Phantom in the House, The (1929)

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Spurned by the wife for whom he took a murder rap!
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US / 62 minutes / bw / Continental Dir: Phil Rosen Pr: Trem Carr Scr: Arthur Hoerl Story: The Phantom in the House (1928) by Andrew Soutar Cine: Herbert J. Kirkpatrick Cast: Ricardo Cortez, Nancy Welford, Henry Walthall, Grace Valentine, Jack Curtis, Thomas Curran, John Beck, John Elliott, Larry Steers, Henry Roquemore.

Phantom in the House - 0

Margaret “Peggy” Milburn (Valentine), convinced that husband Boyd is an inventive genius, has been leading on the rich Roger Stanwick (uncredited) in hopes of persuading him to invest in Boyd’s ideas. When she breaks it to Stanwick that all she’s offering in return is friendship, and Not What He Thought, he attempts to take what wasn’t on offer and she kills him in self-defense.

Phantom in the House - 1 Peggy and Boyd stare down aghast at the man she's killed

Peggy (Grace Valentine) and Boyd (Henry Walthall) stare down aghast at the man she’s killed.

Boyd (Walthall) is almost immediately on the scene. For the sake of their toddler, Dorothy, and in the belief that a child needs her mother, Boyd takes the rap in Peggy’s place, and is sentenced to life in the pen. While there he regularly sends the blueprints for new inventions to Peggy so she can use them to support herself and Dorothy. He also befriends the thug in the neighboring cell, Biffer Bill (Curtis), who’s fond of promising that on his release there’s gonna besomeone who learns about it, oh yes.

Phantom in the House - 2 Judge Thompson passes sentence

Judge Thompson (Thomas Curran) sanctimoniously passes sentence on an innocent man.

Phantom in the House - 3 Boyd keeps on inventing things, even in jail

Boyd (Henry Walthall) keeps on inventing things, even in jail.

Fifteen years later, the paroled model prisoner Boyd Milburn is released a few days earlier than anticipated. He arrives at Peggy’s swankadelic new home in Bayside, Long Island, to find an uproarious party in progress—clearly those inventions have been doing well.

Peggy—who to avoid the shame, the shame, has changed her name to Mrs. Bainbridge and acquired far too many airs—is none too pleased to see Boyd. She agrees he can stay in her chichi abode but persuades him to pretend to be an old family friend, “John Boyd.” It’s in this guise that he’s introduced to daughter Dorothy (Welford), by now grown up; she takes an instant liking to him. As Boyd rather pointedly observes to his standoffish wife, “After all, it was for her sake that I went away. Not for you.”

Phantom in the House - 4 Peggy is less than excited to see her ex-con husband

Peggy (Grace Valentine) is less than overjoyed to see her ex-con husband.

Peggy is eager that Dorothy wed an English marquis who’s much taken with her—surely the girl would jump at the chance to join the aristocracy!—and can’t believe her daughter instead wants to marry yer average knucklehead Paul Wallis (Cortez).

Phantom in the House - 5 The English marquis (uncredited) presses his suit to an unheeding Dorothy

The English marquis (uncredited) presses his suit to an unheeding Dorothy (Nancy Welford).

Indeed, even as Peggy is reassuring the marquis at her party that Dorothy is his for the asking, the lass herself is out on the terrace with her swain having one of those inarticulate amorous conversations it’s best for an audience not to think about too much:

Paul: “Dorothy, I had an idea. That is, I wanted to . . . Well, you see . . . We . . . We came out here to . . . to, um . . .”

Luckily Dorothy understands (or doesn’t).

Dorothy: “Paul Wallis, are you trying to propose to me?”
Paul: “How did you know that?”
Dorothy: “I’ve been proposed to so often I know the symptoms.”

Boyd, observing what’s going on, obviously approves of his daughter following her heart rather than the aspirations of her social-climber mom.

Phantom in the House - 6a Dorothy sings a number for the assembled party guests . . .

Dorothy (Nancy Welford) sings a number for the assembled party guests . . .

Phantom in the House - 6b . . . while Dad looks on approvingly from the top of the stairs

 . . . while Dad (Henry Walthall) looks on approvingly from the top of the stairs . . .

Phantom in the House - 6c Dorothy caps her song with the announcement of her engagement to Paul

. . . and Dorothy (Nancy Welford) caps her song with the announcement of her engagement to Paul (Ricardo Cortez).

The only person among Peggy’s circle who recognizes “John Boyd” for who he really is is Judge Thompson (Curran), the titan of the law who sentenced him for Stanwick’s murder. Thompson tries to warn Boyd off from Peggy and Dorothy and, when this fails, he tells Paul who the “family friend” really is.

Paul’s moderately unimpressed . . . but then Fate strikes!

It does so in the form of Biffer Bill. The person he swore vengeance against, back in the big house, was none other than Judge Thompson, who was the one who sent him down, too, all those years ago. Biffer flees. Boyd’s badly beaten in all the kerfuffle. Witnesses arrive to discover Paul standing over the body. By the time Boyd gets out of the hospital, Paul has been convicted of the murder. So Boyd, still propelled by his love for his daughter, makes a false confession so as to take the rap for his prospective son-in-law . . .

Phantom in the House - 7 Paul defends Boyd robustly to the judge - 'I have warned you - keep your mouth shut' (about Boyd, Paul says)

Paul (Ricardo Cortez) defends Boyd robustly to the judge (Thomas Curran): “I have warned you — keep your mouth shut [about Boyd].”

It all ends happily, of course—well, not so much for Biffer—and Peggy, given yet another striking demonstration of her husband’s integrity and honor, learns better of her snooty ways and reconciles herself to him. The young lovers presumably live in bliss ever after. Even the wise Police Captain (Elliott), who’d all along reckoned Paul was innocent but happily let him be convicted anyway, is happy.

And so, dear reader, are we.

Phantom in the House - 8 Biffer (r) schemes with his accomplice (uncredited) to escape the law

Biffer Bill (Jack Curtis, right) schemes with his accomplice (uncredited) to escape the law.

Phantom in the House is by no means a good movie; it gropes despairingly upward toward the mediocre. The movie has “early talkie” written all over it, with the director and a couple of the players—notably Valentine as Peggy—not having fully adapted to the new era. In fact, a silent version of the movie was released alongside the sound one, for theaters that lacked sound facilities. One wonders what the adapters did about the song break that Welford, a chanteuse rather than an actress (she made just five movies), is given at Peggy’s ghastly party; presumably they simply excised it.

By contrast with Valentine and Welford, the two main males are far happier in the new medium—Cortez in particular, although alas he’s given little to do except suavely set audience hearts a-throbbing. Walthall offers us a portrayal of diffidence incarnate; I was reminded a little of Mark Rylance’s (Oscar-winning) performance as Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (2015), in that there’s the same quiet integrity.

Phantom in the House - 9 The genial Police Capt grins at the happy resolution

The genial Police Captain (John Elliott) grins at the happy resolution.

One thing that drove me mad about the movie was this. As events progressed I realized that at some stage I’d seen a remake of this—or at least a re-treatment of the theme (husband comes home from jug, wealthy wife thinks she’s now better than he is, he’s persuaded to act as if just a visiting family friend)—likewise in black-and-white, probably about mid-1950s, and I think UK rather than US. My fickle memory hasn’t identified this movie for me; the usual sources make no mention of a remake (it’s presumably unacknowledged); and it’s something difficult to search for either online with search engines or even through my digital copy of A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir . . . because, after all, what do you actually search for? Should anyone know the movie I’m referring to, or even just remember anything more about it, I’d be ever so grateful if they’d spill the relevant beans in the comments section below.

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This is a contribution to the “Crimes of the Century” meme at the Past Offences blog; the year being focused on for June 2016 is 1929.

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11 thoughts on “Phantom in the House, The (1929)

  1. From now on, I intend to use the expression it gropes despairingly upward toward the mediocre to describe anything that falls short in every way…so my thanks for that!

  2. Another outstanding thrust in trying to dig beneath the surface for some films that have long fallen off the radar even for the most ardent cinephiles. Too bad in this particular instance the effort didn’t reward with even moderate dividends, but at least this is a genre that appeals to many including myself. At least it did make you think of Mark Rylance’s superlative turn in BRIDGE OF SPIES! 🙂

    • It’s a fairly mediocre movie, Sam, as you say. On the other hand, you could say the same of most of Hollywood’s 1929 output! I as just amazed that, of the three 1929 movies I found I owned, one was actually very good, one was not so much good as of very great interest (and extremely watchable) and just one — this one — was hum-ho.

  3. Sounds like fun if daft and good to see Cortez get a little love (I think he makes for a really interesting Sam Spade). The plot reminds me a bit of A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT – could that be what you’re thinking of? Probably not but I thought I’d chip in all the same 🙂

  4. I’m another one who likes the “gropes despairingly/mediocrity” phrase. It tells you what you need to know going in.

    I just realized the reviews in which you seem to have one eyebrow raised are the films I’m most anxious to see. This is a good example.

  5. Pingback: ‘Where are you hanging out now?’ The #1929book results | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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