Ironically, in our era of streaming, we’re also living in a golden age of Blu-ray film rediscoveries. Utterly obscure pre-Code Paramount melodramas, buried in vaults for decades, have emerged into the digital light all spiffy and delicious. Such is the proof provided by Kino Lorber’s release of William Beaudine‘s The Crime of the Century (1933) and Charles Vidor‘s Double Door (1934). Both films are adapted from stage plays, and each has been rendered cinematically satisfying while running no more than 75 minutes. Truly, Paramount knew how to crank ’em out.
Better Dying Through Hypnotism
in The Crime of the Century
This ingenious whodunit stars Jean Hersholt, a Danish-accented character actor who’s probably best known today for having a humanitarian award named after him and for playing the wise and kindly Dr. Christian in a series of films. Before that, he had a good line in villains, such as the evil antagonist in the rediscovered Mamba (1930).
In The Crime of the Century, he plays an ambiguous protagonist named Dr. Emil Brandt, a seemingly respectable and roly-poly psychiatrist who staggers into a police station and begs to be locked up before he commits a murder. In this grabby opening, he explains to the hardboiled Capt. Riley (Robert Elliott) and Lt. Martin (David Landau) that he’s already hypnotized a patient into stealing $200k and expects delivery tonight. Shocked at his own behavior, Dr. Brandt explains that he might easily stab the man and dispose of the body. Skeptical, the cops agree to keep him company that night and ward off any funny business.
You must understand: outrageous premises like this were once all the rage in whodunits, and some of us miss those bizarre devices. Never mind hard-bitten realism and brooding alcoholic detectives. Some thrillers can give us goosebumps with their fabulous implausibility. While we’re at it, we can consider how premises like this indulge the era’s fears about head-shrinkers, pointy-headed toffs with foreign accents, well-to-do people in general, and being manipulated by demagogues or forced to do things against one’s will.
Brandt thinks he’ll be alone all night but his swanky house becomes Grand Central Station. His money-hungry second wife Freda (Wynne Gibson) and his pert college daughter Doris (Frances Dee) show up unexpectedly. Freda’s slick gigolo Gilbert (Gordon Westcott), and the snoopy wise-cracking journalist Dan McKee (Stuart Erwin) also show up, as does at least one mysterious unnamed figure wearing a battered fedora (William Janney).
Everyone crosses paths when the lights go out, and then the poor patient is discovered stabbed as per Brandt’s predictions. He’s played without a word by Samuel S. Hinds, and he’s introduced in a manner that already makes him look like one of those corpses who fall out of closets in old dark houses. The police and McKee commence independent investigations, with the reporter several steps ahead in picking up clues and rounding up suspects. We haven’t mentioned the two comical German servants played by Torben Meyer and Bodil Rosing, who only exist, apparently, to talk about food.
Adapted wittily by Florence Ryerson and Brian Marlow from Walter Maria Espe’s play, the film never seems stagey. Director William Beaudine and photographer David Abel keep throwing in nice angles and movements, such as the dramatic dolly toward Freda as she’s about to blurt a big clue. Most delightful is when the story halts for a host (Arthur Hohl) to emerge from behind a curtain and announce he’s giving us one minute to figure out whodunit. I guessed right, which only enhances my appreciation.
In a commentary track, film historian Lee Gambin and costume historian Elissa Rose, both based in Melbourne, offer many connections to other films and remarks on the career of costume designer Travis Banton. With justice, Gambin points out the unfairness of Beaudine’s reputation as “One-Shot Beaudine”, which implies shoddiness. The same is true of “One Take Woody” Van Dyke, who despite his nickname turned out many stylish films. The difference is that Van Dyke did lots of “A” pictures while Beaudine toiled in very tight budgets and so people mock him, but you don’t keep that up for 40 years by being sloppy. His last ten years were busy with television, including working with Walt Disney and high-profile shows like Lassie, so producers clearly didn’t find him careless.
Don’t Open That Double Door
The opening credits of Double Door label it “the play that made Broadway gasp” but that’s not their most unusual element. No less than three times, star Mary Morris interrupts the credits in glowering closeup, and her evil eye causes the credits to tumble like overturned Scrabble letters. In accord with an ad campaign that stressed Morris’ character as comparable to Dracula and Frankenstein, this Old Dark House melodrama comes on like a horror show. But is it?
Set in 1910 New York, the film establishes that the rich-as-hell Van Bretts are among the town’s oldest families, and that young Rip (Kent Taylor) is marrying the “common” woman who nursed him to health, Anne (Evelyn Venable). This hitching’s fine with Rip’s sweet but high-strung half-sister Caroline (Anne Revere), a spinster at 42, but it’s the opposite of fine with their tyrannical oldest sibling Victoria (Morris), who looks like she poisons stray kittens for fun.
Why is Victoria so mean and greedy and mean and bitter and mean? It’s a natural gift. She once chased away poor Caroline’s beau and locked her in a pitch-black vault to teach her a lesson. So now Caroline gets fluttery and hysterical if Victoria looks at her cross-eyed, which happens about every five minutes. Double Door strongly implies that Victoria is very possessive of her handsome half-brother – as film critic Joe Bob Briggs would say, “if you know what I mean and I think you do”. A flashback explains that she raised the orphan boy to sleep at the foot of her bed, ahem. And now he’s brought some gold-digging low-class hussy into the family, as Victoria perceives it.
Scripted by Gladys Lehman and Jack Cunningham from the 1933 Broadway play by Elizabeth A. McFadden “as suggested by Hermine Klepac”, Double Door‘s slow-boiling melodrama keys up the audience to fits of impatience with Victoria and everyone’s namby-pamby acceptance of her maneuvers until we’re as hysterical as Caroline. The doozy of a last reel pays off.
One of the legends of this play and film is the extent to which it’s inspired by the Wendell family of Manhattan. The last spinster sister had only recently died, setting off an avalanche of gossip and claims upon the staggeringly wealthy estate. Apparently, the Wendells were dominated by an evil brother who chased away his sisters’ beaus. We surmise that McFadden changed the villain to a sister both for originality and, most pertinently, to avoid lawsuits, for she strenuously insisted in the face of lawyers that she wasn’t inspired by the Wendells at all, not one bit. I believe she was also selling a bridge in Brooklyn for those interested.
Evil or otherwise objectionable rich people were popular targets at the height of the Depression, and this project combines the impulse with spidery misogyny. As a study in the psychology of tyranny and people’s willingness to submit to strong wills and those who pay the bills, the story has obvious political applications for its time (and ours). The fact that it’s written by several women, and essentially about the clash of women rather than the trivial spineless men, suggests possible wish-fulfillment and social critique disguised as breast-beating melodrama.
This is the only film of distinguished stage actress Morris. She was repeating her stage role, as was Anne Revere in her film debut. While both are giving overstated theatrical performances, I find this a feature rather than a bug, as it’s clearly desired by director Charles Vidor and Paramount. Photographer Harry Fischbeck throws in several bits of Expressionist “horror lighting” to goose the proceedings, and we’ve already mentioned how even the opening credits cued us to find Morris an over-the-top menace. Alas, the film wasn’t a special success, and that’s how it got buried in the vaults, like poor Caroline and the other characters.
Vidor later directed the excellent Ladies in Retirement (1941), another period gothic based on a play, albeit one of considerably more subtlety and pathos. He’s most famous for Rita Hayworth films, including Gilda (1946). Not to be neglected is his Danny Kaye vehicle, Hans Christian Andersen (1952), and his Doris Day musical drama, Love Me or Leave Me (1955). He’s an intelligent Hollywood stylist who brings the gloss while paying attention to his players, and you can see that already in this early project.
The Blu-ray comes with two commentaries, both by film historians who identify themselves as Boomer-generation “monster kids” who first heard about this title in Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, where it was openly touted as horror. These historians are Tom Weaver, David Del Valle and Stan Shaffer, and they provide potpourris of background and trivia, including the Wendell connection and other Old Dark House films.
Similar to Gambin’s remarks on The Crime of the Century about various obscure goodies that haven’t emerged on home video, the crew on Double Door mentions other pre-Code thrillers that deserve unearthing, and Weaver especially singles out Ralph Murphy’s Menace (1934). From their lips to Kino’s ears.