Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Thirteenth Chair (MGM, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Thirteenth Chair, a 1937 MGM movie I’d recorded from TCM earlier in the day and which had looked interesting — a phony psychic, Madame Rosalie LaGrange (Dame May Whitty, billed in the opening credits as “the distinguished English actress Dame May Whitty”), helps solve a real murder by hosting a séance with the suspects — but it turned out to be a beautifully staged bore, one of those mysteries which is less a whodunit than a whocareswhodunit. It was based on a play by Bayard Veiller — always a bad sign; his leaden stage efforts were the basis for quite a few of MGM’s early talkies, including The Trial of Mary Dugan (which wags at the time thought should have been retitled Mary Dugan, You’re a Trial to Me), Within the Law and this one, which had already been filmed in the silent era by Acme in 1919 as well as MGM’s first sound version in 1929, directed by Tod Browning and starring Conrad Nagel and Leila Hyams as the romantic leads; Margaret Wycherly (who from 1901 to 1922 had been Mrs. Bayard Veiller) as the phony psychic; and Bela Lugosi making his sound-film debut in a minor role. The 1937 version takes place in Calcutta, India during the raj and centers around the mysterious murder of Leonard Lee, one of those nasty bounders who populated stories like this, whom apparently no woman could resist and no man could stand. Lee was stabbed to death and his body was cremated almost immediately — the local police official, Commissioner Grimshaw (Matthew Boulton), released the corpse and unctuously tells the visiting Scotland Yard official, Inspector Marney (Lewis Stone, who probably found this role a refreshing change from being Mickey Rooney’s father in the Hardy Family movies!), that there was nothing he could have learned from the body anyway because the cause of death — a knife wound to the back — was obvious. John Wales (Henry Daniell at his most unctuous), about the only male in the dramatis personae willing to acknowledge he actually liked Leonard Lee, suggests that Madame LaGrange be brought in to lead a séance; he doesn’t believe in spiritualism any more than the Inspector does, but he’s convinced that a séance in which LaGrange can make it look like she’s communicating with Lee’s spirit will entrap the murderer into confessing al fresco.

Instead, even though the usual precautions are taken — all the séance participants are supposed to be holding hands in a circle and LaGrange’s own hands are tied to the arms of her chair with handkerchiefs — Wales is stabbed to death during the séance and Marney deduces that he was killed by the same sort of knife as Lee, and therefore both were murdered by the same person. Among the suspects are Helen “Nell” O’Neill (Madge Evans, an excellent actress in the right role, which this is not); her on-again, off-again fiancé Dick Crosby (Thomas Beck); his mother, Lady Crosby (Janet Beecher); his father, provincial governor Roscoe Crosby (Holmes Herbert); Mary Eastwood (Heather Thatcher), a former girlfriend of Lee’s whom he was blackmailing; Lionel (Ralph Forbes, wasted as usual) and Helen (Elissa Landi) Trent — presumably this is not the Helen Trent of the infamous radio soap opera which ran from 1935 to 1958, though in the part Landi wears an odd gown that gives us an excellent impression of the shape of her right breast, including her nipple: a remarkable thing indeed to see in a Code-era film! — and Dr. Mason (Charles Trowbridge), who had gone to India because he’d been on the verge of a knighthood and instead had been disgraced by scandal because a week before his honor was supposed to come through Mrs. Mason announced that she was leaving him for Lee and she filed for divorce. It turns out Mason was the killer and he broke from the séance circle (leaving the two people on either side of him holding hands with each other instead of him — wouldn’t they have noticed not only that they were holding a different hand but the reach had suddenly grown longer?) long enough to stab Wales and throw the knife up so it would stick in the ceiling of the room (what if it had fallen to the table, or the floor, instead?) before rejoining the circle as if nothing had happened.

There’s some legitimate pathos when LaGrange turns out to be Nell O’Neill’s long-lost mother, anxious to keep her from being jailed for murder because mom is sure her daughter couldn’t have killed anybody, and writers Veiller and Parsonnet really pile on the false evidence to keep the finger of suspicion on Nell until almost the last minute. Otherwise The Thirteenth Chair is a pretty dreary movie, full of clunky dialogue and dull exposition, and it doesn’t help that the most electrifying actor in it, Henry Daniell, gets killed way too soon. (Daniell played Professor Moriarty in The Woman in Green, third and last of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films in which the character appeared, as well as taking over from Rathbone as principal villain in the Errol Flynn swashbucklers at Warners — and a lot of modern commentators on The Woman in Green have said it was a pity Daniell didn’t get to duplicate Rathbone’s transition from villain roles to playing Holmes himself.) Whitty turns in a schticky but oddly moving performance, but it isn’t enough to save a pretty dull film — though I must admit it fooled me; Charles didn’t register a guess as to who the murderer was (if he had he probably would have correctly picked Trowbridge’s character on the principle that the person who has the least reason to be there story-wise must be the killer) but I was convinced it would turn out to be Dick Crosby, if only because in their opening scene together Nell seemed oddly unwilling to accept his marriage proposal (then again, since he was pushing her down into the swimming pool every time she said no, maybe it wasn’t so odd after all that she was hesitating to marry this abusive boor!) and usually if a woman in a mystery has an unrequited lover, he’s going to turn out to be the murderer.