The Thirteenth Chair (Tod Browning, 1929)
[note: review originally published 12Feb2011]
I seem to be going through a Tod Browning phase. I reviewed Mark of the Vampire last year and Outside the Law last month. Wasn’t terribly thrilled with either, and The Thirteenth Chair, a remake (the original made in 1919 by Leonce Perret) of an adaptation of a stage play by Bayard Veiller, cleaves to that whole “we should adapt stage plays by making them look as much like stage plays as possible” vibe. Interesting in the hands of someone like Peter Greenaway, who knows how to exploit that. Not so Browning, who used it more as an excuse to not do too much with the camera.
The basic idea: Ned Wales (John Davidson)’ pal has been killed, and he wants to find out who the murderer was by holding a séance with a well-known local medium, Madame Rosalie (White Heat‘s Margaret Wycherly), in order to get the answer straight from him. The detective on the case, Delzante (Bela Lugosi), is convinced he’s nuts, but is willing to let him go through with it, since it gets all the suspects in one place. Things get complicated quick, however, when it’s discovered that the medium is connected to someone close to the deceased (telling you who would give the game away). And thus, the medium herself must also turn amateur detective in order to try and clear her friend’s name.
It’s interesting that three of the principals here would work with Browning again at the high points of their careers. The female lead, Leila Hyams, would return for Freaks; John Davidson would pop back up in Miracles for Sale; and, of course, Bela Lugosi would achieve worldwide fame in Dracula. Once Browning found his footing, he was capable of getting the best out of actors. Not so here, as most of the performances are lackluster (Lugosi, especially, is indistinguishable from the wallpaper most of the time); Hyams is the sole exception, playing her bubbly effervescence here with the same determination she turned to ruthless plotting three years later in Freaks. Given competent-at-best direction and lackluster action, one must turn to the plot for sustenance, and that, at least, is nicely done; if the credits are to be believed, Veiller’s original script was used almost in toto, with a bit of “dialogue continuity” from Elliott Clawson, one of the top men at the time; he was nominated for four(!) writing Oscars in 1930, all for separate films: The Cop, The Leatherneck, Sal of Singapore, and Skyscraper. Amusingly, all four lost to Frances Marion, who took home the award for The Big House. The Thirteenth Chair would be Clawson’s Hollywood swan song; he never worked in film again, retiring due to what was called in 1942 “a long illness” when he passed away. The Thirteenth Chair is not the most fitting of epitaphs, but at least it didn’t lose to Frances Marion. ***
Outta luck–so you get a trailer for the 1937 version starring Dame May Whitty.