Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan, wrote a bestselling thriller called Seven Keys to Baldpate, which theatre impressario, actor, songwriter, and yankee doodle dandy George M. Cohan turned into a 1913 Broadway hit as a hectic comedy-mystery. Cohan then produced and starred in a silent film version in 1917 for Paramount (actually there was also an Australian film in 1916, but let’s not get into it), and that studio remade the property in 1925. That one’s now lost, although the 1917 version still exists. RKO then made no less than three talkies, all now available in one package from Warner Archive.
The 1929 version is closest to the original play and has the stagiest, most distanced presentation (courtesy of Reginald Barker, an important director of silent films whose talkie career ended quickly), yet it’s the most amusing of the three. The 1935 and 1947 versions evince an increasingly fluid and stylish manner, with the 1947 direction of ace B-film vet Lew Landers being all you could ask of a brisk, semi-shadowy B picture rife with close-ups and the forward momentum of modern film grammar, yet those later versions feel more plodding even in their brief running times.
All versions tell about a bestselling mystery writer who stays overnight at supposedly deserted Baldpate Inn, which is up on snowy mountain in the middle of winter, in order to win a bet by writing a novel in 24 hours. All feature him getting mixed up with a bunch of characters who have keys (the seven keys) and who cross each other up in some plot about stolen jewels and pay-off money, with murder thrown in for good measure. In the first film, Richard Dix projects a gay insouciance crossing into brash confidence throughout, and the ending is a double surprise that the later films dropped entirely. The first surprise doesn’t really make sense, but the postmodern twist of the second surprise tidies it up, more or less. It’s the kind of ending you’d expect of a remake in today’s era of Millennial Unreality, where nothing is what you think.
The other two version offer diminishing returns on our hero, from Gene Raymond in 1935 to a positively clumsy scaredy-cat played by Phillip Terry in 1947. However, Terry has the pluckiest heroine in Jacqueline White. This version combines the previous two by giving away the first film’s surprise immediately and then disposing of it, and then more or less following the modifications of 1935 except with different murders. Both add up to a lot of running around that verges on tiresome, and the increasingly slapstick comic relief doesn’t compare to some of the morbid gags of 1929, which include a walking ghost, a violently misogynistic hermit, and a morally questionable sheriff. Later versions tone these elements down or ditch them entirely. Yes, 1929 remains the edgiest selection, creaks and all.