What is the mystery of the empty 13th chair?
vt The Mystery of the 13th Guest
US / 61 minutes / bw / Monogram Dir: William Beaudine Pr: Lindsley Parsons Scr: Tim Ryan, Charles Marion, Arthur Hoerl Story: The Thirteenth Guest (1929) by Armitage Trail Cine: Mack Stengler Cast: Helen Parrish, Dick Purcell, Tim Ryan, Frank Faylen, Jacqueline Dalya, Paul McVey, John Duncan, Jon Dawson, Cyril Ring, Addison Richards, Lloyd Ingraham, Fred “Snowflake” Toones, Shirley Jean Anderson, Lester Dorr, Herbert Heyes.
Thirteen years ago, in the old Morgan home at 122 Mill Road, Grandpa Morgan (Ingraham) convoked a meeting of his ten possible heirs, plus his lawyer, John Barksdale (Ring). The twelve of them sat around a table at which a 13th chair remained empty—the nonexistent “13th guest” of the title, even though this would be technically not the 13th but the 12th guest. Grandpa announced that his will was contained in a sealed envelope, which he passed to his seven-year-old granddaughter, Marie (Anderson), on condition that she open it on her 21st birthday while seated at this very table.
Fast forward to today, as one dark night the grown-up Marie Morgan (Parrish) lets herself into the old family heap. She’s astonished to find that, even though the place has been closed up for thirteen years, the phone and electricity are still on. In the gloom a shot rings out and, the next we know, Marie falls to the ground, dead, electrocuted by a gimmicked telephone. By the time the cops get there, roused by the taxi driver (uncredited) who brought her here, her oddly lifelike corpse has been sat in the very chair she occupied all those years ago.
Barksdale (Cyril Ring) arrives to search the joint.
Since Parrish is the headline star, it’s not exactly a surprise to discover that it wasn’t Marie who died at all—just her duplicate. We never do discover the identity of the electrocuted woman; she seems simply to have been some pawn hired to undergo a reboot at the hands of plastic surgeon Dr. Sherwood (Hayes). For that matter, we never discover the significance of the empty 13th chair. That the empty chair and the missing diner were important was foreshadowed right at the outset by Grandpa, but that’s about as much as we ever learn on this front.
The Mystery Man prepares to electrocute his second victim.
Police Lieutenant Burke (Ryan, who also co-scripted) finds himself with a whole gamut of other Morgan kith and kindred, guests at that long-ago dinner, including Marie’s brother Harold “Bud” Morgan (Duncan), her cousin Tom Jackson (Dawson), her viperous sister Marjory (Dalya)—says Marie at one point, “Marjory, dear, your soul must look like the inside of a vinegar bottle”—and her kindly Uncle Adam (McVey). The latter is the one who earlier worriedly hired a local PI, Johnny Smith (Purcell), to safeguard his beloved niece Marie.
Johnny quickly deduces that the murderer plans to repopulate the dining table with the eleven surviving occupants from Grandpa’s dinner—albeit now in stiff form. Why he should wish to follow this regime remains unexplained by movie’s end, as does the plan itself—just like, as we’ve noted, so much else.
Marie (Helen Parrish) tries to call the lawyer, not realizing the danger of using the telephone.
Burke is a central-casting version of the type of laughing-stock cop that Hollywood thought was thigh-slappingly hilarious through the 1930s and much of the 1940s. Just to make matters even more cringeworthy, Burke has a sidekick who’s even stupider and more incompetent than he is himself: the narcoleptic Speed McGinnis (Faylen), the delight of whose comedy routines could be increased only decades later with the invention of the remote control and fast forward.
Speed McGinnis (Frank Faylen) is easily bamboozled by the alluring Marjory (Jacqueline Dalya).
Uncle Adam (Paul McVey), Johnny Smith (Dick Purcell) and Marie (Helen Parrish).
Mystery of the 13th Guest is an anachronistic oddity for 1943 in that it reads like a child of the mid-1930s. The mid-1940s were the era when gangster movies and what would later be called film noir dominated the US output of B crime cinema. By the later mid-1940s even the THIN MAN MOVIES were becoming more noirish, with Song of the Thin Man (1947). The Frankie Darro/Mantan Moreland movies, in which Moreland was constrained to render a rolling-eyed inferior to his white costar, ran just from 1939 to 1941 before it was recognized that their course had run; here, in 1943, we see the admirable Fred “Snowflake” Toones produce a reasonable imitation of Moreland in the role of Johnny Smith’s manservant. The telephone rigged to electrocute people was featured for possibly the first time in Edgar Wallace’s serialized novel The Four Just Men in 1905; I’ve no idea if the movie got it from Armitrage Trail’s source novel (I haven’t been able as yet to locate a copy) or nicked it from Wallace’s but, either way, as a gimmick it’s old news. In short, while we don’t expect a product of the Monogram studio to be at the cutting edge of film noir, at the same time the studio was not at all unaware of the new style, and frequently catered to it, albeit often ineptly. There’s no sign of that awareness here; everything seems dated.
Marjory (Jacqueline Dalya) is hauled by the killer into his secret lair.
Interestingly, Edward J. Kay’s intermittently frenetic score seems to be urging us to regard Mystery of the 13th Guest not as a crime/mystery movie at all but as a melodrama, and maybe that was the intention of director Beaudine and producer Parsons. The secret room from which the murderer views and electrocutes his victims, and the mask that he wears, would certainly feed into that hypothesis, as would the neogothic theme of the grandfather who despises all his family leaving his fortune to the youngest of them, the innocent and affectionate Marie (“I’ll be eight on the fifth of June, Gwandpa”).
Parrish, although a little wooden and faux-cultured, makes an appealing heroine; she was one of those actresses whose Hollywood careers never did quite pan out, although she made a mark as the counterpoint to Deanna Durbin in a few movies and with both X Marks the Spot (1931), as a child actress, and the unrelated X MARKS THE SPOT (1942), as the female lead. She died of cancer a few weeks before her 35th birthday.
Dick Purcell, as PI Johnny Smith, is pretty dreadful here, spending much of his time in the first half of the movie laughing uproariously (and falsely) at things that aren’t remotely funny. Later, when he adopts a harder edge, he seems to be trying to channel George Raft. He’s best known for playing the title role in the 15-part serial Captain America (1944).
Johnny Smith (Dick Purcell) is roused from slumber by news of the latest murder.
Trail’s novel was earlier brought to the screen as The Thirteenth Guest (1932) dir Albert Ray, with Ginger Rogers and Lyle Talbot; at some stage I’ll get round to watching that version and comment about it here.
If you like the Monogram quickies (and it’s unlikely you’d be on this site if you didn’t like at least some of them), you’ll find a fair amount to enjoy here. But that’s about as much as one can say.
Inspector Burke (Tim Ryan) is as subtle as a hole in road as the two lovers go into the closing smooch.