Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Tod Browning's 1929 The Thirteenth Chair; early Bela Lugosi

By Doug Gibson

Tod Browning's early talkie, "The Thirteenth Chair," 1929, suffers from the common maladies of early sound cinema. It's static, talky, and seems a recreation of a stage play, which it really is, as virtually every moment is "drawing room mystery" with scene after scene of familiar rooms. Also, the camera work is stage-like, with stationary long and medium shots.

Nevertheless, it's a rewarding film experience for those who can endure the first half hour. The second half features a compelling murder mystery and fine performances by two cast members: Margaret Wycherly, as a medium and mother of the chief murder suspect, Helen O'Neill, played by an absolutely gorgeous Leila Hyams; and, a pre-Dracula Bela Lugosi, who lifts the quality of the film several notches with a strong performance as Inspector Delzante, tasked with finding the murderer of a despised "bounder," Spencer Lee. Lugosi takes command of the talky film and shows an energy and grasp of the English language that puts to shame rumors that early in stage and Hollywood he spoke his lines phonetically.

The plot involves Sir Edmund Wales contracting a medium (Wycherly) to find the murderer. Hyams, a secretary, is engaged to be married to Richard Crosby (Conrad Nagel), son of the wealthy Crosbys. During the seance, Wales himself is murdered in the dark. As Lugosi's Inspector Delzante investigates, evidence seems to point to Helen (Hyams). That throws Helen's mother/medium Wycherly into a panic and she feverishly investigates to clear her daughter. Wycherle, whose husband, Bayard Veiller, was the author of the 1916 play the film is based on, shares compelling second-half scenes with Lugosi, even with the static filming, as she pleads for her daughter to the skeptical detective. (See a still of both below.)

The 72-minute film, released Oct. 19, 1929, has a strong twist ending that is both macabre and compelling.

Notes: Wycherle was a member of the original 1916 stage cast. The movie was filmed at least five times, in 1919, 1929, 1937and for TV in 1953 and 1954. The 1937 version is the one that is easily available via YouTube. Browning's version was also filmed silent, but that production is considered lost. The "Thirteenth Chair" is set in Calcutta with a typical English colonialist cast of characters. The play is free via Amazon Kindle. Lugosi and Wycherle both died within scant months of each other in 1956.

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