Witness Chair, The (1936)

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Inverted twist!
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US / 64 minutes / bw / RKO Dir: George Nicholls Jr Scr: Rian James, Gertrude Purcell Story: Rita Weiman Cine: Robert de Grasse Cast: Ann Harding, Walter Abel, Douglass Dumbrille, Frances Sage, Moroni Olsen, Margaret Hamilton, Maxine Jennings, William Benedict, Paul Harvey, Murray Kinnell, Charles Arnt, Frank Jenks, Hilda Vaughn, Barlowe Borland, Fred Kelsey, Edward LeSaint.

There’s no way to discuss this very interesting B-movie intelligently without committing a major spoiler, so, if you’re one of those for whom spoilers are anathema, stop reading now.

Do be aware, though, that knowledge of the plot isn’t going to undermine your enjoyment of the movie in any way. While The Witness Chair is presented to us as a murder mystery/courtroom drama, in a sense it doesn’t really fit the bill as either. The movie has sufficient riches—in the midst of quite a few blemishes—to be worth a second watch, even though by then you’d know for absolute sure-certain whodunnit.

Douglass Dumbrille as Whittaker.

It’s a fairly standard technique of constructing mystery narratives, and courtroom dramas in particular (why, hello there, Mr. Mason): the opening scenes make it perfectly obvious that X must have been the murderer, but in the closing moments the veils are whipped away; we discover that after all, despite the circumstantial evidence, X is innocent; and the guilty party is revealed to be Y. After the Big Reveal, Perry, Della and Paul find something to chuckle about in a final brief scene, and then it’s the closing credits.

Anna Yifnick (Hilda Vaughn) discovers the body.

The Witness Chair takes the ingredients of this formula and does something quite different with them. From the outset we’re given every reason to believe that Paula Young (Harding), superbly efficient PA at the Whittaker Textile Co., one night killed her boss, Stanley Whittaker (Dumbrille), in his office and then cleverly covered her tracks to escape the scene. At the end of the movie it’s revealed that, even though her other boss (and lover) Jim Trent (Abel) is the one standing trial for Whittaker’s murder, Paula is indeed the killer. The fascination of the movie lies in the tale of how and why she killed the cad, and in the telling of that tale . . . and in why we can be sure, at the movie’s end, that any sentence she might serve for her crime is likely to be a light one.

Jim Trent (Walter Abel) arrives on the scene.

We don’t have any direct evidence of the murder to begin with. We just know that Paula is acting very oddly, and that she’s keen to leave the 8th floor of the Continental Building, and the building itself, without elevator operator Roy Levino (the redoubtable Jenks) being aware of her presence.

Elevator man Roy Levino (Frank Jenks) is puzzled by events.

Once home in her apartment, Paula is unexpectedly visited by Connie Trent (Sage), Jim’s daughter, who confesses she was planning to elope abroad with Whittaker but the man never turned up at the docks. Now Connie sees the error of her ways. Paula agrees to keep the whole incident under wraps for fear of hurting Jim.

Detective Costigan (Fred Kelsey) makes himself at home.

Early next morning the office cleaner, Anna Yifnick (a splendid turn from Vaughn), and the building’s supervisor, O’Neill (Borland), discover the corpse. Inspector Poole (Olsen) and his dimwitted sidekick, Detective Costigan (Kelsey), arrive to investigate. Even though the gun is found in the dead man’s hand and a suicide note on his desk—confessing to the embezzlement of $75,000 (in today’s terms, well north of a million) from the company and specifically exonerating Jim Trent—Poole is certain this is a murder, and grills the office staff accordingly.

Inspector Poole (Moroni Olsen) and Benny Ryan (William Benedict).

The staff include Trent’s trampish secretary, Tillie Jones (Jennings, overegging the pudding), the fluttery book-keeper, Grace Franklin (Hamilton, a performance of some distinction in such a small role), and the office boy, Benny Ryan (Benedict, oh dear). Later on we’ll encounter also the company’s auditor, Henshaw (Arnt).

Book-keeper Grace Franklin (Margaret Hamilton).

Charles Arnt as Henshaw.

Although the evidence to hand is very far from conclusive—Paula is keeping quiet about a great deal that she knows, including Connie’s elopement plans—Poole arrests Jim for the murder, and into the second half of the movie we go.

Defense attorney Conrick (Murray Kinnell) in action.

Prosecuting attorney Martin (Paul Harvey) is skeptical.

That second half is primarily a courtroom drama—prosecutor Martin (Harvey) and defender Conrick (Kinnell) vie before Justice McKenzie (LeSaint)—but with several extended flashbacks to what actually happened on that fatal day of January 7 1936. To our surprise we discover there’s to be no dramatic twist ending—that Paula really did kill Whittaker, just as seemed obvious—but there are all sort of other wrinkles in the explanation of events to make up for this.

Tillie Jones (Maxine Jennings) on the stand.

Connie Kent (Frances Sage) on the stand.

The Witness Chair is Harding’s movie from start to finish—although, oddly enough, it’s reported that halfway through filming she declared she hated the screenplay and wanted to quit the project. (RKO kept her on board by threat of legal action, and unsurprisingly it was the last movie she made for the studio.) Her portrayal of Paula—a sort of icy, dominatrix beauty whose hard exterior shields a passionate heart—is spot-on perfect while succeeding also in capturing our sympathy in the movie’s opening frames and never letting it go. The only thing we can’t understand is why she should have fallen for such a milksop as Abel’s Jim Trent.

Paula Young (Ann Harding) on the stand.

I have to confess my heart sank when the good cop/thick cop combination arrived on the scene, but for once the dimwittedness is downplayed. To be sure, there are some barbs in the dialogue—

Grace: “You don’t think for one minute that I did it?”
Costigan: “We’re not doing any thinking.”
Poole: “That goes double for you.”

—but it’s almost as if these are long-running jokes between the two cops rather than a genuine reflection of Costigan’s lack of intellectual prowess: where it matters, he’s perfectly competent at his job.

Paula (Ann Harding) watches events in court aghast.

The Witness Chair is no hidden classic, but it’s a movie far better and certainly far more intriguing than its obscurity might suggest.

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4 thoughts on “Witness Chair, The (1936)

  1. Splendidly pennned piece on another film most have not I’m sure negotiated or even heard of. I’ll take Douglas Dumbrille and Margaret Hamilton any day of the week!! And of course a largely appreciated genre too!

    • Dumbrille doesn’t really have a huge amount to do hear, but Hamilton’s splendid and especially (for me) Harding. She’s one of those actors I tend to forget about and then, when I see her in something, wonder why I do so.

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