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One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since. See more »
Despite what we think to the contrary, silent-film actor Lon Chaney was not widely known as 'The Man of a Thousand Faces' during his lifetime. In fact, I can think of only one Chaney film (an obscure one: 'The Trap') which used the 'Thousand Faces' tagline in its advertising. When Paramount released 'The Magnificent Fraud' in 1939, less than a decade after Chaney's death, the posters for this film hailed its star Akim Tamiroff as 'The Man of a Thousand Faces' ... a decision which strongly indicates that audiences in 1939 weren't expected to link that slogan to Lon Chaney.
For all his talents and broad acting range (hampered by his thick Russian accent), Tamiroff was not an especially protean actor, so it's surprising to see him touted as a Chaney-like master of disguise. However, in 'The Magnificent Fraud', Tamiroff is cast as Jules LaCroix, a stage actor whom (we are told) is indeed in Chaney's league. Within the dialogue of this movie, LaCroix is hailed as 'the man of a thousand faces' ... which, again, indicates that audiences were not expected to connect that tagline to Lon Chaney.
Don Miguel Alvarado is the president of a politically unstable South American nation, in the process of negotiating an important business deal with United States interests. At a crucial moment, a bomb-throwing assassin kills Alvarado ... but visiting Yankee Sam Barr manages to keep the assassination hushed up. It's vital that the negotiations continue. If Alvarado's death becomes known, the government will be overthrown by revolutionaries.
Barr persuades LeCroix to impersonate Alvarado until the deal goes through. Since LeCroix (beardless) and Alvarado (heavily bearded) are both played by Akim Tamiroff, it's no surprise that LeCroix is able to impersonate Alvarado perfectly!
In the early scenes as the actual Alvarado, Tamiroff's attempts at a Latin American accent are less than persuasive. In his later scenes, as LeCroix impersonating Alvarado, Tamiroff has precisely the same accent. It would have been more interesting if the false Alvarado's voice had been almost but not quite the same as the real one's, to heighten suspense by showing us that LeCroix's disguise was less than perfect.
Matters are not helped by the fact that the basic premise of this film is recycled from another Paramount film made only five years earlier: '30-Day Princess'. In both films, an American actor is persuaded to impersonate a foreign dignitary until an important deal goes through. 'Magnificent Fraud' takes that premise in rather a different direction from the earlier film, but with inferior results.
There are some good supporting performances here, although I disliked the romantic subplot involving Lloyd Nolan and Patricia Morison. I can tolerate Mary Boland in small doses, but her presence in the same movie with Maude Eburne (whom I loathe and despise) makes for at least one yenta too many. Barbara Pepper is good in a small role. Robert Warwick's stage-trained voice is impressive, but he is miscast as a Latin American. Robert Florey's direction is excellent, but let down by William Mellor's photography.
For all of its flaws, 'The Magnificent Fraud' is vastly superior to its 1988 remake 'Moon Over Parador', which tried to put its protagonist (Richard Dreyfuss) into suspenseful situations ... but framed those situations with a flashback structure which tipped us off that Dreyfuss would survive at the end. I'll rate 'Magnificent Fraud' 5 out of 10 ... but there was only one true Man of a Thousand Faces, and his name was Lon Chaney.
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