How many of the long-ago guests is the killer prepared to kill?
US / 69 minutes / bw / M.H. Hoffman, Monogram Dir: Albert Ray Pr: M.H. Hoffman Scr: Frances Hyland Story: The Thirteenth Guest (1929) by Armitage Trail Cine: Harry Neumann, Tom Galligan Cast: Ginger Rogers, Lyle Talbot, J. Farrell MacDonald, Paul Hurst, Erville Alderson, Ethel Wales, James Eagles, Craufurd Kent (i.e., Crauford Kent), Eddie Phillips, Frances Rich, Phillips Smalley, Harry Tenbrook, Robert Klein, Adrienne Dore, William B. Davidson.
Naturally I discussed here on Noirish the remake of this movie—Mystery of the 13th Guest (1943) dir William Beaudine, with Helen Parrish, Dick Purcell, Tim Ryan et al.—before I got round to tackling the original. Ça va.
The plots of the two movies are virtually identical, so I’ll just go for a quick account here.
On her 21st birthday Marie Morgan (Rogers) arrives at the old Morgan home for an appointment with family lawyer John Barksdale (Klein). Although the place is dilapidated, phone and electricity have been installed. She bears a letter from her long-deceased grandpa containing the enigmatic instruction “13—13—13.” Yes, 13 years ago the family gathered here around a table at which the 13th chair was empty. Soon after, Grandpa died, leaving almost all of his fortune to the eight-year-old Marie. And now she’s due to inherit.
Ginger Rogers as Marie.
There’s a noise.
She goes to look.
A shot rings out.
There’s a scream.
Some while later the cops arrive in the form of Captain Ryan (MacDonald) and his dimwit sidekick Grump (Hurst). They find the electrocuted corpse of Marie sitting rigidly at the family table.
Captain Ryan (J. Farrell MacDonald) and his numbskull sidekick Grump (Paul Hurst).
Ryan phones his PI nephew Phil Winston (Talbot). Phil’s reluctant to break off smooching his attractive girlfriend (Dore) on the couch, no matter how interesting the murder, but eventually arrives, bestowing the kind of uppercrust sneer upon all concerned that he doubtless learned from reading too many Philo Vance books.
Phil (Lyle Talbot) is disturbed mid-canoodle with latest date (Adrienne Dore).
There’s another murder. Matters are confused when the real Marie Morgan (Rogers again) turns up; apparently the one who was electrocuted was a fake, a woman called Lela whose face had been gussied up by plastic surgeon Dr. Sherwood (Kent). (Trivia Korner: In real life, Rogers’s mother was called Lela. I know, I know: You need a little sit-down after having discovered this.) Phil noticed the scars around the dead woman’s face but hasn’t told anyone of his suspicions.
Phil (Lyle Talbot) and Ryan (J. Farrell MacDonald) compare notes.
Various of Marie’s family are on the scene—the surviving members of that macabre dinner party thirteen years ago. Also present, now as then, is Thor Jensen (Phillips), a pal of Marie’s brother Harold “Bud” Morgan (Eagles). Thor seems to have taken a shine to Marie although, confusingly, he and Bud seem to have taken a shine to each other. If that’s not enough confusion, there’s Marie’s cousin Marjorie Thornton (Rich), who wanders around being bitchy to everyone for no apparent reason.
Frances Rich as Marjorie.
The plot seems to be made up of doubles. There’s the doubling of the two Maries, the real and the fake. It seems that, back on that first fateful night, both women were in the house: the shot that rang out was aimed at the real Marie while some other bad guy entirely electrocuted the fake Marie with a rigged telephone. That’s the other doubling, you see: there are two dastardly plots going on, one aiming to murder Marie and the other aiming to murder most of the family and repopulate the seats around that dining table with the deceased versions of their original occupants.
This might all seem a bit improbable—just for starters, why bother with the whole palaver of the electrified phone, or the expensive plastic surgery to produce a fake Marie?—but those implausibilities are as nothing to the ongoing relationship between Phil and the local cops.
Lawyer Barksdale (Robert Klein) has gone to that great courtroom in the sky.
It strains credulity that the first thing a senior cop would do on arriving at a murder scene is call in a PI, even if that PI happened to be his nephew. But it gets worse. As the movie proceeds, Phil essentially takes charge of the case, ordering the cops around, demanding—and getting—arrest warrants, and much more besides. Even Detective Captain Brown (Davidson), supposedly running thongs, kowtows to Phil. This isn’t a matter of consultancy, along the lines of Holmes/Lestrade, Poirot/Japp or Ellery Queen and his dad. No, the cops look to Phil as The Boss.
Captain Brown (William B. Davidson) exerts his authority.
Real-life cops don’t do that. Even in the movies, cops don’t do that. But in this movie they do.
Phil, who’s played by Talbot as an arrogantly supercilious toad, is given plenty of bantering lines to work with, especially as he joins most of the rest of the male cast (and I imagine most of the males in the audience) in fancying Marie:
Phil: “We’ll call [your brother] later. You’re going to take a ride with me.”
Marie: “Where to?”
Phil: “To my apartment.”
Ryan [overhearing]: “She’d be safer in jail.”
The mystery electrocutioner spies on his next intended victim.
Some of these lines have dated extraordinarily badly, mainly because of the patronizing attitude they display towards, well, the fairer sex. Phil habitually addresses Marie as “Child,” an endearment that seems calculated to send her adoringly into his arms. This supposedly endearing cod-paternalism starts almost as soon as they meet:
Marie: “Take your hands off me!”
Phil: “Be nice.”
Marie: “I won’t! Let me alone!”
Phil: “Do you want me to spank you? Hold still. . . . That’s a good little girl.”
If the screenplay’s a bit of a mess, the direction plodding and the players undistinguished—it has to be admitted that Rogers, at this relatively early stage in her career, fails to shine, not always even quite managing to be a pretty face—the movie’s rescued by some of the cinematography. Most of the cinematography is fairly humdrum, but Neumann and Galligan were in places able to make really sterling use of shadows. These are Old Dark House-style shadows rather than Expressionist or noirish ones, but they’re effective nonetheless:
There were times while watching The Thirteenth Guest that I found myself thinking that at least this was better than Mystery of the 13th Guest, the 1943 remake (and likewise from Monogram). There were other times when it seemed to me the opposite was true. The reality is, of course, that neither movie really aspires to anything higher than mediocrity; as a consequence, they don’t always achieve even that.