Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Early Universal: Secret of the Blue Room

By Doug Gibson

Secret of the Blue Room, 1933, 66 minutes, black and white. Universal. Directed by Kurt Neumann. Starring Lionel Atwill as Robert von Helldorf, Gloria Stuart as Irene von Helldorf, Paul Lukas as Captain Walter Brink, Edward Arnold as Commissioner Forster, Onslow Stevens as Frank Faber and William Janney as Thomas Brandt. Schlock-Meter rating: 8 stars out of 10.

The “stars” of the Universal horror films of the 1930s and 1940s are “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “The Wolf Man,” “The Mummy,” “The Invisible Man” and so on. But dozens of horror mysteries were churned out by the studio over 15 years, and some are gems have been mostly forgotten. “Secret of the Blue Room,” a $69,000 programmer, a locked-room mystery thriller, is one forgotten gem. 

The tight-as-a-drum plot involves five persons gathered together in a Hungarian castle. They are wealthy castle owner Robert von Helldorf (Atwill), his daughter, Irene (Stuart), and her three suitors, Captain Walter Brink (Lukas), reporter Frank Faber (Stevens), and younger Thomas Brandt (Janney), who is most emotional about his love for Irene. He rashly proposes to her, an offer she kindly deflects. The conversation leads to the castle’s “Blue Room,” a locked bedroom where three murders occurred 20 years earlier. Apparently, anyone who stays in the room dies. 

The three suitors, egged on by Brandt, agree to spend nights in the Blue Room as a means of proving their love to Irene. Naturally, a disappearance and murder mystery develops. Besides the main plot, there is a mysterious stranger who one of the castle’s servants sometimes shelters. Veteran character actor Arnold (“You Can’t Take It With You,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), provides an excellent supporting role as a police commissioner who investigates the crimes in the Blue Room.

The film doesn’t have an ounce of fat to it and moves quickly. The plot twists and eventual resolution are very well-paced. Atwill, who had yet to bloat up, is at his best in this low-budget offering. Perhaps understanding it is more mystery than horror, he underplays his role, rather than be a ham (which he could be). Stuart’s Irene is yes, the same Gloria Stuart who would play the elderly Rose in “Titanic” 64 years later. Hungarian Paul Lukas is superb with his continental manners as dashing Irene suitor Captain Brink with a hint of mystery. It’s a role that also could have been handled by Universal star Bela Lugosi, but the small budget likely provided the opportunity for Lukas. 

“Secret of the Blue Room” has a lot of old-castle, stormy, windy weather atmosphere. It was made a little while after “The Old Dark House,” a high-budget Universal horror/comedy directed by James Whale. It looks as if some of the sets from “Old Dark House” were used in this film. Director Kurt Neumann is no Whale but he is smart enough to keep the pace fast, allow the plot twists to move smoothly, and keep the cast under control. This film can be watched via YouTube and it’s a perfect late-night cinema treat on a cold night with a hot beverage. 

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