Sunday, December 13, 2009

One Body Too Many (Pine-Thomas/Paramount, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was One Body Too Many, which I recently burned to DVD from an download, a 1944 horror spoof from Paramount that I probably would have liked better if I hadn’t watched it so soon after the 1941 Universal film The Black Cat, since the plot premises are the same (an eccentric millionaire puts off her — or, in this case, his — relatives by writing a really bizarre will that makes them wait for their inheritances, and during the wait they start knocking each other off) and Bela Lugosi not only appears in both movies but plays the same role: the crazy rich person’s long put-upon butler. Lugosi is billed third — though the public-domain DVD’s generally put him first — behind Jack “Tin Man” Haley and Jean Parker.

Haley plays Albert Tuttle, life-insurance salesman for the Emperor company (which, by the looks of things, appears to be just Tuttle and one other person who banters with him in the opening scene — one wonders why Paramount didn’t recycle the elaborate insurance-company office mockup Billy Wilder had built for Double Indemnity), who has finally made an appointment to sell a $200,000 life insurance policy to eccentric millionaire Cyrus J. Rutherford. Tuttle explains to his partner that Rutherford is a believer in astrology — so much so that he has had an observatory, complete with dome and enclosed telescope, built on the premises of his home, and he’s hired an astronomy professor to work for him full-time, watching the stars through the telescope and giving him information about their positions in the sky so he can forecast his own future — and that Tuttle himself has succeeded in landing an appointment with him where other insurance men have failed by playing along with Rutherford’s astrological bent and making the date for a day when Leo, Rutherford’s sign, is in the ascendant.

We then cut to Rutherford’s home and to a close-up of his coffin — we’re supposed to be savoring the irony that the guy croaked just before Tuttle was to meet him and sell him a policy, but we also feel a sigh of relief that Tuttle didn’t get there in time to sell the policy and then have his company have to pay out on it. Not that there was much chance of Tuttle buying a policy since Rutherford already had a large fortune and hated all his relatives; he has his attorney, Morton Gellman (Bernard Nedell), summon them all to his home and read them the “preamble” to his will. This stipulates that he must be buried in a coffin with a clear window (sort of like Lenin’s) which is to be placed where it has a clear view of the stars, so they will keep shining down on him even after he’s dead. It also says that his relatives — whom he insults viciously throughout the document, suggesting that after he dies he’s going to be reincarnated as Don Rickles — are to wait in the house until his star-oriented crypt is built, and if they leave they will disinherit themselves, while if his body is buried or disposed of in any other way than the one he stipulated, the terms of the will will be reversed and the people he willed the least to will get the most, while those he willed the most to will get the least. He also says that the terms of the will itself — which he hand-wrote and sealed so not even Gellman knows what’s in it — are not to be read until after he’s interred in the clear crypt and placed in full view of the stars.

What follows is a pretty pointless but still sporadically amusing bit of nonsense in which Tuttle comes off as quite personable and attracts the affections of the only decent person in Rutherford’s family, Carol Dunlap (Jean Parker), while Cyrus’s body is stolen from its coffin and a few other people on the premises — including Gellman — turn up dead. One Body Too Many is not much of a movie — the 1941 Black Cat did a better job on this premise — but at least Lugosi gets some droll moments of his own (notably in one scene in which it’s hinted that he’s dropped rat poison in his coffeepot so everyone who drinks his coffee will be killed — though at the end, after everyone else has refused his coffee for reasons ranging from the sensible, “It keeps me awake,” to the snobbish — Tuttle says he won’t have any because it was made with a percolator and “I’m a drip,” evincing a kind of coffee connoisseurship I didn’t think came into existence until at least the 1950’s — he and the maid drink some of it themselves, to no ill effect) and Haley gets to recycle some of the dialogue of his Wizard of Oz cast-mate Bert Lahr and overall project a warm, rather homey air even in the quirky role of an insurance salesman who’s mistaken for the private detective who was supposed to guard Cyrus’s body and make sure nobody tried to bury it contrary to Cyrus’s instructions.

In the end, the murderer is unveiled — he’s Henry Rutherford (Douglas Fowley), the only one in the family who had Cyrus’s last name (all the others, we’re obviously supposed to assume, descended from his female relatives) and who earned (so to speak) his uncle’s dislike when he married a slatternly and unscrupulous woman named Mona (Dorothy Granger) — and Tuttle rescues Carol from him in the nick of time. We don’t ever find out who gets what from the Cyrus Rutherford estate and we don’t really care; directed by Frank McDonald from an “original” screenplay by Winston Miller and future director Maxwell Shane, One Body Too Many is an engaging little farce that could have done more with the central premise than it did but still is a relatively painless way to spend 75 minutes — and for once an post of a movie is actually complete!