been willing to pay.)

False Faces joins fare like 1934’s Bedside in gleefully showcasing how easily faked medical prestige can make monsters out of men. In spite of its pacing issues, the film’s unwavering highlighting of medical cruelty and the unmatched power of a narcissist in the United States makes it a weird, wonderful little gem.

Screencap Gallery

Trivia & Links

  • Based closely on the life of Henry Schireson, a self-taught plastic surgeon (not a doctor!) who bobbed Fanny Brice’s nose and also left a bow-legged woman with her legs amputated. Dubbed “King of the Quacks”, Schireson oversaw a veritable reign of terror across the country in the 1910s and 20s. You can read more about him and his sins at LokkeHeiss.com.
  • Nance O’Neil, who plays Mrs. Finn, was friends with Lizzie Borden and it was rumored that they may have been lovers, too.
  • Western star Ken Maynard has an extremely brief cameo as himself, basically just standing up and taking a bow. Thanks, Ken.

Awards, Accolades & Availability

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